It begins, as many things do these days, with a mic check, in a room full of well groomed, business casual clad young people, a kosher meat meal, and a speaker discussing the question of whether or not Jews are disproportionately high achievers, and why.
I’m sitting in a chair on the side of the room, watching the audience. Everyone else is in suits and skirts and stockings, with smooth hair and expensive shoes and bags. Per usual, I look like I fell off a turnip truck. Steven Pease, the speaker for the evening, has his back to me, and he’s talking about his book, The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement, to this group of Birthright Israel alumni in the Reunion space on West 13th street in Manhattan. It’s uncomfortable and ironic and thoroughly inappropriate that all this glorification of Jewish corporate success is happening simultaneously with Occupy Wall Street, and the people in the room seem unaware of this. Or worse, they are totally aware of it.
As I page through Pease’s book, I learn that Slim Fast, Nutri System, and Jenny Craig were all started by Jews, and before my brain can really get a good simmer on this problematic information, Liza Behrendt is standing up. “We are the Jewish 99%! And we’re calling all Jews nationwide to join in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street AND with the Palestinians who live under occupation every day!” Before she finishes, she’s being moved out the door by a security guard, yelling, along with other folks in the crowd, “Occupy Wall Street, not Palestine!”
Behrendt is a member of the Young, Jewish and Proud, the youth wing of Jewish Voice for Peace and Occupy the Occupiers, the group that organized this action. As she’s removed, members of the group pick up the mic check and continue to chant, until everyone is removed. The other attendees boo, and laugh (when one of the activists mentions the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza) and someone yells, “You’re hijacking this event!” Another person takes a paper from one of the YJP’ers and tears it. The organizers of the event are visibly shaken, but when everyone’s gone, Pease seems non plussed. He tells the audience that one of the people who was just removed was asking him earlier about his feelings on Occupy Wall Street. More laughter. Pease continues his talk as though nothing has happened. Outside, the group is continuing to shout, “Occupy Wall Street, not Palestine!,” and inside, we can hear them.
I get up to leave, so I can follow the YJP’ers, and when I stand, everyone looks at me, nervous, perhaps, that I’m about to start round two. I awkwardly elbow my way through the crowd, but when I get to the door, I’m stopped by two of the organizers of the event, one of whom I met last year, ironically enough, with the Birthright trip I was staffing at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv. She looks troubled. “Are you with those people?” she asks. “No,” I say. It’s not a lie-I’m not a member of JVP, or YJP, I’m a member of the press, but still, I feel gross about my answer. “Why do you want to leave?” the other organizer asks me. I tell her I want to follow them. “If you’re not with them, then why do you want to follow them?” “I want to hear what they have to say,” I say, and then they open the doors for me.
On the street, the YJP folks are talking. “I think it’s interesting that no one tried to counter chant us,” someone says. Another person says they had a conversation with an event attendee about how horrible Occupy Wall Street is. The group agrees to stay outside until the event is over. Chanting resumes. People on the street look and shake their heads, or smile and stand around and watch. A religious Jewish man stops and tries to engage the group about Arab terrorists, and doesn’t leave, not even when he’s rebuffed by everyone.
When the event is over, people trickle slowly out of Reunion. Members of YJP are handing out literature, but it doesn’t seem like anyone takes it. One man approaches the activists, who are chanting, and says, “Can anyone tell me what’s wrong with Birthright?” It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t really want to hear what people think is wrong with Birthright, he just keeps saying things like, “All you do is dump judgements, nothing of substance,” and referring to the folks as “self haters.” He stops talking to people eventually and goes to stand to the side, muttering and looking at his cell phone.
It’s like this for a while, YJP chanting, people coming out of the building and saying things like, “They don’t want to talk, they don’t even have jobs.” (Isn’t the point of Occupy Wall Street to talk about how people don’t have jobs?)
Liza tells me that her expectations for the event were met. “I’m glad that everything remained non violent,” she says, and she has that flushed, bright eyed look that comes with being in the middle of an action. “I’m a Birthright alumn, and it was the most important, politicizing experience of my life. I guess you could say I “birthed left.” I was there during Operation Cast Led, and the propaganda was very explicit. My tour guide referred to Arabs as mosquitos. There was a big effort to instill fear of Palestinians into us. It’s really satisfying to be in this space and occupy it, take it back. I feel like we were really successful.”
While folks are chanting, a young woman in a yellow shirt runs across the street to us and screams, “You douchebags don’t know shit about Israel!” She’s dancing, mocking. And then, suddenly, there’s hair pulling, and yelling, as this young woman manages to attack a Palestinian female member of the group. Things get broken up quickly, and no one ends up physically hurt.
“We are young, we are Jewish, and we are proud,” declares the group. “Who’s a Birthright alum?” Liza shouts. “Tell your story!” “I was told, you have to put your Jewish circle above all your other circles. Jews, non Jews, Palestinians, you are my circle!” Max says. “You can’t have a state that’s Jewish and democratic,” someone else is saying as I pack up to leave. “It’s just not possible.”
A few days later, I get an email from the organizers of the Birthright event, apologizing for the disruption and thanking everyone for remaining composed. “We are taking every measure,” the email says, “to make sure this does not recur.”