LK: Let's switch gears a bit. Like you've said, JFREJ works most directly within local political structures and hasn't traditionally focused on broader issues like the Israeli and Palestinian conflict.
DS: Yeah. In our mission our focus is to do local work on New York City issues. But we do live in a political world. And for all Jews in the United States, especially since this Intifada started, there isn't really the capacity to be allies to communities of color and low-income communities on the left without being asked about your position on Israel and Palestine. So a few years ago, after a very long process, JFREJ's membership decided to make a statement on Israel and Palestine, but decided that we weren't going to work on it explicitly. That made it possible for us to do things like endorse anti-war rallies where there was a statement about Israel and Palestine. We could measure it in relation to the position that we had.
LK: This past August, during the Republican National Convention you [JFREJ] helped to organize a progressive Jewish breakfast that focused on the Bush administration's stance on Israel and American Jew's response to Bush for those views. The breakfast then led to a Jewish contingent marching in the larger anti-RNC rally organized by United for Peace and Justice later that morning. Can you talk about the purpose of the breakfast, what response you got, and why JFREJ decided to play such a leadership role in planning it even though it was outside the realm of your usual campaign focus?
DS: Well when there was the huge anti-war rally in 2002 we organized a similar breakfast. What we heard from a lot of Jews was that they really wanted to go to the anti-war rally, but they also had concerns about what type of anti-Jewish messages they might see in the street or about how Israel and Palestine is dealt with. There was a real desire among Jews-even progressive and radical Jews to be with other Jews when going somewhere like that. So the idea with the breakfast was to bring Jews together to have time to socialize and build relationships, but also to be a political base and go out on the streets together and be a part of a community that has a similar politic but also stands really strongly against anti-Jewish oppression that might come out at an anti-war rally.
[The breakfast] was meant to have a really explicit Jewish voice against the values of the Republican National Convention and the Republican government, but also to use it as an opportunity not just to be against things but to be for building community and for the issues that we're working on.
LK: Did you feel any tension being part of the UPJ rally in terms of their official views concerning Israel and Palestine?
DS: We've been a member of United for Peace and Justice and it's definitely been contentious at times as they try and navigate the world as well. But I think pretty consistently the membership feels that their goals and what they're working on are close enough, and that there's space for people to have different views about Israel and Palestine and still go and be a part of it.
LK: The Bush administration obviously came up a lot during the JFREJ breakfast. The administration tends to portray itself and is often portrayed in the mainstream media as being overwhelmingly supportive of Israel, both monetarily and as a political ally. $3-4 billion dollars of American money goes to Israel annually as direct aid. So taking those surface indicators of support into consideration, could you explain why the current administration actually poses a specific threat to both Israel and American Jews?
DS: What I mean is non-Ashkenazi Jews-those not coming from Eastern Europe or Russia. So, Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal and Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. So that's the majority of who lives in Israel and they get shafted in the same way that people of color get shafted in the United States-in terms of housing and social services. The biggest issue that I heard when I talked to Israeli left groups is, "Yeah we're going to continue to work on the occupation and build relationships with Palestinian counterpart groups, but we have to address diversity issues." And I would say, "Well, what do you mean by diversity?" And they said, "Mizrahi Jews." So what I really saw there was a grappling with the power structure and the inequity of having a country right there where people didn't have rights in Palestine, but there's also within their own country such division on race and class. So to me when I think about the Bush administration and the threat that it poses to Israel and Palestine and to the United States and Jews here, it's really about who gets affected the most by the policies that exist. When you think about things like healthcare, access to housing, access to education…all of those policies that the Bush administration has changed have mostly directly affected low income people, people of color, immigrants, and that includes Jews who are in all of those groups. I think the same thing in terms of the U.S. policy in Israel is that it perpetuates inequity, not only between Israel and Palestine but also between low income and Jews of Color there. And that so much of the money in Israel goes to the military reflects the U.S. government, where our military budget is so over-bloated that issues that affect people every day-there's not enough money for those things. To me when I think about what we need as Jews to live in a better world, it's also about what do we need in the communities that we live in that aren't just Jewish...
Empowering Jewish Progressives
Deconstructing Zell Miller (and Reconstructing Kerry)
A Demonstration in Words
Where Left and Right Collide
Art at War
Jews and Bush
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Belly of the Beast
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From previous issues:
9/11: Tony's Story
The Hamas Class of 1992