As the Occupy Wall Street protests continue to spread across America, an internal struggle is percolating over how the movement relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Pro-Palestinian activists are trying to insert the issue into the protests and are co-opting the Occupy Wall Street movement’s language to attack Israel. But some left-wing Jewish activists warn that these efforts will give ammunition to the movement’s critics and make it harder to build a big tent in support of Occupy Wall Street’s main economic agenda.
“We are being sidetracked by some in our community and some outside our community who are insisting on integrating this into the Occupy Wall Street platform,” said Daniel Sieradski, the organizer of Occupy Judaism, which has staged Jewish religious services by Occupy Wall Street’s main encampment at New York’s Zuccotti Park and inspired similar efforts at other protest sites.
Pro-Palestinian activist groups have mounted a number of small demonstrations and events at Occupy Wall Street sites. At the New York and Boston encampments, a group called Existence Is Resistance has held events to further its campaign calling for the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, including specific convicted terrorists. And on Nov. 4, a small contingent of protesters marched from the Occupy Boston encampment to the Israeli consulate, where approximately 10 people staged a brief sit-in in the lobby of the office building that houses the mission.
Conservative critics have zeroed in on instances of anti-Semitic rhetoric by individual protesters and on the pro-Palestinian actions.
Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of the conservative magazine Commentary, accused Occupy Wall Street’s liberal supporters of “making a deal with an anti-Semitic and radical devil,” citing the march on the Boston consulate. In his blog post, Tobin wrote that it is no longer possible for the movement’s Jewish defenders “to assert that the sort of anti-Zionism that raised its head in Boston is an aberration.”
While the pro-Palestinian events have been organized by outside groups, the closest Occupy Wall Street has come to endorsing Palestinian activism was a Nov. 3 tweet from the New York branch’s unofficial communications team expressing solidarity with the Freedom Waves mini-flotilla, which tried to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza before being stopped by the Israeli navy. Within hours, however, the tweet was deleted. The Twitter account operators explained that notwithstanding their own sympathies, without a consensus from the movement they would not take a position on the issue.
“It’s a wide-open, horizontal organization,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and of the Jewish Labor Committee. “You’ll hear a lot of voices, but its key focus has been on economic issues.”
Appelbaum was one of 15 prominent liberal Jewish activists, labor leaders and former elected officials who signed onto a Nov. 1 statement defending Occupy Wall Street from charges of anti-Semitism. Appelbaum recently hosted an event at his union’s headquarters on how Occupy Wall Street and the labor movement can work together. The event drew fire in an e-mail sent to activists by Michael Letwin, a Labor for Palestine activist and member of Occupy Wall Street’s Labor Outreach Committee.
“Does Stuart Appelbaum really belong in OWS?” Letwin asked, calling Appelbaum the “chief trade union defender of apartheid Israel.”
Sieradski argues that positions on Israel should not be a litmus test within Occupy Wall Street, and that both Zionists and anti-Zionists should be able to “feel that their voices can be respected.”
“A lot of people aren’t OK with having anti-Israel demonstrations every other day of the week be an official position,” Sieradksi said, “and to oppose Occupy Wall Street becoming an anti-Zionist movement is not to support the occupation or all of Israel’s policies.”
Pro-Palestinian activists, however, express anger at those they see as trying to exclude their cause from the movement. Kade Crockford, an Occupy Boston participant who helped organize the consulate sit-in, lashed out at “Zionist so-called leftists.”
“Vocal members of what many know as the ‘progressive except Palestine’ demographic take over and obstruct expressions of solidarity with the Palestinians even when the majority in the larger group supports it,” he said.
Addressing these issues within the movement’s leaderless, consensus-driven culture can be difficult — even within an affiliated subgroup like Occupy Judaism. When Sieradski circulated a proposed statement on Occupy Judaism’s e-mail list that called for keeping the focus on economic issues while acknowledging that many in Occupy Judaism opposed Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, it failed to garner consensus support after being blocked by anti-Zionists.
Sieradski, however, hailed a resolution adopted by the New York City General Assembly — the local Occupy Wall Street movement’s decision-making body — as evidence that the movement would not let itself become “hijacked by others’ political agendas.”
That Nov. 11 Statement of Autonomy said that any declaration not issued by the General Assembly “should be considered independent of Occupy Wall Street.” It warned that “those seeking to capitalize on this movement or undermine it by appropriating its message or symbols are not a part of Occupy Wall Street.” The statement also welcomed those who seek redress of their grievances through nonviolence and want to participate in debate.
Earlier this month, Young, Jewish, and Proud, the youth chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, released a statement assailing “the 1% in our own community” and calling for young Jews “to occupy Jewish institutions that actively obstruct human rights for Palestinians, like AIPAC, the Jewish Federations, Birthright, the Jewish National Fund, Hillel, and the foundations of right-wing philanthropists.”
A few days later, on Nov. 7, 10 Young, Jewish, and Proud activists disrupted a New York lecture on Jewish achievement hosted by the Birthright Israel Alumni Community. Members of the group used Occupy Wall Street’s signature communication tool — the so-called “human mic,” in which activists repeat in unison a speaker’s words to replace amplification devices — to broadcast their manifesto before being escorted out of the event by security.
The event’s organizers were not amused.
“They don’t want dialogue,” said Rebecca Sugar, executive director of the Birthright Israel Alumni Community. “You don’t do this if you want dialogue.”
Meanwhile, Occupy Wall Street has faced new challenges in recent days, as police continue moving to dismantle protest encampments across the country. On the morning of Nov. 15, New York City police evicted protesters from Zuccotti Park and removed their tents.
Occupy Judaism condemned the eviction.
“As Jews, we know that exile is not the end,” the group said in a statement.
Others sympathetic to the movement, however, have cautioned against placing so much emphasis on maintaining the encampments.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the left-wing Tikkun magazine, wrote in an e-mail on Nov. 13 that while the protest camps were “a useful tactic,” some activists “have turned the tactic into a fetishization of the encampments, as though the movement was really about their right to set up tents and stay there all night.”