Israel, Politics

In Which the Occupiers are Occupied

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.”

15 thoughts on “In Which the Occupiers are Occupied

  1. So stupid. Not because they disrupted a Birthright event, but because it dilutes the message of Occupy Wall Street. I support ending the occupation, and perhaps so does the majority of American Jews, but that majority is still less than 99%. Why bring in unrelated Israel/Palestine issues and risk alienating people who would otherwise support the cause of economic justice in the United States? Why can’t the left stay on message?

  2. RE: BZ on Less than 99%.” The use of 99% is not a public opinion figure, as far less than 99% supports public financing of elections, taxation of rich, etc.. The point is about the control of our community and country by a tiny elite, which can then manufacture and/or bribe opinion to support itself.

  3. Thank you for covering the action. I love these non-violent interferences with “business as usual”, and while – obviously – most or all attendees are not likely to be swayed, they are not the real target of such actions.

  4. I am really grateful that you covered this and happy with the answers you gave the event organizers even though you seem somehow uncomfortable with them.
    I am wondering if anyone else feels a sort of perplexity with this event. I would say that I feel more comfortable aligning myself with the so called “disrupters” than the birth right folks, but mostly am uncomfortable with the fact that a middle ground too often doesn’t exist for the dialogue between the two to take place. I want to end the occupation, I want major social and political shifts to take place in this country, but I also recognize that the interplay between the groups needs to be more substantial and carry more with it than just chanting in public space.

  5. I don’t understand what the theory of action is.
    Pissed off young Birthright folks leads to change how? I think this kind of politics is good at making noise, but it’s the wrong kind of noise.

  6. I tend to think that the messaging is fine: it makes sense to adopt the language of the movement of the day. It’s not quite the same as damaging the Occupy Wall Street movement. I think everyone probably either realized that this was a subset of the “99%”, or else they weren’t going to support OWS anyway.
    No, the trouble is more with the venue and the form. Youngish birthright alumi are not (yet) those in the seats of power who really need to be cast as the enemies of progress.
    By contrast, this model worked well to protest Netanyahu. It was innovative. It got attention. He deserved to be challenged loudly. There is a place for righteous indignation to well up from within.
    In this case, however, the repetition of the tactic of a series of folk interrupting a talk, might not have been the only way to make a point. What if more distinctly uncomfortable people, like the author of this piece, were in the room asking challenging questions as part of the event? There’s no reason to have yourself placed outside on the sidewalk, where marginalized people with grievances go, when you could be inside using your Insider power. Right?

  7. Unlikely Outsider: you said what I was feeling much better. Sometimes disruption makes sense as a tactic. But here, I think engaging thoughtfully, asking hard questions, and building relationships would have worked better. Good reporting though, Chanel.

  8. A few things, noting that I have watched a video of the disruption/protest made available on youtube:
    1) I don’t believe that people should interrupt events – any events really. There is freedom of speech, and interrupting something like this violates the speakers’ right to freedom of speech. Ask the questions during question period, raise your hand, whatever, but don’t interrupt or yell over someone, it’s terribly uncivilized.
    2) Some of the things the occupiers (occupants?) regarding birthright were very subjective. I have spoken to friends and family about their respective trips, and each account has been different. For example, the veiled hints at jewish supremacy seem exaggerated; while the idea of Jewish brotherhood and community was definitely promoted, it’s also promoted by many’s parents, grandparents, schools, and synagogues.

  9. Good report, but I agree with BZ and JG. I don’t feel this helps anyone. Not OWS, not peace. Its not even germane to the subject of the event.
    I can understand raising hands, being polite and posing intelligent, pointed questions about the nature of success and the very Jewish responsibilities we as Jews (and they as BRI alumni) have with that success. That’s truly occupy.
    Conflating international peace politics with the #occupy movement seems to significantly undercut latter’s important aim of reframing the domestic conversation around economic justice.
    oh, and just wondering if this event on the BRI calendar is #occupy related:

  10. From what I have seen and heard, both sides show a follow-the-leader type of mentality. The people attending the event don’t understand the background or complexities of the situation any more than the demonstrators do.
    It’s interesting that protestors often use disruptive tactics to drown out Jewish-Israeli speakers instead of engaging them in dialogue. This is a tactic that repeats itself at Hillels all over the country when a speaker comes in to explain and answer questions.
    The antis won’t let him/her speak. And surprisingly enough the situation is complex enough that there are different ways to understand the situation. Yet rather than talk and allow the speaker (who sometimes knows a little something) to speak, it seems that the protestors find it more expedient to simply make sure that information that differs from their own viewpoint never gets aired.
    The writer seems to identify with the protestors which is her right. But to support the suspension of freedom of speech is unfortunate.

  11. Slightly off-topic, but it’s a pet peeve of mine: freedom of speech is about what the government does. As long as the government is not behind the disruption, it is not a violation of your freedom of speech. Please, people.

  12. Along with the author’s narrative of thw Birthright Israel alumni even, one should watch the Occupiers’ own video. See Liza Behrendt & Friends co-opt OWS’ folksy communication style for their pure propaganda purposes. Say it enough times, and its true; and somehwere in hell, Joseph Goebbels is smiling.
    If this is what democracy and the new world order look like, God help us all.

  13. Vote and support me an American Jew> me in my race for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota on August 14, 2012. I am the kind of Jew who is deeply religious and G-d fearing to even travel to Gaza>as an American Jew to mediator and kick start the talks to free the Israeli Soldier Shalit back in March 2010. I as an American Jew am proud to be honorary President of a Palestinian NGO “The Tender for Mother and child” visit to see me reaching out as a Jew to my Palestinian Children in my school in Gaza with love and Hope. Your group of Jewish youth are on the right track G-d Bless your efforts. IF any of you wish to contact me 651 222 9838
    Jack “Doc” Shepard DFL Candidate for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota in DFL primary August 14, 2012
    Shalom to all and Love and Peace and keep doing what you are doing>good and G-D Bless you again for your work Fighting for peace with Love

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