According to their press release:
Using the ‘human microphone’ or ‘people’s microphone’ made famous by the Occupy Wall Street protests they interrupted a Birthright Israel Next-sponsored event. The event featured CEO Steven Pease, and was called “The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement,” part of Birthright Israel’s Next’s ‘Wall St.’ series. Pease was addressing the question of ‘Why Jews are disproportionately high achievers?’
The young Jews used the human microphone, one person saying a short phrase and others repeating back, to read a site-specific version of their declaration which calls for young Jews to take similar actions wherever the ‘1%’ of their own community gathers. The disruption will be broadcast on Occupy Wall Street’s video stream. Afterwards, protesters stayed outside to continue reading their declaration and share stories of their experiences of what they saw as Birthright’s dishonest presentations of Israel. Their numbers more than doubled as passers by joined them. Later that night, via twitter, Birthright Israel offered to “dialogue” with the protesters. Birthright Israel was previously the target of a Young, Jewish, and Proud spoof email offering a fictional ‘Birthright for All’ trip that included Palestinians.”
I interviewed two of the organizers/participants, Liza Behrendt and Carolyn Klaasen on their group’s goals, reasoning and vision with the “occupy” event and general outlook on organizing within the American Jewish community around the US/Israel-Palestine conflict.
Liza Behrendt graduated in May from Brandeis University, where she organized with Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. She continues to work with JVP as a board member and a Young, Jewish, and Proud leader. She now lives in Brooklyn as a member of Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, working as a community organizer at Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
Carolyn Klaasen is currently earning her M.A. at Union Theological Seminary, where she is involved in organizing Protest Chaplains for Occupy Wall Street. Before attending Union Carolyn lived and worked for the Community of Living Traditions, a Jewish, Muslim and Christian residential community dedicated to activism and nonviolence. She has been a JVP member for almost a year, and is a Young, Jewish and Proud leader.
SCHIVONE: What is this “occupy the occupier” protest all about? What do you aim to achieve?
Liza Behrendt: We aim to empower Jews to take back their community institutions, just as people in diverse communities nationwide are doing with Occupy protests. Institutions like Birthright claim to represent all young Jews in offering them a free trip home, rendering invisible the many Jews who oppose Israeli policies, including the Law of Return that allows Jews, but not Palestinians, to move to Israel.
Carolyn Klaasen: After spending the majority of my activist life resisting occupation in Palestine, I have developed a new relationship with the word “occupy” in these past two months down on Wall Street. From the very beginning of OWS I have seen it as inextricably linked to my Palestine solidarity activism, and “occupy the occupiers” is about making that connection clear.
It’s not okay for banks in the U.S. to profit from foreclosures and the financial crisis, and it’s not okay for anybody to profit from the ongoing occupation of Palestine. We’re calling for Jews to show solidarity with Palestinians and with OWS by standing up to the 1% in our own community.
In terms of race and class, which kinds of Jews or institutions (or both) are you referring to as part of the US-based 1%? Is the action individual-based or institution-based–or both?
LB: We are calling on people to target institutions. The reality is that many Jewish institutions are dangerously dependent on a small handful of donors or foundations, who subsequently have a disproportionate influence on the political and social agendas. Unwavering support for Israel is the most glaring issue, but last night’s Birthright event, glorifying capitalist gain during a time of dreadful inequality, is another example.
The target was a Jewish nationalism event by Birthright Israel-Next, New York, which, according to its description, asserts that the “Jewish contribution to science, literature, the arts, and industry far surpass their miniscule numbers (less than .1% of world population).” Suggesting to prove their statement, they invite “Author, venture capitalist and turn-around CEO Steven Pease, raised a Presbyterian, [who] asks why Jews are disproportionately high achievers and attempts to answer these questions through hundreds of fascinating case studies, ultimately making the case for the important role Jewish culture has played in this high-achieving result.”
Your response? Would you explain why you thought this was an appropriate target for the action?
LB: The narrative of a modern-day chosen people is detrimental to our community. It encourages chauvinism and keeps us out of touch with the urgent global problems facing all people, including Jews.
CK: Steven Pease’s book celebrates a capitalist model of success that is part of the problem we’re protesting down at Occupy Wall Street. One of the figures he lifts up is Lev Leviev, whose role in the blood diamond industry and settlement investments is incredibly problematic.
Birthright is among our list of powerful institutions that maintain Israel’s corporate-backed military control of the Palestinian people, in this case by targeting Jewish youth. In addition to Birthright being a highly problematic institution, this was an event explicitly linked with Wall Street that praises Jewish achievement in a messed-up system–all of which made it a perfect target.
The closing paragraphs of the “Occupy the Occupiers: A Jewish Call to Action” urge young Jews and allies 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, like the Schusterman Foundation, which impose ideological litmus tests on Jews who want to work in or with the Jewish community… [as well as] the offices and stores of the multinational corporations that profit off of human rights abuses in Palestine.”
It seems the aim is to disturb these spaces and make them unsafe for the status quo. Is this accurate?
Yes, that is accurate, although the word “unsafe” makes me uncomfortable, given a legitimate sensitivity to anti-Jewish oppression. Occupy Wall Street has begun shifting national discourse by interrupting the status quo, and its continued success depends upon the broadening of tactics and targets. The demands for accountability and power redistribution are applicable in communities everywhere, and Jews must join the fight.
Gabriel Matthew Schivone is a Chicano-Jewish American, founder of Jewish Voice for Peace at the University of Arizona and co-founder of UA Students for Justice in Palestine. He is also a volunteer with migrant justice organization No More Deaths/No Más Muertes. He currently attends Arizona State University and can be followed on Twitter via @GSchivone. His column, Other Voices, usually appears here on alternating Mondays.