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Stateside with Rosalea: Yo, Semite!

Stateside with Rosalea

Yo, Semite!

This is an account of a conference on Anti-Semitism and the Left that was held in Oakland, California, from 21-23 August, 2004. (And you thought it was about my visit to Sammy Davis Jr National Park!)

The conference caught my attention via a lamppost flyer that had an asterisked note down the bottom: "We are using 'anti-Semitism' to mean the historical and ongoing attacks against and prejudice towards Jews. As Progressives, we acknowledge with concern other Semitic peoples, such as Arabs, who are also targeted by attacks and bigotry."

The word "anti-Semite" has always seemed weird to me because it's used as if the only Semitic peoples are Jews. The term, which was coined in the late nineteenth century, refers, however, to all the descendants of Shem, son of Noah -- including Arabs. (Interestingly perhaps, the Oxford English dictionary mentions this ancestral link as the primary definition of the word, and the linguistic link second, whereas the US Merriam Webster dictionary's primary definition is about the Semitic languages.)

In the lead-up to the November election, it is important to understand the relationship between US citizens' attitudes towards Jews, towards Israel, and towards the Palestinians, and what this means to the "progressive left" and, by virtue of its always clumsy grab for the progressive vote, the Democratic Party. This is a lengthy Stateside.

***Background***

Before I get to my report about the public sessions of the conference, I'm going to take the next few paragraphs to lay out the baggage I brought to it and some of the context in which it is taking place. For instance, over the years I have had a number of friends, acquaintances, workmates, and bosses who are Jewish. In New Zealand, they were very low-key about their religious affiliation and, as far as I know, not particularly observant. Because most of the, for example, Catholics I know in New Zealand are not particularly observant either, I'vealways assumed that Kiwi society is pretty much a secular and tolerant society.

In the US, Jewishness is a much more obvious form of self-identification, and the people I know here who are of that faith are far more observant and thus more likely to schedule their vacations to coincide with the High Holy Days, and not go out on Friday evenings, which is when Shabbat is celebrated. For my first four and a half years here, I lived near a synagogue and would often see families on their way there on a Saturday, just as I would often see families on their way to the nearby Catholic church on a Sunday. Religion of all kinds is simply much more a part of people's lives here in the US.

A while back, I came to a shocking revelation about myself. One Saturday, I was waiting for the lights to change so I could walk across the street near where I lived. It was just after Israel had gone into Jenin. The lights changed and I was about to step out onto the street when I became rooted to the spot. Despite the fact that my head was telling me that the young Jewish family that had walked up to the lights just as they changed was probably as horrified by the events in Jenin as I was, I physically could not step out onto the street at the same time as they did, because I didn't want to be in their company.

I'd had a similar visceral reaction at a farewell I'd been to a few months before for a work colleague who was going to Israel to study Hebrew for a year. A vibrant young black woman with an MBA, she had been sponsored in this enterprise by a local middle-aged Jewish woman who came to the farewell and said that she wished *she* was going to Israel. It took all the self-discipline I could muster for me not to say, "I wish you were too, instead of sending someone else there to maybe be killed in a suicide bombing."

Israel is very much in your face here in the Bay Area, in part because there's a largish Jewish population and in part because there's a lot of opposition here to Israel's occupation of Palestine. (And a goodly part of that opposition is from Jews.) The pro-Israel PR machine is also very active here. After 9/11, posters went up in BART stations saying America is Israel, with a cutesy little girl on them. Recently, a billboard appeared near where I lived, pointing out that large populations of Jews are of African origin. A bus shelter in San Francisco has a poster in it asking where in the world do poor people get the same health insurance coverage as CEOs. The answer is Israel.

Yet, on cable TV there is paid programming from an evangelical Christian group asking for donations to help poor people in Israel with their medical expenses. Without exception those families featured in the infomercial are the new underclass in Israel, the Russian Jews who took advantage of the dissolution of the USSR to claim their right to live in Israel, and are seemingly despised by a lot of long-time Israelis. Conversely, worldwide it's the Ashkenazi Jews - those of East European, Yiddish-speaking origin - who are discriminatory towards Jews from other backgrounds.

No one's perfect. So what's news? The best we humans can do is make our differences palatable to one another. The non-public sections of this conference sought to deal with those differences in facilitated group sessions, which were closed to the media so that people could be outspoken and honest. I attended only the two public sessions.

***The Saturday panel session: Why we care about anti-Jewish oppression***

The panel session began with a short address by Jessica Pitt, who is local Congresswoman Barbara Lee's senior policy analyst. Barbara Lee was the only person in Congress to oppose the rush to war as a reaction to the 9/11 hijackings, and she is an African American. Her message was that she "applauds what you are doing here today," referring to the building of bridges between communities.

The first panelist to speak was Yeshi Sherover Neumann, who identified herself as Jewish, a midwife (who had brought many of the audience members into the world), and a member of the local Women in Black, a group that was started in Israel in 1988 by women protesting against Israel’s Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Yeshi is also the sister of the person to whom this conference was dedicated, Ricky Sherover-Marcuse. Ricky was the wife of the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who was one of the mentors of one of the sixties' most famous black radicals, Angela Davis. (Heavy duty connections, huh!)

Yeshi wanted to remember her sister by saying that Ricky thought "we should learn to cooperate with each other to meet our goals of liberation." She also spoke of how her sister, on her deathbed, begged her to keep the lie going about their relative ages. Ricky had always maintained to the outside world that she was the younger sister, but in reality she was the older. Yeshi likened this internalised lie to the internalised oppression that Jews carry within them, which sometimes leads them to denying the reality of their lives for fear that "there is no space at the table for them."

The next panelist, and the only one not to speak from notes, was Victor Lewis, an African American minister of community life at the First Congregational Church in Oakland. The First Congo, as it is affectionately known to its diverse congregations, has been for a long time at the forefront of local efforts to combat racism. Lewis is also a senior trainer with the Oakland Men's Project, one of the nation's premier violence prevention and diversity training institutes.

He identified himself as a "black underclass race intellectual" and said he was thankful to have found among the Jewish folks he met early in his life, working class people who shared his love of books. The main focus of what he said was on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Lewis declared that "if it's true those constituencies are incompatible with each other, then there is no hope for the human race." We must solve the problem, he said, "to the satisfaction of all the stakeholders, as it's a sort of prism or hologram of the whole nut we've got to crack. Because I believe the stakes are high," he added, "I'm willing to do anything."

Cherie Brown, who also gave a keynote address the next evening, was the next panelist to speak. She noted that many neighborhoods become African American after being Jewish, and talked about growing up as a Jew in Cleveland, Ohio, and moving to Los Angeles with her family when she was a teenager in 1965. There she joined the black-white dialogue groups that were part of the civil rights movement, and that led her to creating workshops on how to deal with anti-Jewish attitudes, something she has been doing for 35 years.

"Without having our own analysis," Brown said, "we leave it to others to define us." She believes that "anti-Jewish oppression has over and over scuttled work against racism", but acknowledges that there are some Jewish attitudes that she is "anti" herself. A case in point is the book "The Real Anti-Semitism in America," in which the author welcomes the Christian Right's support of Israel because it will lead to the second coming -- even though the distinguishing feature of Jewish, as opposed to Christian and Islamic, thought is that there never was a first coming.

In contrast to the relatively comfortable lives we had just heard about from the other two Jewish women, Gina Waldman's experience of life as a Jew in Libya -- from which she fled in 1967, she says, "because I would have been burned alive if I hadn't" -- was a complete contrast. Her family had been in Libya for over 2,000 years. She came to the conference "because I believe that hate is a weapon of mass destruction." She also believes that "love is a lot stronger than hate." Furthermore, "Human rights, in my vocabulary, do not have borders and do not have religions." Her humanitarian work has included helping Bosnian Muslims and needy Cubans.

Waldman has spent 33 years "searching out women's voices and voices of dissent," and has formed an organisation called JIMENA, Jews in the Middle East and North Africa. Those Jews are, she said, "the forgotten refugees."

From an earlier population of more than 900,000 in those areas, only 7,000 Jews now remain, and jews no longer live in Libya, Lebanon, Yemen or Oman. "Our story is the link that is missing in the conflict" in the Middle East, she said. "The rights of the Palestinians must be addressed; the rights of the Jewish refugees from the Middle East must also be addressed." Moreover, "The Jews of the Holocaust have told their story; we must tell ours. We are the last generation of eye witnesses."

Kenji Liu, the next panelist, described himself as being of "Taiwanese/Japanese ancestry from New Jersey", and an activist in the Asian American community. He was the youngest speaker and brought a different perspective on anti-Semitism to the table, saying that "race is full of contradictions." He talked about how his Jewish partner's mother can't understand being classified as "white", because, before WWII, Jews were not considered to be white. And his partner struggles with being "white" as an anonymous institutional classification, but "not quite white" when she participates in progressive groups.

He challenged the notion that Americans are "free", saying that "hyperindividuation" is not the same thing as freedom. He equated anti-Jewish sentiment with anti-intellectualism and said that was not a good thing, because you need to analyse how far systemic oppression has been internalised in order to understand how much "invisible privilege" is in play. "White Christian supremacy was first tried out on Jews," Liu said.

The final speaker was the conference's organiser, Judy Andreas, who self-identified as a "Christian ally" of Jews. She had been prompted to organise the conference, she said, because of concerns that the board hearing her doctoral dissertation at the progressively inclined Western Institute for Social Study would try to change the direction of her research because of the dissertation's subject matter: Anti-Semitism on the Left.

When she brought up the idea that Christians bear some responsibility for anti-Semitism, she said, some board members told her that "it was Israel's fault." They also said that the press would misrepresent her if she organised this conference, but she went ahead and did it anyway. Andreas found it gratifying to see how many people had come to it, and the kind of dialogue that had been going on in the group sessions. "Let's stay connected in spite of our differences. Let's stay open. Let's change the world," she concluded, receiving a standing ovation.

I believe that I and a reporter from J, a local Jewish newsletter, were the only media present at this panel discussion and at the keynote address next day. I'd guestimate there were about 200 conference attendees.

***The Sunday keynote address: The personal and political dynamics of anti-Semitism: When is something anti-Semitic; when is it not?***

According to the conference blurb, "Cherie Brown is the Executive Director of the National Coalition Building Institute, a non-profit agency that does prejudice reduction work on racism, anti-Semitism and gay oppression among others. She is a member of the Board of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom [The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace]. She has presented workshops on Jewish issues and anti-Jewish oppression for Jews and Allies in countries around the world for 35 years."

Brown started off her address by posing a couple of questions. "Is criticism of Israel an act of anti-Semitism? What is a useful Progressive analysis of anti-Semitism?" In trying to answer those questions, she said, you have to acknowledge the lamentable lack of "grades of mistreatment in anti-Semitism; you're either talking about dragging people off to concentration camps" or there's no perceived problem. "If a holocaust is not happening, then anti-Semitism is not happening." And mention of the holocaust just stops people in their tracks.

She regrets that there is no independent gentile movement working on identifying and uprooting their own biases by asking, "How might *I* have been anti-Semitic in what I just did or said?", whereas movements of that sort do exist, for example, in the fields of anti-racism and feminism. Brown spoke of a friend who lost her job after saying in a supposedly confidential work support group that she felt she'd been the victim of anti-Semitism.

Her next book, Brown quipped, will be entitled: I'm Not Anti-Semitic; I Just Don't Like You. She was referring to the fear that people have of being accused of being anti-Semitic, instead expressing their attitude -- often quite unconsciously -- as dislike of "that pushy, controlling, over-anxious person" rather than as dislike of "that Jew". Brown contends that if Jews are pushy, controlling, and over-anxious, it's because of the deep isolation that they have internalised over generations of having to look out for, and after, themselves as outsiders.

On the other hand, Jews' roles as insiders, or middle agents -- for example, the "Court Jews" and those who carried out the taxation collection business for various rulers -- led to their being scapegoated when people rose up against those rulers. Today, Brown says, Jews are seen as powerful because of their occupations, especially those who teach, and are resented for that. The implication I gleaned from her remarks is that, since this puts them directly in the path of the attempts at betterment for African Americans, anti-Semitism can easily be used "as a convenient tool to divide the Left."

"To see Jews primarily as oppressors is not beneficial; nor is setting them up as the oppressed." The United States' much-publicised abandonment of the UN's World Conference Against Racism that was held in Durban, 31 August to 7 September 2001, saying that the Israeli question had subverted everything else, played into anti-Semitic sentiments. Really the US abandoned the conference, Brown suggests, because it didn't want to be there in the first place and it didn't want to have to deal with growing international support for the idea of reparations to African Americans for the wealth that their slave ancestors produced but received no part of after the Civil War.

She further believes that the United States' unqualified defence of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory only increases anti-Semitism. "We have to find a way to say that it is okay to stand up for both peoples." Instead of university students urging campuses to divest of any and all investments those institutions have in Israel (the same way they urged divestment from South Africa as a means of bringing an end to apartheid), they should be urging divestment from all companies that make weapons, Brown suggested.

"Silence never stopped anti-Semitism. Dialogue, arguing and debate are a Jewish tradition and the Left is home to many of us," she concluded.

***Coda***

Members of the press were asked to identify themselves both days, by raising their hands. This led to a Lithuanian woman coming up to me on the Sunday, asking if I would please draw the world's attention to how the Russian mafia is committing terrorist acts and blaming them on Chechen rebels.

***Resources***

A good place to get an understanding of what is meant in the US by "progressive" and "conservative" is the Rockridge Institute http://www.rockridgeinstitute.org/

The website for the conference is at http://facingachallenge.com

If you are interested in one attendee's report of what happened at some of the group sessions, this thread may be of interest: http://www.indybay.org/news/2004/08/1692778.php

For an open letter to the conference organiser from someone who didn't attend it, giving the reasons why, try here: http://www.indybay.org/news/2004/08/1692542_comment.php#1692589

A report from the local Jewish press is here: http://www.jewishsf.com/content/2-0-/module/displaystory/story_id/23360/fo rmat/html/displaystory.html

To learn more about Ricky Sherover-Marcuse, to whom the conference was dedicated, go to http://www.unlearningracism.org/

Information about Cherie Brown's work can be found at http://www.ncbi.org, and about Brit Tzedek v'Shalom (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace) at http://www.btvshalom.org/

ENDS

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