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The Pro-Palestinian OWS Offshoot

Liza Behrendt defends group’s mission, direct action against Birthright

Marc Tracy
November 18, 2011

I’ve expressed my qualms about tethering Occupy Wall Street to the pro-Palestinian cause. Along with the Boston marchers who briefly “occupied” the Israeli consulate up there, the most prominent example of this might be Occupy the Occupiers, an informal offshoot of Young Jewish and Proud (itself the youth wing of the left-wing Jewish Voice for Peace), which earlier this month released a statement declaring, “Let us stand up to the 1 percent in our own community—the powerful institutions that support Israel’s corporate-backed military control of the Palestinian people and act as the gatekeepers for our community.” Its first act was a direct action against a Birthright alumni event featuring Steven L. Pease, author of The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement.

I spoke this morning with Liza Behrendt, a member of Young Jewish and Proud who helped organize the direct action and compose the Occupy the Occupiers statement.

How did Occupy the Occupiers come about?
A lot of people involved with Young Jewish and Proud continue to be active in Occupy Wall Street, and we’ve been really inspired by the different directions the messaging of Occupy Wall Street has gone. For example, Occupy the Department of Education was really exciting. Small actions all around have expanded the basic message to address certain issues. Bank accountability and raising taxes on the 1 percent and providing more social services are things a lot of people get behind. But why is it we care about taxing the 1 percent? It’s because of all the issues. It’s because of our values. So, there’s really this opening for a lot of people who have been involved in fighting oppression. It gives it a wider reach than if it had only been about banks.

What made you choose that Birthright event for your first direct action?
It succinctly exemplified a problem of the agendas of Jewish institutions. There are a lot of people who were upset with Birthright because of how they portray the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on their trips, but this was an example of them going beyond that. The very fact that they are having a Wall Street series, titled “Wall Street Series,” I think shows how out of touch they are with broader social movements. It was sort of comical that they would focus their attention on that. And this book in particular rang problematic to a lot of us, in that it’s saying—it’s called The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement, celebrating why Jews are so successful, without a critical take on privilege and oppression. At a time when the public eye is really on inequality and the impossibility of gaining success in this country, it felt offensive to be glorifying a group that has maintained a degree of privilege. On top of that, the role models that Steven Pease presents and highlights are not role models that progressive Jews can get behind. He spends a lot of time on Lev Leviev, for example, who became enormously wealthy through the blood diamond trade and has a huge investment in illegal Israeli settlements.

My main concern is that tarring OWS as anti-Israel is among the easiest ways for the right to discredit the movement, and while they’re certainly going to try to do that no matter what, this is just making their jobs easier. Tell me why I’m wrong.
I think it’s an important concern. I think that the right is going to find any way they can to smear Occupy Wall Street. When we have this kind of momentum and are doing really huge publicly, whether it’s support in the polls or just the vast number of people that are turning out to support us, I think it’s really limiting ourselves to be thinking about those right-wing people and giving them more reasons to smear us. Of course we should be strategic about our messaging. I have not talked to anybody, and I don’t think there are too many people, who would be supportive but would stop supporting simply if they knew anti-occupation activists were taking part. There are a lot of controversial views. There are a lot of people who oppose the Federal Reserve! There are policy prescriptions people have in the park that a lot of people don’t agree with.

It’s such a broad movement that we are limiting ourselves and the people we can reach if every step we take we second-guess ourselves about giving the right more reasons to hate us. I think we should be thinking, Who can we reach? Who can we draw in?

I also wonder if the energy isn’t better spent on things that the vast bulk of the movement agrees on, and specifically on the basic economic message. Tell me why I’m wrong.
We’re very clear in our statement that that is how we relate it to Occupy Wall Street. Power and wealth is unevenly distributed in the Jewish community, and this is a problem for Jewish institutions: that certain donors have a disproportionate influence over the agendas of Jewish institutions, and this is alienating to people. Jewish organizations are so stuck because they’re pressured into following an agenda, or else they can’t operate anymore. This is not a democratic community when you have this kind of control. And it’s not something unique to the Jewish community, of course—it’s symptomatic of larger economic inequality. The Jewish community is not immune to these problems—I think a lot of times it’s viewed as a privileged group, that most Jews are well off. It’s important that we bring Occupy Wall Street into the Jewish community. Economic inequality is the root, and on top of that comes all these societal problems. Uncritical support for Israeli policies is something that is really attributable to the disproportionate influence of right-wing donors. And this is why so many Jews who oppose the occupation are being censored across the country.

You say this is bringing Occupy Wall Street to the Jewish community. Do you want the reverse to happen as well—for Occupy Wall Street itself to begin to propound and absorb these Jewish concerns? Or are you content simply to take the broader message and apply it to this smaller community?
I’d say the latter: We’re more about bringing it to the Jewish community.

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