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Organizers and Agitators

A new documentary looks at the latest generation of Jewish radicals

Jennifer Bleyer
October 13, 2006

Last Passover, I went to a seder at an anarchist community farm in upstate New York. About 30 people sat on cushions on the floor, including the cheerful dozen or so who lived together in the big creaky farmhouse and their visiting family and friends.

Some things were reassuringly familiar. There was a seder plate, cups of syrupy Manischewitz, and boxes of matzah. Then the seder began. We read from Xeroxed copies of the Love and Justice in Times of War Haggadah. The first item was a social action blessing: “Blessed is the Source, who shows us paths to holiness, and commands us to pursue justice.”

The Haggadah recommended that everyone introduce themselves with their name and preferred pronoun, in order to create a friendlier space for transgender people. The first cup of wine was dedicated to those around the world who have risen up in protest against “unjust, racist and classist wars.” The traditional recitation of the ten plagues was recast as the “ten plagues of the occupation of Palestine.” Dipping fingers into wine, they were mourned: blockades and checkpoints, destruction of villages and homes, the security wall, war crimes.

Agree with its ideology or not, this was clearly not your old Maxwell House Haggadah, leaving you bored to tears and counting down the pages until the meal. In Young, Jewish and Left, an earnest and engaging if somewhat formless documentary by Irit Reinheimer and Konnie Chameides (the latter of whom—full disclosure—was at that upstate seder, and who I met briefly), there’s a scene with one of the co-creators of the Love and Justice Haggadah, an activist named Micah Bazant.

“There is a very old tradition, as old as any Jewish tradition, of reinterpreting… especially Passover and haggadot,” Bazant says, nodding to Jewish activists who preceded him, particularly Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who wrote the 1969 “Freedom Seder,” a civil rights-influenced alternative Haggadah. About his own motivation to create a new social justice Haggadah, Bazant gushes: “It was just love.”

In fact, it seems to be just love that motivates the dozens of young activists featured in Young, Jewish and Left, which functions as a kind of sprawling introduction to the new Jewish lefty scene. Occasional hints of brattiness, moments of condescension, and fuzzily articulated ideas are more than compensated for with humility, heart, and a basic human acknowledgment that we’re all in the same boat. (“We” being not just Jews.) The young people depicted here seem to collectively affirm Che Guevara’s famous statement that “the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”

So, good, it begins with love. Then what? For the most part, you get the feeling that this movement (if it can be called a movement) is occupied primarily with opposing Israel, or with queer and transgender issues, or both at once, as in the case of a group called “Faygelehs for a Free Palestine.” There are times when it feels like the movie could have narrowed its narrative lens just slightly and been renamed “Young, Jewish and Anti-Occupation” or “Young, Jewish and Queer.”

Both of which are important issues better left for parsing elsewhere. In the context of this film, however, it’s striking to notice how much the enemy has shifted. Once, it was the pharaohs, the Cossacks, the czars, the Nazis, the sweatshop bosses, the union busters. Now, we are told, young Jewish leftists find themselves allied against other Jews—either the heterosexist ones who laugh trannies and queers out of shul, or the Zionist ones with their undying support for Israel.

The identification of “mainstream” Jews as the oppressor by the young leftists profiled in the film is so lacking in nuance that it’s sort of a relief when Loolwa Khazzoom, an Iraqi-Jewish writer, explodes while recalling her experience at a young Jewish lefty conference. “It was very clear that the root of everything was that Jews are white European oppressors and Palestinians are indigenous people of color and the Jews have done terrible things to Palestinians, end of story,” Khazoom says. “And I had it! My family was kicked out of Iraq. My family is Jewish refugees absorbed by the state of Israel. I have been told that my family history is completely irrelevant.”

It’s one of the film’s few moments of tension. Because Reinheimer and Chameides didn’t really set out to posit or defend any particular point, there are plenty of contradictions. The film has the aura of being held together punk-style with duct tape and staples and twine.

“Young, Jewish and Left” is most interesting from a purely anthropological perspective, when the film just saunters along, introducing us to people like Jonna Shelomith, an anarchist revolutionary who traveled to Germany with her “comrades” after the Berlin Wall fell and had an unexpectedly moving experience at Auschwitz, and And A. Lusia, a spunky young woman with dreadlocked pigtails who took advantage of Birthright Israel‘s free trip offer to go to Israel and confront Ariel Sharon. There is also a ticking off of subcultural ephemera like the Jewcrew Cookbook (motto: “Food for Thought, Recipes for Destruction”), the Suck My Treyf Gender party, a “queer, anti-imperialist Purim cabaret,” and the drag queens of Hadassah Ladies for Homos.

For those who wonder about the rightward political drift that seems to have gone hand in hand with the upward class drift of Jews in America, this film proves that the legacy of Jewish socialists, anarchists, feminists, Yippies, hippies, organizers, and agitators of the past century lives on in some form. Here, after all, are their progeny.

Jennifer Bleyer is a New York-based journalist who has written recently for the New York Times, Slate, Cosmopolitan, City Pages, and She tweets at @jennypencil.

Jennifer Bleyer is a New York-based psychotherapist and writer.

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