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Opinion
Last Updated: 11/07/2011
Occupy Jewish
Mark Ellis

Professor Mark Ellis discusses the potential of the occupy movement to explicitly raise issues of culture and identity -- in effect, to occupy the religious establishment as well as the financial and political.


Occupy Jewish

Marc H. Ellis

Word on the street is that my eldest son, Aaron, is camping out in Occupy Tallahassee, the capital of the state of Florida.

When I went to college there in the early 1970s, Tallahassee advertised itself as the only Confederate capital that didn't fall to the Union soldiers in America's Civil War.

I doubt Tallahassee trumpets that fact on its "Come Visit Tallahassee" website.

A few weeks ago, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was dedicated on the National Mall in Washington, D. C. In the early 1950s, Tallahassee had one first bus boycotts in the South. This was before the Montgomery bus boycott that placed the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King on the national scene.

I doubt Tallahassee's website boasts of this either.

Promoting tourism is more important than history.

Since Aaron joined Occupy Tallahassee, I have wondered why the now global Occupy campaign has largely been silent about religion and identity.

Obviously, the pressing issues of the day are economic and political. Yet if we look at religion in its social, economic and political aspects, this important part of the human journey must be addressed as well.

For many activists, religion is a significant part of a person's communal identity. It connects us to each other and the ultimate. Religion can also be a false grounding. Religion can divides us.

Religious adherents are often at war with those of other religions. But the same is true of co-religionists. Co-religionists are often at war with one another. They struggle to name the essence of each religion. What does it truly mean to be Christian or Muslim?

Aaron's is an American, white, male of relative privilege. He is also Jewish.

As a Jew, Aaron brings something different to Occupy Tallahassee. No doubt his fellow occupiers have ethnic, national and religious backgrounds which also bring a special flavor to Aaron and to other Jews.

Most participants of Occupy Tallahassee are of American and Christian background. But just as likely today, there are those with Muslim background as well.

Perhaps there are Palestinians in Occupy Tallahassee. I hope so. Coming from Occupied Palestine, they bring urgency to the questions of justice and freedom.

Most likely Aaron and his Palestinian comrades see eye to eye on many issues facing our unjust world. Including on Israel/Palestine.

You see Aaron is part of a minority movement within Jewish life - what I call Jews of Conscience.

Jews of Conscience believe that Jewish life has gone terribly wrong. This is most obvious in the way that Israel treats Palestinians and how the Jewish establishment in America enables that abuse. But more broadly, Jews of Conscience protest how the Jewish community at large has joined the empires of the world. In America and Israel, Jews are now indistinguishable from empire.

Empire Jews are quite new in Jewish history. For the first time in more than two thousand years "Jewish" is defined almost exclusively within the confines of empire. Or rather, Jews, traditionally defined as the prey of empire, are now part of the empire that hunts others.

Instead of being powerless, Jews are often powerful. Put simply, "Jewish" has taken on an imperial and colonial flavor.

To rid ourselves of this imperial and colonial flavor, Jews need an Occupy Jewish movement.

Without conscious intent, this already is taking place in various Occupy sites around the world wherever Jews like Aaron are present. In the libraries that are sprouting up in various Occupy sites, the most checked out books are by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, both Jewish dissident intellectuals.

Bonding with others of diverse backgrounds for justice is a distinctive of the Jewish prophetic tradition. The Jewish prophetic tradition features voices raised and bodies present. The prophetic tradition is about a history that is on the line.

But I doubt many Jews think that another struggle is being waged at Occupy sites around the world – the struggle for the heart and soul of Jewishness.

The struggle to is to keep the Jewish prophetic alive. Against all odds.

Why bring up diversity when unity is important? If we think of the social, economic and political movements in the West over the last two hundred years, there are few instances when Jews have been absent. Jews are catalysts for justice movements - as leaders on the ground and as narrators drawing the larger picture.

Think Karl Marx, the great exemplar of social justice. Marx came from a long line of Jewish rabbis. In his lifetime, Marx's uncle was the Chief Rabbi of Trier, the city where he lived.

Think Hannah Arendt. Arendt fled the Nazis to France and then the United States. Arendt was one of the first to address totalitarianism as an essential feature of modern life.

Besides, justice movements feel the negative pressures of the Jewish establishment when global issues, say Israel/Palestine, the Arab Spring, Iraq or Iran, come to the fore. Having Jews of Conscience say "no" to Jewish establishment power is strategically important.

Occupy Jewish. Isn't it time for Jews to reclaim the right to narrate "Jewish" in our own way?

Our fellow Occupy companions can help in this endeavor by listening to the wounded heartbeat of the prophetic. And by standing strong for justice with their Jewish companions as Jews stand with others in their communal struggles.

After all, it isn't only Jews that have to battle establishments in order to narrate their own prophetic story.

Think "Occupy Islam" and "Occupy Christian." Think "Occupy Secular" and "Occupy Modern.” All identities need a more critical trajectory if we are to survive and create the beloved community that Dr. King spoke about and lived.

Yes - Occupy Jewish. Speak it out loud to other Jews. And to non-Jews.

Yes - Occupy Jewish. Name it. Then take it on the road. Let everyone hear what "Jewish" could mean once again.

Know this however. Whatever the sins of Wall Street or the debt crisis in Europe, Occupy Jewish first and foremost demands that Israel ceases occupying Palestine.

Only then can Occupy Jewish take flight.

Could Occupy Jewish be a catalyst to take the Occupy movement to a new level?



Marc H. Ellis is University Professor and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation and Judaism Does Not Equal Israel. His latest book, Encountering the Jewish Future, will be published in the coming months.


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