What the Jewish Left Learned From Occupy

"Folks who were looking to build a new kind of Jewish institution—with wildly different politics and ways of working from what they’d experienced in most other institutions—brought that energy to JFREJ, as did the people who wanted to see JFREJ effect material change through existing institutions. There was room at Occupy for both, those different parts of the ecosystem also met in a reinvigorated JFREJ membership." - Dove Kent, JFREJ Executive Director (2011-2016)

ON SEPTEMBER 17TH, 2011, protesters converged in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in response to a call to “occupy Wall Street.” Over the next two months, what began as an encampment of several hundred demonstrators grew into a makeshift city—with a field hospital, childcare center, and people’s library—and inspired anti-capitalist actions in more than 900 locations around the world. When police evicted the occupiers that November, organizers cautioned the press, and each other, not to conclude prematurely that the movement had failed. A decade later, lessons from Occupy continue to inform struggles from Black Lives Matter to the fight for universal health care.

Kol Nidre, the evening service that marks the beginning of Yom Kippur, fell on October 7th in 2011, a few weeks into Occupy Wall Street’s short history. As the holiday approached, a group of Jewish participants in the nascent movement, led by organizer Daniel Sieradski, began planning a service to be held in a plaza across the street from Zuccotti Park. The event that came to be known as Occupy Yom Kippur drew hundreds of people and attracted considerable press attention, registering a new current in American Jewish life. Like the Freedom Seder—an interfaith, multiracial Passover meal held in Washington, DC, in 1969 on the first anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, which served as an inspiration for Sieradski—Occupy Yom Kippur repurposed Jewish ritual for public, explicitly political ends. In his sermon, Rabbi Getzel Davis used the image of the Golden Calf to reject “the fallacy that gold is God.” Many participants look back on the service as a pivotal moment in their political education. “That Kol Nidre changed the course of my life,” said attendee Hannah King, who was 18 in 2011. It was “the first time I saw the possibility of being culturally and religiously engaged with politics.”

Occupy Yom Kippur was the most visible of a loose series of ritual protests that came together under the name “Occupy Judaism,” and which turned out to presage a much larger wave of left Jewish movement-building. Though most Jewish organizers at Occupy were not involved in Occupy Judaism, or in Jewish organizing more generally, many of the founders of organizations like IfNotNow first came together in Zuccotti Park; the movement’s energy also revitalized already-existing groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). This outcome would have been hard to predict at the time, since the movement advanced the notion of a unified 99% that elided race, nationality, and colonial legacies. If Jewish organizing occurred only on Occupy’s fringes, opposition to Israel’s occupation of Palestine was pushed outside the movement’s frame altogether. But Occupy’s limitations also impelled a generation of organizers to try to rectify its omissions, galvanizing anti-racist organizing in the US and a new wave of Palestine solidarity activism.

Through interviews with more than 30 people who spent time in the encampment or attended the Kol Nidre service, Jewish Currents staff compiled an oral history of Jewish organizing at Occupy—both in the context of Occupy Judaism, and in the broader movement, where Jewish organizers played a key role. We also spoke with people who engaged in faith-based activism in Zuccotti Park, who sought to introduce anti-imperialist or decolonial thinking into the movement, or who were centrally involved in broader strategic debates. Many interviewees drew connections between their experiences ten years ago and their current work as organizers, illuminating the ways that today’s social movements bear the lasting imprint of Occupy.

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