Commentary Magazine


Occupy Wall Street and the Jews

On the eve of Yom Kippur, Jews across New York City hurriedly finished their pre-fast meals before dashing to synagogue for Kol Nidre services. But on that night in October, several hundred Jews foreswore synagogue and headed to an obscure park in the Wall Street district where a protest claiming to represent the exploited 99 percent of society against the exploitative 1 percent was in its third week. A protest that, along with its sister protests across the nation, would become marred with incidents of murder and suicide, sexual assault and rape, violence, drug use, theft, bullying, public defecation, indecent exposure, defacement of American flags, littering, and disease—even tuberculosis.

A Kol Nidre service was being held there.

By that point in the brief lifespan of the Occupy Wall Street protest, disturbing comments and placards directed against Jews and Israel had been on display on a daily basis and had, understandably, become a matter of interest to Jewish commentators and a cause of concern for Jewish communities and others in the city and across the nation.

What did Jews and Israel have to do with protests ostensibly intended to focus the nation’s attention on domestic economic issues? And why, despite the apparent hostility toward them and the Jewish state, were Jews so involved?

The Yom Kippur service, the Sukkoth that followed several days later, a Simchat Torah celebration that followed the Sukkoth, Shabbat dinners, a prayer meeting to mark the onset of the new Jewish month—all were held not only to help those Jews who had chosen to take up residence at Zuccotti Park practice their faith, but also to lend the Occupy Wall Street protest a religiously Jewish coloration.

Even now, following the removal of the Occupiers from the park and from similar makeshift protest locations across the country, three salient issues demand consideration by anyone, Jewish or non-Jewish, concerned with contemporary anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism—and all the more so in light of rumors that the protests may return with force after a winter hibernation. First is the extent of the anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism at the protests. Second is the role Jews played in the protests. And third is the question of the connection between the protests and Judaism itself.

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Defenders and supporters of Occupy Wall Street have tried to downplay the extent of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hostility, but it was more prevalent than their initial denials suggested or their belated statements of concern conceded.

To begin with, any conspiracy theory that connects a tiny portion (in this case 1 percent) of the population with exploitative banking practices is susceptible to taking on anti-Semitic undertones. This is especially the case when the list of supporters includes the American Nazi Party, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, Louis Farrakhan, white supremacist David Duke, Socialist Party USA, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Hezbollah, 911Truth.org, International Bolshevik Tendency, and myriad other dubious organizations and individuals. With such comrades in arms, leaders of Occupy Wall Street ought to have been much on guard against anti-Semitic talk.

Nor was the hostility a matter of undertones only. The tone, very early on, was set in part by signs and messages that were overtly anti-Semitic. “Google: (1) Wall St. Jews, (2) Jewish Billionaires, (3) Jews & FedRsrvBank,” read one sign. Another: “Nazi Bankers Wall Street.” The man holding up a sign that read “Hitler’s Bankers,” upon being pressed by passersby to explain himself, replied “Jews control Wall Street.” He was then asked whether the Fox News Channel had asked him to hold up the sign, presumably to make Occupy Wall Street look bad, and he responded, “F— Fox News. That’s bulls—t. F—ing Jew made that up.” Another protester, upon being interrogated by a skeptical elderly passerby sporting a yarmulke, brushed him away saying, “You’re a bum, Jew.”

An Occupier who had traveled from Georgia explained his anti-Jewish animus to a reporter from the New York Post by stating that “Jews are the smartest people in the world,” that “they control the media,” and that nobody is willing to point out this simple truth because “the media doesn’t want to commit suicide by losing the Jewish advertisers.” Still another Occupier expostulated in a widely circulated video: “The smallest group in America controls the money, media, and all other things. The fingerprints belong to the Jewish bankers who control Wall Street. I am against Jews who rob America. They are one percent who control America. President Obama is a Jewish puppet. The entire economy is Jewish. Every federal judge [on] the East Coast is Jewish.”

Occupy Wall Street’s group page on Facebook was littered with images of the title page of Henry Ford’s notorious pamphlet, The International Jew, as well as a picture featuring the phrase Arbeit Macht Frei, lifted from the entrance gate at Auschwitz, with the accompaniment: “We don’t work for bad money.”

At Occupy Los Angeles, one sign explained, in remarkable detail: the “[The] satanic cult called the Illuminati…represents Masonic and Jewish bankers who finagled a monopoly over government credit….Thus the people who control our purse strings are conspiring against us.” (It went on to claim how this nefarious force funded the first two world wars and is planning a third.) Another sign read “Humanity vs. the Rothschlds” [sic] as a speaker further advanced this classic trope: “How many people know that the wars, in WWII, both sides, were funded by the Rothschilds? Those are the bankers. So banking and war is [sic] very intertwined.”

To highlight such talk is to invite one predictable retort: One cannot hold an entire movement responsible for the excesses of outliers. But, despite the assertions of its advocates, Occupy Wall Street was not in fact a movement. Its ranks never numbered more than a modest few hundred people in Manhattan—which made its anti-Semitic cohort statistically significant. Its lack of structure, moreover, and near inability to repudiate sentiments by its participants meant that even a fringe was no less part of the whole. 

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And what of anti-Zionism? Naturally, given the resonance of the word occupy in association with controversial Israeli policies toward the West Bank and Gaza, the protests were a word-association game waiting to happen. On a random visit to Zuccotti Park in October, three signs were observed by this writer that related to American foreign policy, two of which pertained specifically to Israel. One read: “Obama stop giving bunker buster bombs to an extremist Israeli regime. Stop being Israel’s hit-man. AIPAC will still dump you in 2012.” The second: “USA and Israel are criminal psychopathic nations, an axis of evil, mass murderers, financial predators if not stopped no one has a future! Hands off Iran.” A small table exhibiting books for purchase was dominated almost exclusively by Marxist and Communist literature. Among the offerings, the one seeming anomaly was a book on Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS), an organization that seeks to isolate Israel on all fronts.

But the BDS book was no aberration; the policies and input of that organization seem to have been welcomed by Occupy Wall Street. On October 13, BDS issued a statement entitled “Occupy Wall Street, Not Palestine,” expressing solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and hailing the objectives of the two as analogous. After all, “Palestinians, too, are part of the 99% around the world that suffer at the hands of the 1% whose greed and ruthless quest for hegemony have led to unspeakable suffering and endless war.” A month later, Adalah-NY, an organization that campaigns in New York for the boycott of Israel, relayed a message of support for the protests from the Palestinian Arab chapter of BDS and led a question-and-answer session at Occupy Wall Street on the ‘‘growing movement for BDS against Israel until it complies with international law.’’

Last summer mass domestic protests overtook Israel—protests that attracted hundreds of thousands rather than the scant crew down by Wall Street. When an organizer of those protests came to speak in Zuccotti Park, a member of the Occupy Wall Street outreach working group, Andy Pollack, decried the appearance of “Zionist racists.”

An anti-Israel group, If Americans Knew, sustaining the conspiratorial notion of an America-Israel corporate nexus, distributed fliers headlined “Occupy Wall Street…not Palestine!” and noted that “while people are losing jobs, homes, and hope, politicians—dominated by powerful special interests—are sending more of our tax money to Israel than to any other country on earth.”

On October 28, Zuccotti Park hosted “Kaffiyeh Day at Occupy Wall Street”—the kaffiyeh being the Arab headdress associated most famously with Yasir Arafat—and protesters waved Palestinian flags and chanted “Free Free Palestine” and “Long live Palestine! Occupy Wall Street.”

Nor was this sort of thing confined to New York. At Occupy Oakland, anti-Zionist commentators were fixated on the allegation that the tear gas used by the police to break up their encampment was manufactured by the same American company that makes tear gas for the Israel Defense Forces. The left-wing Jewish poet Amirah Mizrahi wrote, “i was palestine in oakland,” and Max Blumenthal, an anti-Zionist blogger, insisted that, far from being a distraction from the essential economic concerns of the Occupy protests, the Arab-Israel issue had now become more difficult to avoid, as the protesters were being confronted with the very same weapons used against Palestinian Arabs.

In Chicago on October 8, Hatem Abudayyeh, executive director of the Arab American Action Network, spoke at the protest, expounding on the links between American imperialism and the Israeli presence in the disputed territories and advocating on behalf of BDS against the “criminal, pariah state” of Israel.

But it was at Occupy Boston that the anti-Zionist fervor reached its apogee. On October 18, Jewish Women for Justice in Palestine held a march and demonstration under the banner, “Occupy Boston—Not Palestine.” On November 4, protesters staged a sit-in in the lobby of the Israeli consulate, chanting: “Occupy the consulate, not Palestine, militarization is a crime,” “Hey hey, ho ho, Israeli apartheid’s got to go,” and “Viva viva Palestina.” The sit-in was listed on the
official calendar of Occupy Boston events.

November 13 was Occupy Boston’s Kaffiyeh Day. It glorified the radical hijacker Leila Khaled and called for the release of two convicted terrorists, Ahmad Saadat and Majd Ziada. This came a month after a Boston rally in defense of Tarek Mehanna, an American-born Muslim currently on trial in that city for conspiring to provide material support to al-Qaeda, plotting to kill American troops and citizens in Iraq, and lying to federal agents—charges which he has largely admitted as true.

A particularly public spat related to the Freedom Waves flotilla to Gaza, which was designed to break the Israeli naval blockade of the Strip. It was supported by a tweet from the Occupy Wall Street’s official Twitter account that read: “We support and would like to express solidarity to Freedom Waves Palestine.” That tweet was later deleted, much to the pleasure of Daniel Sieradski, a prominent Jewish participant at the protests—not because he opposed the message per se, but because he feared it would alienate moderates. When he was attacked for holding that opinion, Sieradski complained on Twitter: “Do you know what it’s like to join you in OWS only to be told [that] if I don’t renounce the state of Israel’s existence I’m not welcome?”

In Texas, the official Twitter account of Occupy Fort Worth declared: “Our support for Gaza andFreedomwaves is limitless. It emanates and echoes from the deepest purest regions of our heart. Love. Solidarity.” Occupy Fort Worth announced it had no problem “losing followers who are uncritical or unwilling to engage the issues (or who are reflexively pro-Zionist).” In case anyone was in doubt, a further tweet declared: “Zionism is racism. Israel is an apartheid state based on Jewish supremacy. FREE PALESTINE.”

Occupy Oakland’s solidarity with the flotilla was expressed in the inauguration of an “Intifada Tent.” Its theme: “Embargo Israel, not Cuba.” Occupy Boston’s sit-in at the Israeli consulate was similarly motivated by such sentiments of solidarity. The flotilla, then en route to Gaza, got the message and expressed gratitude for all this support.

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Protester Danny Cline contests a Jewish passerby who questioned the politics of Occupy Wall Street.

Setting the tone: Protester Danny Cline contests a Jewish passerby who questioned the politics of Occupy Wall Street.

So to say that anti-Semitic rhetoric and anti-Zionist activism were very much on display at the Occupy protests is merely to state the obvious. Yet protesters and their defenders vehemently denied it. The New York Observer, for instance, proclaimed that ‘‘Occupy Wall Street does not hate Jews,’’ while the Forward labeled attempts to brand the protest anti-Semitic as ‘‘pernicious.’’ Eventually, on November 12—almost two months into the protest—Occupy Wall Street itself issued a much-belated statement decrying anti-Semitism. But the statement was directed against ‘‘reported acts’’ of ‘‘torching three cars and defacing other property with anti-Semitic messages’’ in Brooklyn, not against anything that had happened in Zuccotti Park. And as for the anti-Israel hostility saturating the Occupy protests, no apologies were issued at all.

And are the two—anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism—so easily divided? To begin with, the protests were originally a response to a call issued by the virulently anti-Zionist magazine Adbusters, a publication most noted for a short 2004 article entitled, “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?” Speculating that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was carried out to serve the interests of Israel, the essay explored the close affinity of Jewish neoconservatives for the Jewish state and emphasized the Jewish identity of several prominent neoconservatives within and without the Bush administration. In so doing, was Adbusters being anti-Zionist or was it being anti-Semitic?

What about the protester at Occupy LA who said, “I think that the Zionist Jews who are running these big banks and our federal reserve, which is not run by the federal government, I think they need to be run out of this country”? Was she being anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic? Or the Kaffiyeh Day participant at Occupy Wall Street who shouted ‘‘Occupy Yahudi!’’ and ‘‘Yahudi are kafirs!’’ (‘‘Occupy Jews!’’ and ‘‘Jews are infidels!’’) and whom the group refused to silence? Was he being anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic? Or a protester at Occupy Oakland who, reacting to a speech from a Palestinian Arab youth crying “down with Israel,” turned to his fellow attendee and commented: “F—ing Jews.” How about the aforementioned protester from Georgia at Occupy Wall Street who explained that “the reason the Arabs hate us” is because of “the Jews”? Or the founder of Occupy D.C., Kevin Zeese, who has a history of lamenting the power of the “Israel lobby” in the United States?

These do not begin to exhaust the extent or foulness of the sentiments toward Jews and Israel that emanated from the Occupy protests—sentiments so extreme as to compel even Michael Lerner, editor of the left-wing magazine Tikkun, to share his ‘‘distress at the hatred toward Israel and/or toward Jews’’ on display in Oakland.

Certainly, the Occupiers were more hostile toward Jews than toward any other ethnic or religious group. And certainly they were more hostile toward Israel than toward any other foreign state and more preoccupied with Israel than with any other foreign policy issue. There were no claims of Islamophobia or Christianophobia. Why were only Israel and the Jews singled out?

No doubt, the core priorities of Occupy Wall Street were a hodgepodge including grievances against the financial system and a laundry list of demands relating to tuition and college loans and the like. But Jews and Israel were never far from those core concerns, as a worrying proportion of protesters and sympathizers made repeatedly clear. As ever, conspiracy theories attempting to link small and influential cabals with finance, corporations, arms, and imperialism came to implicate Jews and Israel. It was predictable from the start, and it was visible throughout.

Which makes the prominent Jewish involvement in these protests all the more curious and alarming. 

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Daniel Sieradski at OWS

Rabble-rouser: Daniel Sieradski explores 'post-normative Jewish cultural expression' in Zuccotti Park.

Daniel Sieradski is a new media activist, director of Jew It Yourself, and former publisher of the blog JewSchool. His work explores what he calls “post-normative Jewish cultural expression.” He was also the founder of Occupy Judaism, which describes itself as “an occupation progressive Jews can get behind.” Under the banner of Judaism, no less, this self-described ‘‘rabble-rouser in the Jewish community’’ organized Jewish events, including the Kol Nidre service, at the Occupy protests. Occupy Judaism’s logo was even adapted from the Occupy Wall Street logo of a ballerina atop the Wall Street bull, with the fiddler from Fiddler on the Roof in place of the ballerina.

Occupy Judaism enjoyed more than 1,800 “likes” on Facebook and nearly 2,000 followers on Twitter, and its Kol Nidre service attracted hundreds. No other religious group created such a significant constituency. Occupy Islam had a minuscule 14 Facebook fans and fewer Twitter followers, and it drew sparse attendance at a Muslim Friday prayer meeting. Even regarding the rally for Tarek Mehanna at Occupy Boston, religious Muslims appear to have opted not to attend, for fear of dancing and other ‘‘non-Islamic’’ activity. The various Occupy Christianity and Occupy Christians groups mustered fewer than 20 fans and followers.

The Jewish presence was unrivaled in numbers and sheer passion, and Occupy Judaism was only one of the Jewish organizations involved in the protests. Others included the Jewish Labor Committee, which promotes labor-union interests in Jewish communities; the Jewish Funds for Justice/Progressive Jewish Alliance; and the Shalom Center and its founder, Arthur Waskow, original co-founder of the Castro-ite Washington think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies. But none of these groups was as central to the success of Occupy Wall Street as Occupy Judaism.

To begin with, Sieradski’s exploitation of the High Holy Days to the protest’s advantage was inspired. Thanks in large part to its own efforts, Occupy Judaism could argue that ‘‘many of the occupiers are Jews, and organized Jewish ritual has been welcomed by Occupy Wall Street”—and use that fact to assert that allegations of anti-Semitism were ‘‘baseless.’’ Human-interest coverage in New York papers swooned with delight at the spectacle of Jewish piety at the core of the protests. No doubt as a result, the protests soon received sanction from, among others, the American Jewish Committee, which agreed that Occupy Wall Street was a ‘‘hospitable environment for Jews,’’ downplayed the anti-Semitism as “episodic,” and insisted that “there is no evidence that anti-Israel elements are playing a significant role.”

Fifteen prominent Jewish liberals also issued a statement on November 1 defending Occupy Wall Street from charges of anti-Semitism. Among them were Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J Street; Eliot Spitzer, former governor of New York; Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union; and Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. In a nice irony, Appelbaum, who had called upon the Israeli tent protesters to repudiate their country’s presence in the West Bank, would nevertheless be condemned by one Michael Letwin, a prominent pro-Palestinian Arab activist and a member of the Occupy Wall Street Labor Outreach Committee, as a “chief trade union defender of apartheid Israel.”

Sieradski’s contribution to Occupy Wall Street did not end there. He played a pivotal role in extending the very life of the protests themselves. Initially, no erected structures were permitted in the park, and the New York police had removed any attempts at shelter. Thanks to Sieradski’s appropriation of the festival of Sukkoth, which requires that Jews erect booth-like structures and reside in them for eight days, he was able to outthink the NYPD. Putting up a sukkah, he declared: “If the Jewish mayor of New York wants to send his thugs to pull a Jew out of his sukkah in a 20 percent Jewish city on a Jewish holiday, let him be my guest.” The tabernacle, he explained to the cops, was a religious object, to which a frightened policeman responded: “We’re not messing with that.” Precedent in hand, Sieradski opened the way for others in the park to erect “sukkahs,” and, after a handful of altercations and an intervention by a visiting Jesse Jackson, voilà: permanent shelter. Zuccotti Park became a tent city.

So much for the relevance of Judaism itself to these Jewish protesters. How did they feel, as Jews, about the question of Israel?

Here, opinion seemed divided. On the one hand, there were those who believed not merely that Occupy Wall Street and the Palestinian Arab struggle against Israel were two aspects of the same cause, but that they were interdependent and illustrative of the same underlying dynamic. As Ben Lorber of the International Solidarity Movement put it, “the corporate interests of the American 1% desire a strong Israel to safeguard their imperial program,” while those who can see past the “American-Israeli ideological, corporate and military power network” can discern “the common struggle shared between those fighting the occupation of Palestine, and those supporting the occupation of Wall Street.”

Certainly that was the view being propounded by radical Jewish groups active in the protests. Three such groups—Jewish Voice for Peace-NY, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and Jews Say No!—insisted thatit would be an egregious double standard to ask the Occupy movement, which has so admirably raised the call for justice and freedom around the world, to silence itself when it comes to Israel-Palestine.”

Another anti-Israel organization—Young, Jewish, and Proud—spearheaded so-called “Occupy Birthright” disruptions targeted at the organization that offers American Jews free trips to Israel to help connect them to the Jewish state. Proclaiming that “you can’t have a Jewish and democratic state,” Young, Jewish, and Proud called on young Jews to “take back” the global Jewish community from its own “one percent.” And who are the Jewish 1 percent? Answer: those Jewish institutions “that actively obstruct human rights for Palestinians, like AIPAC, the Jewish federations, Birthright, the Jewish National Fund, Hillel, and the foundations of right-wing philanthropists, like the Schusterman Foundation.” The group disrupted a Birthright reunion, damning (by name) the “billionaire capitalists” who fund the organization. Sieradski, for his part, lamented how “people are too busy sending 18-year-olds to Israel to be indoctrinated with hedge fund managers’ money” and hoped that Occupy Judaism would inspire Jews to “occupy our own Jewish institutions,” which are “dominated by their wealthiest donors.” 

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To be sure, there were also Jews who opposed bringing the Palestinian Arab-Israeli conflict into the Occupy protest discourse. But the basis of their opposition was not support or concern for the Jewish state, but rather their fear of alienating moderates from the protests themselves. In an interview with the virulently anti-Zionist blogger Adam Horowitz, Sieradski cited the more extreme tweets in support of the flotilla, the sit-in at the Israeli consulate in Boston, and the Kaffiyeh Days as instances likely to cause otherwise sympathetic Jews to feel “that they could no longer be associated with the movement.” Time and again, Sieradski cautioned about the possibly deleterious effect of media coverage of the anti-Israel hostility at the Occupy protests, which stood to be ‘‘significantly hurt by being seen as anti-Israel.” (Commentary in particular was singled out for its monitoring of such activity.)

“If you want the broader Jewish community to be involved in these protests,” he advised, “you’re not going to do it by forcing the people who show up to tacitly endorse the anti-Zionist line on Israel.”

Marc Tracy, a writer at the online Jewish magazine Tablet who had supported the protests, was also becoming alarmed at their direction and warned that “it is going to become more and more difficult to deny that there are pro-Palestinian, and if you like pro-Hamas, elements among the occupiers, at which point, for many people, the compelling economic message will be drowned out.”

On November 15, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg had had enough and ordered the police to remove the tents from Zuccotti Park. Occupy Wall Street did not reconstitute itself as another encampment—a fact that shows how critical Occupy Judaism’s contribution, the tents themselves, had been to its longevity.

Sieradski’s wrath at the removal of the squatter camp was palpable: “The mayor’s actions reflect neither Jewish, nor American, nor human values.” Which raises the question: What exactly does Sieradski mean by Jewish values? 

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Occupy Judaism is just the latest embodiment of the Judaization of left-liberalism under the moniker of “social justice,” an agenda determined by leftist political priorities dressed up in selected quotations from the Jewish tradition. This explains how Yom Kippur became, in Sieradski’s words, a “fast from your capitalist lifestyle” where actual abstention from food and drink is “inessential.” It explains how the sukkah could morph into a space serving “not only…as a metaphor for the shelter of the Israelites” but also as “a space to challenge economic injustice, racism, oppression, displacement, and exploitation that so many in our country and world face.”

It explains how Shabbat could become “a weekend of nationwide solidarity, learning, and reflection around food justice.” It explains how the Torah could become “the scroll of justice” filled with “rainbow power” and assorted nebulae. And it explains how, in a Forward op-ed published after the “exile” of Occupy Wall Street, Sieradski could liken Bloomberg to the Roman general who laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple and how he could draw upon the Book of Lamentations and the Psalms, with consummate offensiveness, to bewail how the “holy vessels and vestments” of “the weary Zealots of Zuccotti Park,” whose “benches, once bountiful, lay barren,” had been carted off along with the Divine Spirit.

Fortunately, he added, “as Jews we know: Exile is not nearly the end,” for “the blessed geulahdik [redemptive] anarchy of Occupy Wall Street shall stay forever fresh on our tongues. May we ever forget, shall those tongues cleave to our palates and our right hands wither.”

For Occupy Judaism, then, Zuccotti Park was their Jerusalem, Occupy Wall Street their Temple, and the leftism for which they stand the entirety of the Jewish values they purport to represent. No wonder, then, that synagogues and temples identified with the cause of social justice were so ready to endorse Occupy Wall Street—but gave wide berth to the Tea Party movement, which could just as easily lay claim to an agenda infused with the ideals of social justice. The blind quest for “social justice” in its left-wing understanding, despite the onslaught of leftist hatred for the Jewish people and the Jewish state, demonstrates the degree to which too many Jews overlook or excuse the indefensible in pursuit of conformity with the ancient faith of their ever-libeled people.

About the Author

Jonathan Neumann, who recently received a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, is the Tikvah Fellow at  Commentary.




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