When I sat down to speak with radical civil rights activist Rabbi Arthur Waskow at the Shalom Center in Philadelphia this July, I wanted to talk about the hopes and promises of twenty-first century Jewish activism, Occupy Judaism, and the American Jewish progressive movement. But most of all, I wanted to discuss Ezra Berkley Nepon’s recently published book ‘Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: A History of New Jewish Agenda.’ This book represents the first serious attempt to comprehensively document the 1980s progressive organization New Jewish Agenda (NJA).
Considering itself “a Jewish voice among progressives and a progressive voice among Jews,” NJA was a national, multi-issue membership organization that worked throughout the 1980s and early 1990s to advocate for Middle East peace, worldwide nuclear disarmament, rights for LGBTQ Jews, economic and social justice, peace in Latin America, Jewish feminism, and a variety of other issues in a climate of increasing Reagan-era neoliberalism and Cold War conservatism. Today, twenty years after the group’s dissolution, the book seeks to draw inspiration from NJA’s dedication “to participatory (grassroots) democracy and civil rights for all people, especially those marginalized within the mainstream Jewish community,” at a time when the progressive American Jewish movement is seeking a new voice.
As we reflected on the contemporary legacy of Jewish radicalism in America, we found that we could not talk about the New Jewish Agenda of the past without talking about the new(er) Jewish agenda(s) of the present. We could not talk about progressive Jewish identity and spirituality without also talking about “the heart of the matter- the prophetic vision embodied in Judaism, ancient and modern.” We could not talk about Occupy Wall Street without also talking about “the heart of the Freedom Seder…[the] debate between violence and non-violence.” We could not talk about the diversity of contemporary progressive Jewish activism without also talking about the issue of Zionism, an issue that “becomes legitimate when the society around it discovers it has to live with a spectrum of organizations, people, etc. raising the issue.” We found that to speak of a movement as multi-faceted as New Jewish Agenda, one must also give voice the complexities of the present moment.
We also discussed the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s recent conference, entitled ‘Jews and the Left.’ There, voices of lamentation repeated the well-worn mantra that, as Ezra Mendelsohn said, “the Left in general is in eclipse, and the Jewish left is dead in the U.S., an expired product of a past historical epoch … a good chapter in our history, but one which is gone.”
When I repeated this quote to Arthur Waskow, he interrupted me with a bemused look of incredulity…
Arthur Waskow: Did they invite anybody who was a Jew on the left?
Ben Lorber: One of the criticisms voiced by many was that the conference was mainly an affair of historians and academics, devoid of past or present Jewish activists.
AW: Well, there’s Tikkun, there’s the Shalom Center, and a bunch of different organizations!
BL: Throughout ‘Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue,’ Nepon celebrates that NJA upheld itself for over a decade as a multi-issue organization, tackling problems of sexism, racism, and classism both inside and outside the Jewish community, along with a critique of Israel, and presenting a united front of Jewish opposition to the mainstream. Today, progressive American Jewish organizations exist across the left spectrum as single-issue advocacy groups, often competing with one another for funds, attention and a seat at the table, and struggling to try to influence the mainstream. Do you see this multiplicity of organizations as a weakness of the contemporary Jewish American left?
AW: There are two images we use about ourselves: one is a tugboat that moves the big ocean liner. The big ocean liner can barely change direction, and to change direction at all it needs a tugboat that can change direction, nudging, nudging, pushing up against it. I think we accomplished that metaphor with the Reform movement during the Iraq war. The Iraq war was historically a total disaster, but it also took some nudging for people to get off their habit of total deference towards any President of the United States, and we did help the Reform movement do that. And the other metaphor we use is the seedbed. We can drop tiny seeds that are very small and don’t require much money, and some of them grow big. We see ourselves that way too.
BL: And in many ways NJA throughout the 1980s and early 1990s conceived of itself as a tugboat and a seedbed, steering the tone of mainstream American Jewish discourse towards the left and sowing seeds of dissent on many critical issues well ahead of their time. Today, the seeds that NJA helped plant–the movement of Jewish feminism, and the movement of Jewish-Palestinian solidarity, to name two examples–have blossomed into the decisive political debates of our community.
AW: The difference is that NJA wanted to be a mass organization. We tried, and we succeeded briefly. We were enormously helped by Ronald Reagan’s election. Our first convention was held in the fall after November 1980, after the election, which Reagan won, and thousands more people showed up then we expected. Part of the reason for that was that people were shocked and horrified by Reagan’s victory in the election.
BL: Has the progressive Jewish movement experienced a similar revitalization since the early 2000s, with the rise of Bush and the American neoconservative movement?
AW: Not the same way in the American Jewish community. I think maybe Occupy is the first stage of re-energizing the American and Jewish progressive movement.
BL: But today, two decades after the dissolution of NJA, do you see a hole or a void in the community of progressive Jewish organizations that NJA used to fill? Across the diverse spectrum of groups, is there a lack of a unifying thread, an absence of a ‘We?’
AW: There are some interesting things beginning to happen. There’s the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable and Green Havurah. There’s a serious attempt to create the beginnings, but the one thing it ain’t is a mass movement. It deliberately is an amalgam of organizations, not of people, so that puts limits on it.
BL: An especially powerful legacy of NJA, to me, is its structural emphasis on democratic, horizontal, non-hierarchical decision-making, and organization. These dynamics, with all their pluses and minuses, have re-emerged today most vigorously in the Occupy movement. What does NJA have to teach the present-day Jewish American progressive community in this regard?
AW: I hope, but I’m not convinced, that the Green Havurah model is the most interesting model. It’s kind of a version of NJA’s decentralization, though NJA’s decentralization was geographic, and Green Havurah’s model isn’t geographic as much as it is functional. I don’t know if it makes vigorous action possible. But it is a different version to preserve a kind of united national body, and to encourage participation and debate.
BL: One of the inspiring things for me about the Jewish Occupy events, such as Occupy Kol Nidre, is this tradition of performing Jewish ritual in public as political action. NJA explored this too–as Nepon relates in ‘Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue,’ during Tisha B’av in 1981, which fell on the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki by the U.S. during WWII, NJA held a public ceremony near the White House and the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., calling for nuclear disarmament.
AW: And we addressed universal issues, not only Jewish issues. Interestingly, two summers ago we did Tisha B’Av on the steps of the capital again, but this time it was to focus on the oil spill that had just happened in the Gulf. We asked, “What is the temple today?” Today the temple is the whole Earth. Every culture and every species has the sacred temple of Earth itself, and the Pharaohs of the human race, like the emperors who destroyed the First and Second Temples, are in the process of destroying our temple. And we did this with about 300 people, maybe half of them Jewish, a whole bunch of secular people, and some Christians and Muslims. It was amazing! We chanted, mainly in English, a new version of Lamentations to the melody of Eicha, of Lamentations.
There was a crucial discussion in Green Havurah a few days ago: what does it mean to take inspiration from theology and challenge people into acting? A bunch of us going off and making Shabbot by ourselves has no impact on society. What if we sat down on Shabbot and somehow interfered with work? I haven’t yet been struck with a spark of how to do that. Martin Buber said, “Life is not really in the I, life is not really in the Thou. Life is in the hyphen.’ Between me and Daniel Sieradski (American Jewish writer and activist), life was in the hyphen! I called him up and asked: “What do you think about doing Kol Nidre at Zuccotti Park?’ He said “Arthur, Kol Nidre! We did Erev Shabbot there last week! But Kol Nidre? I gotta think about it.” And he calls me up the next day and says, “Well, I put it on Twitter and there are 500 people that wanna come!” I couldn’t do it alone, and he couldn’t do it alone.
BL: As NJA sought to be “a Jewish voice among progressives and a progressive voice among Jews,” Occupy Judaism’s motto today is “bringing the Jews to Occupy Wall Street and bringing Occupy Wall Street to the Jews.” What are the parallels between the two? Is it inspiring to you today that in the midst of the rising of a broad-based American social movement, this tradition of Jewish ritual as public protest has re-emerged?
AW: Absolutely inspiring to me, totally! NJA taught us that you can interweave prophetic religious folk and leftist secular folk. I try not to use the ‘left’ label for myself because it has come to mean almost entirely a secular, sometimes even anti-religious outlook on the world. So I use ‘prophetic’ because for me it embodies both a profound religious sense of contact with God–not at all necessarily according to the structures or the strictures of the prayer book,–and vigorous and radical political action.
During most of its history, NJA was able to weave those strands of thought and action together. I think one of the reasons it collapsed was that some mostly secularist folks thought they couldn’t bear working with people who used ‘God’ language. There was a lot of anger and contempt aimed at religious folk, which ended up in the dismantling of the office and the organization. This did not come from any grassroots decision-making; it was made by people in the steering committee. I think that if there had been a consultation of the national membership, people would’ve opposed abolishing the organization. I thought the closure was a serious ethical and political mistake- none of which I think is in the book.
BL: A few years after NJA was founded, Michael Lerner founded Tikkun, and there was a return to spirituality in the American Jewish progressive movement that was, in many ways, a continuation of the Fabrangen and radical Havurah movements begun a decade earlier. Do you think this schism between secular and spiritual currents within NJA reflected the larger tensions between a secular humanist Jewish movement and a Jewish renewal movement?
AW: Yes, I think that’s right. And both trends have survived. The heart of the matter for me is the prophetic vision embodied in Judaism, ancient and modern, all the way to Buber and Heschel and Judith Plaskow. So that strand for me is the point, and acting on that strand for me is not bringing Occupy Wall Street to the Jews, it is bringing Isaiah and Heschel and Lerner and Waskow to the Jews. Here’s an example of the problem and the gift. Occupy Wall Street breaks through in American consciousness to get the notion of the 99% and the 1% across. Brilliant! Terrific! Now, for twenty years the Shalom Center has been talking about the pharaohs of our generation, which I think is the 1% in Jewish clothes (and I don’t mean only governments, but corporations as well). So it’s true that Occupy broke through in a way that, inside the Jewish community, the Freedom Seder did break through- in an unexpected way. [The Freedom Seder] told everyone that we can all create our own liberating seders! And that changed the attitude of lots of Jews towards the existing liturgy.
BL: Reading the Freedom Seder today, I was drawn to the debate between violence and non-violence as a tactic for social change. Pacifist quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. are back-to-back with celebrations of the race riot, and quotes by Malcolm X advocating change ‘by any means necessary.’ This seems to be especially pertinent today, as popular unrest in America and worldwide straddles the border between non-violent and violent resistance.
AW: And when I said that the race riots were about the confrontation between the Israelites in the streets and Pharaoh in the army, sure! The heart of the Freedom Seder should be a debate between violence and non-violence. I have since become convinced that King-ian, Gandhian non-violence is far better. I’m not an absolute pacifist, but I think it’s far better except in a very few situations, where there is such a tyrannical thing that the only way to resist is physically. But at the time of the Freedom Seder I was saying: “Let’s have the argument, because we can only gain wisdom from the argument.”
BL: The issue of Zionism has obviously had a huge and polarizing influence of the progressive Jewish Left since the 1960s. How has the discourse on Palestine changed from the 1970s to today on the Jewish Left?
AW: There’s more of a spectrum now. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) can exist alongside J Street, and both of them can exist. I think there is a big majority for at the J Street outlook, but it’s interesting- organizations don’t like to confront even small minorities, especially organizations that are feeling that they are barely treated as legitimate anyway. There are two ways to behave if you think you are being treated by the big boys as barely legitimate. One is to say ‘fuck you!’ and do whatever really bold and trouble making stuff you wanna do. The other one is to be very careful not to annoy people. JVP has done the first, and I sort of feel attracted to its tone and method, but I see a problem with its unwillingness to affirm the right of the Israeli people to make their decision about having an Israeli state, and therefore to reaffirm that we can only go beyond a two-state solution if each of the two people says they’re ready to go beyond it. As of now, Israeli society is not willing to go beyond a two-state solution. For me, JVP doesn’t have to say: “We support a two state solution,” but it does have to say: “We support a solution in which the existing state of Israel and its people agree.” And they don’t quite do that. So that’s one of my problems with it, and I think it’s probably a problem with a lot of people who would otherwise feel attracted to JVP. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who do feel attracted to JVP, because they say ‘fuck you’ to the Federation world and all that.
So, the very fact of a more diverse spectrum means that the repression has not been able to succeed as much. In a way, an issue becomes legitimate when the society around it discovers it has to live with a spectrum of organizations, people, etc. raising the issue. It’s easy to polarize and expel, to excommunicate so long as there is a clear separation between viewpoints. But most Americans from Peace Now and J Street bridge the gap enough that it’s clearly impossible now to wipe out that kind of energy, and the greater spectrum means that there are enough Jews who are connected with official Judaism.
I’m not so happy with J Street either, by the way. J Street established this metaphor of itself that it was going to watch Obama’s back. And I ask, “What about his front? What about confronting him when he doesn’t do what makes sense?” Their whole description of their role was that whenever people were beating up on Obama for being too pro-peace or of Israel, J Street would hold his back and argue that he’s okay. But when he insisted on vetoing Abbas’ bid for recognition at the U.N., for instance, J Street was not prepared to say, “Oh, that was a bad mistake.” So I didn’t go to the last convention. If I could wave my wand and there would be an organization that carried out BDS on the products created in the West Bank, period, I would do it. Peter Beinart (an influential American Jewish journalist), Lerner and I are not just liberal Zionists; we’re something more than that. Lerner does try to organize around it and has done more to unite the two than most anybody, including the Shalom Center.
BL: In 2009, you cited five American ‘pro-Israel, pro-Peace’ Jewish organizations that were worth supporting in a context of increasing polarization within the American Jewish community: Meretz USA, Americans for Peace Now, Rabbis for Human Rights, J Street, and Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace (Brit Tzedek v’Shalom). Daniel Lang/Levitsky stated that since 2009, “U.S. Zionist ‘peace’-oriented groups like Brit Tzedek-v-Shalom, J Street, and the Tikkun Community have continued to decline in influence, visibility, and effectiveness, while non- and anti-Zionist projects from JVP to Jews Say No to the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAZN) have steadily grown in both size and strength.” Do you see this trend? Why?
AW: Yes, because people are getting more and more fed up with the ever more disgusting behavior of the Israeli government. The worse it gets, the more people that say I’m not even interested in J Street. So J Street tries to walk this very difficult line, but I don’t think the line has to be as wishy-washy as they make it.
BL: What, to sum up, can Jewish occupiers, and the entire Occupy movement, draw from prophetic Judaism? What can the prophetic Jewish heritage teach us about this imperative to resist, to speak the truth to power?
AW: I know I sort of got imprinted on the Pharaoh model by the Freedom Seder, and you might say I’ve just been reworking that metaphor for forty some years, and in some ways that’s true. And my most recent book with Phyllis Berman, my wife, is about the Exodus and the wilderness at a far deeper level than the Freedom Seder. But I think that’s the master Jewish story, whether its fiction or history. We begin that book, Freedom Journeys, with these three lines: “If the Pharaoh fell in the Red Sea and nobody told the story, did it happen? No. If no Pharaoh fell in the Red Sea but we told the story for three thousand years, did it happen? Yes. Is it still happening? Yes.”
BL: I love Sieradski’s quote, in an article for the Forward in November 2011, where he asserts the direct identity between the values of Judaism and those of Occupy- “In retelling our story (“We are the 99%”), recounting our values (“social and economic justice for all”) and carrying forth our tradition unto the four corners of the Earth (“Occupy Everywhere”) we are empowered to bring the spirit of the occupation into every facet of our lives.”