Max Socol is a Jewish educator and political activist in Raleigh, NC.
With so many remembrances of the Freedom Summer published in the Jewish press over the last month, it seems strange to say that something was missed. But it’s true, there is more to this story, as I learned at the 50th Anniversary Conference in Jackson, MS. To my surprise, the event was a “who’s who” of Jewish political activists who have been quietly shunned from our community because of their unorthodox views on the Israel/Palestine conflict.
You can get an idea of the kind of people I’m talking about by watching them at work in PBS’s excellent documentary on the subject. There is something truly romantic in the film’s images of black and white activists, standing in solidarity, jaws and eyes set. We could see a vision of a world where integration was merely the proximate step on a brisk path to social justice. Spending a weekend with these individuals was a privilege.
To Larry Rubin, with whom I spent some time at a Saturday afternoon session that brought together Jewish activists from across the age spectrum, the vision was not fulfilled, not nearly. I found him standing next to a sign that read “some other reason”–this in answer to the question, “why do you think Jewish activists were motivated to join the Freedom Summer?” Being one such activist, Larry had some insight into this question,
“Because there isn’t a section about overthrowing capitalism,” he told me.
“Wait,” I said, “you told us at Shabbat services last night that Senator Eastland himself had got hold of your address book, and used it as a prop in his speech condemning SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] activists, accusing them of Communist activity.”
“Well, I never said he was wrong,” Larry replied, prompting a laugh and a “don’t be an asshole!” from Ira Grupper. Ira, another SNCC activist who had chosen the same answer, had been joking with Larry throughout the previous program. Not at all for the first time, I found myself wondering: who are these guys?
They’ve both enjoyed a lot of success as labor activists, and it’s clear from their published work and the stories they told us that they’ve done more good for humanity than most of us could ever hope to do. Personally, I think they’re heroes who deserve to be honored, although Larry asked that I say that he doesn’t agree with this. (He then stipulated to this stipulation, averring that there were real civil rights heroes who deserved recognition, such as “Amzie Moore, E.W, Steptoe, Hartman Turnbow, Victoria Gray Adams, Annie Devine, and others who, at best, are just mentioned as footnotes in mainstream histories.” But he does not include himself.)
Yet they’ve seemingly been marginalized by mainstream Jewish institutions. And after my days at the conference, I have to add to that list Dorothy Zellner, Marilyn Lowen, Carol Horwitz, and dozens of others–all of them heroes, in my understanding. Young Jews who took their lives into their hands to fight for the rights of African Americans, among hundreds of other “white” students (in appearance, at any rate) during the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
The reason I heard these stories is that all of these Freedom Summer/SNCC veterans, despite some rough treatment, care deeply about American Jewish community, and many (though not all) of them made sincere efforts to join its leadership as moral voices. Larry was a member of the National Jewish Committee Relations Advisory Council. Ira was the National Co-chair of New Jewish Agenda. In fact, while every day of the Freedom 50th Conference was jam-packed with panels, celebrations, movie screenings, and youth congress events, quite a few Jewish veterans marked off most of Friday and Saturday for small group meetings with us younger activists. After hearing their stories of arrests, threats, beatings, and the rest of the dreck that came from wading through the supremacist South, I really had to marvel at how little I knew about them.
I’m not the best history student, so I don’t want to read too much into that. But listening to Ira’s story of the demise of New Jewish Agenda, due in part to blowback over its support for Palestinian statehood, or Dotty and Carol’s harrowing tales of assault during anti-Occupation protests in New York City, it was hard not see a sad, unnecessary pattern. Can anyone honestly claim that our communal insistence on perfect agreement with the Israeli government has nothing to do with this? Even if by mere unconscious choice on the part of our leaders, these talented and inspiring people were abducted from our cultural memory, all in service of an agenda whose worth seems increasingly dubious.
It’s not just because of their views on Israel–it’s because they won’t shut up about those views, no matter how much pressure is put on them. We all learned that for ourselves when these same veterans purposely steered our Saturday afternoon conversation into territory we’d all been well-trained to avoid. They confronted our collective inaction on the Palestinian question with the compassion of experience–but also insistence. With many of us coming from activist settings that all but compelled us to remain silent on the issue, the difference was stark.
Personally, as a Jewish community professional, I wonder if I’ve internalized a need to avoid frank expression about Israel to such an extent that I no longer notice it. In the face of honest conversation and rebuke from these activists, I almost didn’t know what to do with myself. I conducted lengthy phone interviews with Larry and Ira, and had lunch with Dotty, Carol, and a few others, and I was thinking I would write about their stories without talking about the one issue that we, as an intergenerational group of Jewish activists, spent the most time discussing over our days together. I was trying to find a way to absorb this profound experience without the difficulty of being open about this issue.
When I realized that wasn’t going to work, I considered not writing anything at all. But at one point in a panel discussion, Ira looked us all in the eye, and told us that we were making a mistake to divide our social justice activism from our relationships (or lack thereof) to Israel and Palestine. And in a way, I feel like I owe him for the largely unacknowledged gifts he’s given to American Judaism.
So let’s get a few things straight:
a. Mainstream Jewish institutions’ unwillingness to confront the Occupation is what has driven these Freedom Summer veterans out of our community. That, and those institutions’ reckless disregard for the value of open debate.
b. Because of the war in Gaza, some will say I’ve chosen the wrong time to recount these experiences. But no matter what time people like me choose, we somehow find it’s always the “wrong” time.
c. In my opinion, this is a reasonable time, maybe even an excellent time, to have an honest debate about what our community is to do for, and about, Israel. Israelis and Gazans are paying far too high a price for us to ignore the issue. And we, too, are paying a price, in our ability to function as a people. When our cultural memory short-circuits, as it has here, we have a responsibility to investigate.
All but one of the veterans explicitly stated that the American Jewish community needed to speak out on behalf of real justice for Palestinians. Some of them drew comparisons between the Jim Crow South they fought against, and the drastic lack of access to human and civil rights that Palestinians in the Territories face. They were not pulling punches.
It was us, the younger activists, who sat in chastened silence. Having had some time to reflect on the conference with other young attendees, I can speak for quite a few of us when I say that we agreed, more or less, with what we were hearing. We’ve just been conditioned to stay silent, because our viewpoints are so often deemed not only wrong, but offensive or dangerous. We’re a generation that was raised to keep our heads down when it comes to this one big thing, and believe me when I say we looked small and pathetic compared to our older, braver colleagues.
Thankfully, this time, we were among people who have long dedicated their lives to putting human rights before petty communal politics.
So if you want to know what really happened when a new generation of American Jewish activists met the hero generation, that’s what happened. We talked about Israel, a lot, we all realized that we had allies we never expected, and then we all staggered home, wondering (at least I was wondering) who would have the chutzpah to talk about it.