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Chic? Maybe. Radical? Hardly.

In defense of making Occupy Wall Street Jewish

Marc Tracy
October 10, 2011
The Kol Nidrei service Friday evening.(The author)

The Kol Nidrei service Friday evening.(The author)

Commentary’s Contentions blog has a post duly ripping the Occupy Wall Street Kol Nidrei. It’s actually a lot more fair than its critics will give it credit for, acknowledging, for example, that “there is of course justification to be found for specifically economic protests of a leftist variety in the prophets, perhaps most especially Isaiah.” And the author deserves the benefit of the doubt against charges of hypocrisy when he condemns the use of Scripture for non-Scriptural ends: just because the Christian right, for which Commentary is frequently an inverse Shabbos goy, has been by the far the movement most successful at harnessing religion in politics doesn’t mean he signs onto that. But his critique is still baffling. I mean, you would almost think he wasn’t even there.

One of the disadvantages, so far, of Occupy Wall Street is that it forsakes a concrete agenda in favor of vague feelings and premises. In the context of this service, however, this attribute was an advantage. All you had to do to partake was be open-minded about things like gender equality and tolerance of difference in sexuality, which, frankly, is not something anyone should need to apologize for in 2011. In one of the few departures from an otherwise strict liturgy, “Aleinu” involved various audience members shouting out pledges; all who shared that pledge would respond, “Aleinu” (literally, “It is our duty”). I won’t deny that a selection bias and groupthink encouraged responses of a certain type, but actually, anyone could have shouted out anything, and I sense that had someone shouted, say, “I will work to lower the tax rates for wealthy Americans!” the worst rebuke he would have received would be far fewer “Aleinus” then “I will visit my grandparents!” got.

I don’t have much to say to the charge that OWS is “a movement so radical in its aims”—I think believing, as OWS does, that the richest one percent needn’t control 40 percent of the country’s wealth, and needn’t do so through a system rigged to ensure that that share only increases, has a long, long way to go before it becomes “radical.” (This was not a socialist revolt on Orchard Street in 1913!) And what is so “bizarre” about comparing the commitments we make to God each year under duress, which we may annually have annulled because they lack the force of our consciences, to the unprecedentedly harsh mortgages and other financial instruments that those not blessed with financial wisdom were swindled by? Why do Jews deserve God’s forgiveness for the former but Americans don’t deserve other Americans’ for the latter? Either you believe in justice, or you don’t.

There was, of course, one other requirement for joining the service: you had to be Jewish. I don’t mean that they were checking people at the door (or that there was a door). But, though political, it was primarily a service. There were machzorim, most men wore kippot, we faced east at the right times, and there was probably more Hebrew than English. Matthew Ackerman, who wrote this post, was the author of a similar critique, which I also responded to, of JDub Records, a former partner of Tablet Magazine’s. It is to his credit that he does not accuse the OWS Kol Nidrei of somehow being un- or less-than-Jewish, as he did JDub. But he still misses that many of the attendees were not like, say, me, who works at a Jewish magazine, and who attended Saturday services in a cozy synagogue (actually NYU’s Bronfman Center, but close enough), led by a Conservative rabbi and cantor. Without this, most of those people would have been having just another Friday night. There would not have been prayers or spiritual reflection, and there would not have been an affirmation of Jewishness and of belonging to the Jewish community. If that’s a “Sad Mix of Judaism and Radical Politics,” then cry me a river.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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