In a nearly unanimous vote at a general assembly meeting Feb. 1 at Oscar Grant Plaza, Occupy Oakland protesters voted to endorse a proposal in support of the BDS movement (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) against Israel.
The endorsement of the proposal was the first of its kind from any Occupy movement in the United States — and a decision that, though mainly symbolic, may have alienated many of the Jews who have made an effort to maintain a visible Jewish presence at Occupy Oakland since its beginnings, including members of the Occupy Bay Area Jewish Contingent.
Noura Khouri, a protester who was among the 400 or so people arrested during a day of clashes in Oakland on Jan. 28, presented the proposal. In her speech to the general assembly, she drew a connection between the tactics used by Oakland police against Occupy protesters and those used by the Israeli army against Palestinians.
“Israel is an apartheid state that has policies that treat Palestinians as second-, third- and fourth-class citizens on their own land,” Khouri said in her pre-vote comments. “We’re seeing a militarization of our police forces by local government, and they’re using the same weapons and polices against [occupiers] here as they are there.”
Deppen Webber, an organizer who presented alongside Khouri, decried the U.S. government’s funding of the Israeli military at a time when the U.S. economy is struggling. According to Twitter postings and other Internet reports by pro-Palestinian activists pushing the proposal, the resolution passed with 135 people voting yes, 12 abstentions and one person voting no.
A lengthy statement on the Occupy Oakland website attacked U.S. aid to Israel and suggested that Israel had “prodded” the United States into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to some observers, the vote was another in a long list of signs that the Oakland occupiers have lost touch with the focus and spirit of the national movement.
“I’m not surprised [about the vote],” said David Biale, a professor of Jewish history at U.C. Davis and the former director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union. “The Occupy Oakland movement has in many ways discredited itself by its tactics, which have violated the nonviolent character of the movement in general … personally I’m an opponent of BDS, so obviously I’m opposed to that position. But beyond that, it reflects the deterioration we’re seeing in this particular Occupy movement. It weakens the focus.”
Biale, who organized a teach-in at U.C. Davis after campus police were captured on video using pepper spray on peaceful Occupy protesters, made those comments a few days before he was to take part in a panel discussion Feb. 9 titled “Beyond Tactics: Jewish Activists on the Occupy Movement” at the Oakland branch of the JCC of the East Bay.
The panel lineup also included Fred Werner, a founding member of the Occupy Bay Area Jewish Contingent; Talia Cooper, the director of Jewish Youth for Community Action; and Miriam Priven, a youth activist and Albany High School student. The discussion was to be moderated by Susan Lubeck, the Bay Area regional director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Justice.
The Jewish Contingent initially started as an offshoot of the Interfaith Coalition, a multi-faith Occupy group, a multi-faith Occupy group, Werner said, but soon grew in numbers and took on a life of its own, encompassing Jews of many denominations and political slants. Rabbi David Cooper, spiritual leader at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, was very active, while Chabad of the East Bay donated candlelighting kits for nighttime vigils. Members of Kehilla helped JYCA youth set up a sukkah last October and offered morning and evening prayers for anyone interested in stopping by; the Jewish Contingent marched as an organized group during the first port shutdown Dec. 12.
But, according to Werner, the Contingent began to distance itself from Occupy Oakland well before the BDS vote, because of what Werner described as a “hijacking” of the movement by protesters who were not willing to eschew the use of violence.
As for the BDS discussion, Werner said it has no place in the Occupy movement.
“We have Jews of every stripe and denomination in this contingent: There are people who support BDS, who belong to groups who believe [BDS] would be good for Israel, for its own safety. And we have others who are doing work for groups like [the Jewish National Fund], and ‘stand-with-Israel’ kinds of groups. Everyone has been made to feel welcome,” he said.
Werner did note that he had heard at least one Jewish member say the vote made them feel frightened to identify openly as a Jew while at Occupy Oakland events — especially near the intifada tent, home base in Frank Ogawa Plaza for a group of pro-Palestinian activists aiming to shift some of the focus of the Occupy Oakland discourse toward the Middle East conflict.
“I think it’s too soon to know what kind of impact it will have,” said Talia Cooper, who has been active in Occupy Oakland since its inception, and slept in the Jewish Contingent sukkah for several nights in the movement’s early stages. “I don’t think they were trying to be anti-Jewish … but I do think [the proposal’s passage] will be hard for some Jews. My first thought was, ‘How will this make other people feel?’
“There’s so much wisdom and such a history of working for social justice in the Jewish community,” she continued. “We want to be bringing people in, and that means we should want to be inclusive.”
The BDS vote aside, the core values of the Occupy movement remain plainly in line with Jewish values, said Lubeck, explaining the impetus behind the panel discussion.
“There are so many people in the Jewish community who are excited for the chance to talk about these underlying issues of income inequality and inequity,” she said. “And the fact is those topics have burst onto the scene recently and been getting the visibility they deserve in no small part because of the Occupy movement.”
Lubeck cited a survey in which 70 percent of Jews in the East Bay stated that, to them, “helping people in need” was the most important thing about being Jewish.
“The value of doing what’s right — including recognizing that not everyone’s going to have the same amount of resources yet it’s not OK for people to be destitute, not OK to have these kinds of disparities in a country that’s so full of abundance, –— that absolutely resonates with Jewish thought and tradition,” she said.
Werner echoed that belief. “In terms of social justice, in terms of helping the poorest of the poor and the weakest of the weak, the movement represents some very core Jewish values,” he said. “It’s true tikkun olam.”