Navigate to News section

One Percent

Anti-Semites are a tiny fringe at the Occupy Wall Street protests. But an inability to quiet them shows the limitations of a leaderless movement.

Michelle Goldberg
October 18, 2011
Zuccotti Park near Wall Street, October 11.(Mario Burger)
Zuccotti Park near Wall Street, October 11.(Mario Burger)

Last week, the Emergency Committee for Israel, a conservative pressure group co-founded by Bill Kristol, put out a video designed to scare Jews about Occupy Wall Street. It begins with clips of President Barack Obama and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, expressing support for the protesters’ message. Then an ominous voice asks, “What is happening at the Occupy Wall Street protests?” Cut to a man with a “Hitler’s Bankers” sign shouting “Jews control Wall Street.” Then we see a clip from a video first posted at the National Review Online, in which a thuggish kid sneers at a man in a yarmulke: “You’re a bum, Jew.” Then there’s another man, telling an interviewer that “the small ethnic Jewish population in this country, they have a firm grip on America’s media.” The voiceover asks: “Why are our leaders turning a blind eye to anti-Semitic, anti-Israel Attacks? Tell President Obama and Leader Pelosi to stand up to the mob.”

This has been a theme of right-wing critiques of the rapidly spreading protest movement. Noting that the protesters identify themselves as part of the “99 percent,” Rush Limbaugh said: “Now, 99 percent, that leaves one percent, roughly the percentage of Jews in the population, too. And Wall Street and bankers have been anti-Semitic code for Jews in this country going back quite a while.” (Jews are actually more like 2 percent of the population, but never mind.) Conservatives have delighted in pointing out that Adbusters, the Canadian magazine that first put out the call to occupy Wall Street, ran an inflammatory 2004 article about neoconservatives headlined, “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?”

The charge that Occupy Wall Street is shot through with anti-Semitism is dishonest and deceptive. But it’s built around a kernel of truth. There are a few Jew-baiters at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, though they are marginal, particularly compared to the large numbers of Jewish activists taking part. Yet the leaderless, diffuse nature of the movement, in some ways its greatest strength, also makes it hard to police bigots, bullies, and cranks. This isn’t just about Jews—Occupy Wall Street’s ability to find some measure of unity and discipline amid a commitment to anarchy will determine whether it is able to grow beyond demonstrating widespread disaffection with the status quo.

Occupy Wall Street, as you’ve surely learned by now, is organized, for lack of a better word, around non-hierarchical principles derived from anarchist thought. Decisions are made by consensus during interminable general assembly meetings, in which anyone can participate. So far, this model has fostered, for the most part, a spirit of volunteerism and cooperation. The occupied site itself, full of grimy tarps and sleeping bags and people who’ve been braving the elements for weeks, looks bedraggled, but it’s actually pretty efficient. Free food is prepared and served, donated blankets and clothes are given away to all who need them, and a first-aid station deals with minor medical issues. When the private company that owns the park threatened to evict the occupation to conduct a cleanup, the ad-hoc community mobilized to clean it themselves, depriving authorities of a pretext to get rid of them.

This do-it-yourself ethos has been a boon to Jewish activists, among others. One of the most iconic moments of the occupation came when as many as a thousand Jews gathered at the park on October 7 for an open-air Kol Nidre service, organized by Daniel Sieradski, the founder of the progressive blog and a self-described “rabble rouser in the Jewish community.” “The whole thing is an anarchistic affair, so any affinity group that has an action is welcome to come and do their action,” he said. Sieradski went on to erect a pop-up sukkah at Zuccotti Park and found that the police who usually enforce a ban on erecting structures there were reluctant to interfere once they heard it was part of a Jewish religious observance. “I established a precedent for people here,” he said, obviously delighted. “We’ve given people a way of creating shelters for themselves here in the park for the week of Sukkot. One guy tried it, and the cops came and tried to take it down. Two hundred people came and shouted at the cops and made them go away.”

The anarchist nature of the protests has meant that some of the usual suspects on the radical left, people whose vociferous anti-Zionism can shade into anti-Semitism, haven’t gotten much of a foothold.

One of the curses of left-wing politics is the perennial presence of International ANSWER, a front group for the Stalinist Workers World Party, a tiny political sect with a perverse attraction to the world’s worst people. The party formed in the 1950s, after splitting off from the Socialist Workers Party over a disagreement about the Soviet invasion of Hungary, which the Workers World supported. Since then, the Workers World Party has thrown itself behind Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong-il; it backed the Chinese crackdown on the “counter-revolutionary rebellion” in Tiananmen Square. The Workers World Party is not just pro-Palestinian; it is pro-Hamas and pro-Hezbollah, devoted to the destruction of Israel. It’s fringe views would hardly be worth noticing if not for its members’ organizing skills. For example, by securing protest permits on significant dates far in advance, it was able to take a leading role in the early marches against the Iraq war, even though many progressives were mortified by its involvement. It has often made things uncomfortable for Jews, even those deeply opposed to the Israeli occupation.

“Clearly there’s been tension for the last couple of decades between Jews who identify as supporters of Israel and the radical left that views Zionism as an extension of American imperialism,” said Sieradski. But groups like ANSWER aren’t running things at Occupy Wall Street—no one is. For progressive Jews, that’s opened up new room for involvement. Thus Sieradski, who has been alienated from much of Jewish communal life, suddenly feels “on fire again” about the possibility of specifically Jewish activism. “After the service, I had a line of 100 people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you, that was the most meaningful Jewish experience of my entire life,’ ” he said.

The conservative Jewish magazine Commentary has noticed the ecstatic Jewish involvement in Occupy Wall Street. “The turnout the event generated, as well as the discussion it has so far provoked, are deeply troubling trends that all who care about the Jewish future would do well to take seriously,” Matthew Ackerman wrote on the magazine’s blog. Rarely, he wrote, “has a movement so radical in its aims been tied so explicitly to a religious tradition as was the case with this past Friday’s service.”

In some ways, it’s contradictory for Commentary to bemoan enthusiastic Jewish participation in the protests one moment and accuse them of anti-Semitism the next. But it’s also true that the extreme openness that allowed Sieradski to organize his Kol Nidre service is not always benign. Occupy Wall Street lacks tools for enforcing any sort of discipline, or ostracizing troublemakers. When someone at a Tea Party rally holds a particularly offensive sign, as many have, the movement can denounce them. But there is no one at Occupy Wall Street to do the denouncing.

The occasional appearance of anti-Semites is probably the biggest sign of this problem so far, though it’s not the only one. There are small but telling tensions and conflicts around the edges of the encampment. The constant pounding of a drum circle, for example, located near the sleeping area, is driving both protesters and people in the neighborhood crazy, but efforts to quiet them even occasionally have had mixed results. The drummers have agreed to stop playing during the nightly general assembly meeting, but Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s attempts to get them to limit their drumming to two hours a day have gone nowhere. Last Friday morning, the de facto leader of the drummers, a man with greasy gray hair starting to dread and a wild look in his eyes, reacted with fury to suggestions that some people would appreciate a respite from all the banging. “This is a revolution!” he shouted. “It’s not about working with the same community we are protesting against.” When other protesters tried to argue, the drummers played harder to drown them out.

This inability to enforce some kind of order, or to even recognize a mechanism for doing so, could cause problems for Occupy Wall Street. Such issues have bedeviled left-wing movements before. In the early 1970s, Jo Freeman wrote an important essay about the self-sabotaging distrust of organization in the women’s movement, titled “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” “Unstructured groups may be very effective in getting women to talk about their lives; they aren’t very good for getting things done,” she wrote. “It is when people get tired of ‘just talking’ and want to do something more that the groups flounder, unless they change the nature of their operation.” Such movements, she argued, awaken people’s energy without channeling it. “Some women just ‘do their own thing.’ This can lead to a great deal of individual creativity, much of which is useful for the movement, but it is not a viable alternative for most women and certainly does not foster a spirit of cooperative group effort.”

There are lessons here for Occupy Wall Street. The movement has been enormously successful at capturing people’s imaginations and giving them a place to gather, air deep and legitimate grievances, and be invigorated by the power of group solidarity. But coming together and creating a counterculture is ultimately not enough to effect real and lasting change. For that, leadership and structure are ultimately needed. Occupy Wall Street is not anti-Semitic, and the presence of a few odd Jew-haters is not the movement’s fault. Its inability to quickly shut them up, though, may augur problems for its future.

Michelle Goldberg is a senior contributing writer at The Nation. She is the author, most recently, of The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. Her Twitter feed is @michelleinbklyn.

Michelle Goldberg is a senior contributing writer at The Nation. She is the author, most recently, of The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. Her Twitter feed is @michelleinbklyn.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.