Jews for Racial and Economic Justice

There is no organization, none (except perhaps the Ku Klux Klan) that exceeds the New York-based  Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) in its radical hatred of Israel.  But this hatred is veiled.  It is obviously known to JFREJ’s own cadre and to people who make the effort to dig behind the facade, but it is not apparent to the casual sympathizer whom the group seeks to entice to its orbit.

This hatred of Israel, in my view, is the core of JFREJ.  But before we get to this core, let us look at some of the outward appearances.

Much of the activity of JFREJ is reminiscent of the “cultural work” of the American Communist Party in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  (On which see Great Day Coming.  Folk Music and the American Left,1971,  by the late R. Serge Denisoff,)  Where the CP looked back on an American “folk music” tradition, which the CP misrepresented where it did not simply invent, JFREJ affects an interest in Yiddish culture and the Yiddish socialist movement, both of which, I believe,  are severely misrepresented by it.  Here is a small example:  JFREJ’s Yiddish phrases are invariably spoken or sung in the phonemes of American English.  And of course there is no contact whatever with the only living communities that speak Yiddish natively, viz. the Hasidim.

And perhaps worst of all,  JFREJ’s  misrepresentations of the Jewish Socialist Bund, a largely pre-WWI formation in Czarist Russia, would make the Bundist activists and leaders turn in their graves.  (For what I take to be the best history of the Bund, see Jonathan Frankel’s Prophecy and Politics, Socialism, Nationalism, &and the Russsian Jews, 1862-1917.) JFREJ seems to believe, or in any case seeks to make us believe, that there is some sort of kinship between them and the truly heroic figures of the Bund.  Yes, the theorists of the Bund polemicized against Zionism, advocating, instead, an autonomous Jewish culture in the pre-WWI pale of Jewish settlement.  That Yiddish-speaking community is gone, so how these old polemics could have relevance today is a mystery to me.  And no, none of the Bundists ever, ever, made common cause with those out to destroy the Jews.  And just wondering, dear JFREJ folks, have you as much as heard of the Bund leader Victor Alter, of Henryk Ehrlich ?  These were our people, not yours.  (For the Bundist position on Zionism, see Jack Jacobs, “Bundist Anti-Zionism in Interwar Poland”, Tel Aviver Jahrbuch fuer deutsche Geschichte, 33, 2005, pp. 239-259.)

Those active in the current very small movement of secular Yiddishism — with which I have a great deal of sympathy — overlap  to some extent with those active in anti-Israel agitation.  This has been going on for some decades, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.  There are no logical grounds for this overlap, as far as I can see.   In much the same way, more than a few people active as Jewish Lesbians are also active in the anti-Israel movement.  Again, I can see no logical reason for this overlap.  Here is an interview with a JFREJ member on the subject:

(QuestionI came to the Meyer Awards on the last night of Hanukkah and I noticed that there were a lot of queer Jews. JFREJ isn’t explicitly [gay] but it seems pretty queer.  It seems to me that being a LGBTQ individual and JFREJ sort of go hand in hand.

(Answer) JFREJ is not exclusively queer but we work within an explicit anti-oppression framework.  Because of that JFREJ is safe place for LGBTQ people as well a place to to celebrate the LGTBQ community.  We’re not explicitly queer but, yeah it can be pretty gay.

But these curious overlaps aside,  JFREJ appears to be unexceptional at first blush or even at second.  Who wouldn’t endorse justice, racial, economic, or any other kind ?  And even a casual look at the group’s website shows nothing very alarming.  They wish better pay for domestic workers in New York.  Who can argue with that ?  They don’t like the NYPD’s stop and frisk policy.  Well, some of my best friends feel the same way.

Things get slightly more dicey when, way up there on their very short list of priorities, JFREJ thunders against “Islamophobia.”  Of course any kind of phobia — “an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion”  — is to be avoided whenever possible.  But is Islamophobia the only kind we need to worry about ?  Not Judeophobia, for example ?  No, not Judeophobia, not according to JFREJ. (US Government statistics show that, proportinately,  Jews are victimized by hate crimes  more than three times as often as Muslims.  See my analysis here.)

Furthermore, when the NYPD engages in  surveillance of suspected Muslim terrorists, that practice, according to JFREJ, constitutes Islamophobia and must be stopped, stat.  Well, perhaps JFREJ has a point and perhaps it hasn’t.  I am inclined to trust the professional judgement of the NYPD but I can see that errors in judgement are always possible. But  who can forget the case of Brooklyn’s own terrorist, the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman ?  Here is the indictment of this gentleman, and here is the judgement.  Is the NYPD being phobic, as JFREJ alleges,  when it keeps an eye on certain mosques, or is it a matter of being safe rather than sorry ?

Well, let’s move on.

A reader’s first strong indication of JFREJ’s inner core comes in its recent declaration in support of the official sponsorship by Brooklyn College of the BDS movement.  No, “JFREJ has not taken an organizational position regarding BDS because it falls outside our focus area,” it says. On the other hand, JFREJ holds, BDS must be given freedom of speech at Brooklyn College.   Freedom of speech ?  Somehow JFREJ forgets that nobody ever tried to prevent BDS from holding its meeting at the College.   The controversy arose because Jewish students objected to official College endorsement of the event, of using public resources to promote the BDS hate speech.  (I have here written about the incident.)  So it would seem that more than freedom of speech here is what JFREJ is after.

Now consider this statement:  “JFREJ has not taken an organizational position regarding BDS because it falls outside our focus area.”  Brilliant, isn’t it.  On the one hand, no, we have not endorsed BDS, so all you right-wingers are liars if you say we have.  On the other hand, wink wink, you know where we stand, don’t you.  I suppose this is what lawyers call the need for deniability.

Moving right along …

Marjorie Dove Kent is the current Executive Director of JFREJ.  She has concluded what she calls a study of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, entitled  What Happened Before That. The booklet mentions Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, a number of times.  But there is no mention at all of Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, onetime Mufti of Jerusalem and arguably the founder of the modern Palestinian nationalist movement.  Al-Husayni  of course gets airbrushed out of this kind of literature, for obvious reasons. Nor is there mention, at all, of the 1929 Hebron massacre, in which 67 Jews were killed, and which left an indelible memory in the Jewish people.

Of the many howlers in her opus, this one, in particular, caught my attention:

Something that gets left out of this history all the time: During the “conquest of labor” stage, Jews were imported from Yemen by Zionists in Palestine to perform unskilled labor in the place of Palestinian Arabs. 

Though they were Jewish, they were not included in the Kibbutz settlements. These were exclusively Eastern-European institutions. Remember – Zionism developed during the same time as modern racism and embodied racist ideology in many forms. The deliberate exclusion of Mizrahi Jews from the economic opportunities arising for other Jews created inequalities that still play out in Israeli life today.

True, there are not many Yemenite Jews on kibbutzim.  But the one kibbutz where I once spent six months had Yemenite members.  If Ms. Kent had ever talked to a single Yemenite Jew she would have been quickly disabused of her notions of the Yemenite aliyah.  It would be tedious for me to talk about what is obvious to anyone who knows anything about the matter.  As for Misrachi and Sephardic Jews, here is a partial listing of the many political, military, academic, and business leaders of Israel who have come from this background.

And here is Ms. Kent’s conclusion to her study:

The occupation of Palestine is inherently linked to the violence between India and Pakistan, the genocide of Native Americans, and the poverty of Sub-Saharan Africa. All are manifestations of the same systems of oppression. When we fail to attack the systems, we unfailingly attack each other. This is not the way towards liberation. Let us instead mourn the violence we have perpetrated against each other, and seek new systems for real collective liberation 

No doubt scholars will disagree about the degree of perspicacity in these lines, but they do bring us further in our search for the core of JFREJ.

This core is actually found in whom JFREJ has chosen to honor over the years.  These include Tony Kushner, Debbie Almontaser, Adam Shapiro, and Henry Schwarzschild, among others.  Adam Shapiro, honored by JFREJ with a special award in 2003, is among the few anti-Israel activists who does not shy away from actually urging, rather than just winking at,  Arab violence against Israel.  But the tone-setting annual JFREJ award was the first one, in 1995, to Henry Schwarzschild, who died a year later.

Some years before this award, Scharzschild had resigned from the board of a Jewish publication Sh’ma, with the following explanation:

I now renounce the State of Israel, disavow any political connection or emotional obligation to it, and declare myself its enemy.  I retain, of course, the same deep concern for its inhabitants, Jewish, Arab, and other, that I hold for all humankind. …

 If those be the places where the State of Israel chooses to stand, I cannot stand with it.  I therefore resign all connections with Jewish political and public institutions that will not radically oppose the State and its claim to Jewish legitimacy.  Sh’ma is one of those.

Scharzschild resigned from Sh’ma but was happy to stand with JFREJ.  In this, he defines the core meaning of this group.

 

UPDATE, Nov. 2014:

Here is a video of Marjorie Dove Kent, Executive Director of JFREJ, as she is hosting an anti-Israel meeting in New York in November of 2014.  JFREJ here is in “partnership” with Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the most virulent anti-Israel groups in the US.  (See the ADL description of JVP here.)  The video is long and boring but should prove enlightening  to those who still think that JFREJ is in some sense benign.  Anyone who supports Israel, so JFREJ here, is ipso facto an “Islamophobe.” Spoiler warning:  Mayor de Blasio is revealed as  a Zionist stooge.

UPDATE, Jan. 12, 1015

Ms. M. D. Kent, now as before Executive Director of JFREJ, co-signs a hate-Israel statement, together with members of Jews Say No and Jewish Voice for Peace.

UPDATE, Feb. 18, 2015

Please read my additional posting, The Two Sides of JFREJ, written in response to the organization’s infiltration of mainline synagogues.

Women at the Kotel

Every month a group of women go to the Kotel in Jerusalem to pray while wearing talitot (prayer shawls) in an area designated as all male. They are there to challenge the authorities’ compromise decision to restrict women to one area only.  This month this demonstration made headlines the world over because one of the women was a sister of a celebrity:  Rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of the comedian Sarah Silverman.  The women were promptly arrested in front of media photographers.  No charges were laid, but the women were told not to go to the Kotel again for two weeks.  Here is the Jerusalem Post’s coverage.

I belong to a Conservative synagogue in Brooklyn which lost no time to declare,  in a statement sent to all members, how proud it is of the arrested women, not least because one of those arrested is a former rabbi of the very synagogue in question.  

My response was, I believe, muted.  Here it is:

Women at the Kotel —
Compromise or Civil Disobedience ?
I must respectfully dissent from the sentiments expressed in [Synagogue] Connections (Feb. 14) concerning the Women of the Wall.
I agree that women should be able to pray at the Kotel on an equal footing with men.  The question is how to achieve this objective.
Basically, there are two sides to the story.  The appearance of women at the Kotel wearing tallitot, etc., is offensive to a many Orthodox Jews.  To them, it constitutes desecration.   Hence it is necessary, in the eyes of Israeli authorities, to fashion a compromise, one which takes into account the religious sensitivities of both the Orthodox and those of the more liberal Jewish communities.  The Israel Supreme Court has taken up the case on a number of occasions, and now the Israeli government has designated Natan Sharansky to help in working on the compromise.
At the moment, the authorities have designated a certain area of the Kotel where women can pray in full freedom.  To the Women of the Wall this is not enough, they apparently want equal access to the whole Kotel.  I sympathize with that demand, but, again, the issue is how to pursue the issue.
The Women of the Wall have chosen civil disobedience to assert their rights.  Civil disobedience obviously has a role in the face of intolerable oppression. But does the compromise worked out by the Israeli authorities constitute such intolerable oppression ? In my view, it does not.  The spectacle of people getting arrested at the Kotel gives rise to a world-wide press coverage that suggests oppression in Israel.  This suggestion is basically flawed.  For that reason,  rather than applaud the WotW for their civil disobedience we should urge them to seek the way of compromise and peaceful persuasion.
The Reform and Conservative groups that support the WofW are based, to a large extent, outside of Israel.  In my view, they do not adequately appreciate what the Israeli Supreme Court in this connection has called the minhag hamakom, the local custom.  The Jewish Old City of Jerusalem, religiously speaking, has been Orthodox for centuries, and those of us in the diaspora need to understand its sensitivities, without, of course, giving up our own convictions.
Finally, I cannot at all agree with the statement’s suggestion that Israel has somehow failed to “honor all Jews.”  The Israelis are struggling with the very difficult problem of religious/secular relations of which the Kotel problem is but a small aspect. The Israelis seek to find reasonable compromises.  I can find no merit in the suggestion that their handling of the Kotel issue constitutes a fundamental violation of human rights.

UPDATE:

For a careful analysis of the situation, please see the article by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Dystopia on Bedford Avenue — Ct’d

(For an earlier installment of this series, see my 2011 blog on the subject)
It gets worse at Brooklyn College.  The Political Science Department is now a political action group against Israel, and City Hall is complicit.  This became clear last week when Poli Sci officially sponsored an agi-prop event at the  College with the connivance of the College’s president and also that of the Mayor of the City of New York, 
For a description of the “BDS” event at Brooklyn College, see the ADL statement.

For a description of the “BDS” movement, see this video
Those of us (including most elected officials in Brooklyn) who criticized PoliSci’s endorsement  stressed that we do not oppose the BDS event on campus;  what we oppose is the official imprimatur that the College, through its Political Science Department, has conferred on the event.  The situation is analogous to that of the Constitutional separation of church and state.  A public university may teach about religion, and it may allow student groups to practice religion on campus, but it may not officially sponsor or endorse sectarian religious practice.
Here are some documents on the controversy at Brooklyn College.

Many of us wrote to various officials at the College, stating each time that we do not oppose the event but do not want the College to sponsor it, and each time we got the same answer:  we must have freedom of speech, and therefore the Department’s sponsorship must stand.  Therefore ? How and why is official College sponsorship necessary for freedom of speech, or any other kind of freedom ? The College officials act as if they hadn’t heard the question;  they remain mum.  That isn’t very smart, but it gets worse at City Hall.  
And indeed, the most zany performance was that of the Mayor of the City, Michael Bloomberg.  Here he explains why, in his view, Brooklyn College must be allowed to officially sponsor BDS:

“If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea,” he said in a news conference at City Hall.

Now our good mayor owns many homes in various parts of the world but apparently none in North Korea, so perhaps this gap in his holdings explains his opinion here. But with all that, is it plausible that the mayor, in the privacy of his own conscience, fails to appreciate the illogic of his pronouncement ?

Obviously, the College officials and the Mayor know the difference between freedom of speech, to which even the most hateful of groups are entitled, and official sponsorship, to which they are not. So when these officials play dumb, when they make believe that they cannot see any distinction, well, bad faith is the inescapable conclusion.

While College officials and the Mayor (and also the editorialists of the New York Times) all lend their complaisance to the hate-Israel movement, the same cannot be said of the learned professoriate  of the Political Science Department.  Here it is not a matter of complaisance or even mere complicity but one of activism in a political cause.

Let me say at the outset here that things could be even worse.  Some time ago I looked into a somewhat similar situation at an affiliate school of the University of Toronto, viz. the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).  As I reported in a number of postings then, one of the departments there was so politicized that many of the MA theses produced in it were crude and ugly pieces of propaganda.

The same cannot be said of Poli Sci, at least insofar as I was able to determine.

Unlike the situation at OISE, for which all theses are freely available on the internet, Brooklyn College makes it difficult for outsiders to consult the products of its graduate programs.  BC theses are not available on the internet, nor are they even cataloged.  They are kept at the Brooklyn College Library Archives, to which, in principle, the public is not admitted.  However, upon application by e-mail, I was granted permission to inspect MA theses and, I must say, was given every courtesy by the librarians.  I looked at all the PolySci theses completed within the last two years, and I am satisfied that they were, by and large, free of undue political bias.

Notwithstanding its apparently satisfactory MA program, the Department has acted in the manner of a political combat group rather than as an academic department, and not only in this particular incident.

1.  I have googled all the 17 current members of the Department to get an impression  of the extent of political activism of these professors.  None of these people were identified as active on behalf of Jewish, Zionist, or pro-Israel causes.  None were identified on the internet as political conservatives.  On the other side, at least two had been signers of anti-Israel statements in the past.  Another one is identified as a former member of the Maoist Communist Workers Party, now defunct.  A further one is identified as active on the Far Left.  If there is diversity of viewpoint in this Department, it is not apparent to the naked eye.

2. Some two years ago,  the Department hired as adjunct instructor a person who was still in the midst of graduate studies, but, apparently by way of compensating for the lack of a Ph.D., was known for his strongly anti-Israel views.  (For a description of this incident, see here.)  The vote of the Department, we are told, was unanimous.  With some seventeen voting members, and in view of the fact that this particular appointment was so contentious on campus and in the community,  it is remarkable to find such unanimity.

3. When the current matter of BDS sponsorship came up for Department decision,  there again was a vote, but we are not told whether there was dissent.  The press tried to ascertain how the vote went but no member of the Department has so far been willing to divulge the numbers.  In any case, no member of the Department has come out to speak publicly against the sponsorship.  Again, there is a baffling wall of unanimity on a matter of great public contention.

4. When the chair of the Department was pushed for a statement on the BDS affair, his language was both combative and ambiguous:

A student group at Brooklyn College has organized a panel discussion regarding the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a non-violent response to the State of Israel’s handling of the Palestinian conflict. On college campuses around the country and across the world, this issue is being discussed. Brooklyn College should be no different. The department of political science has thus decided to co-sponsor this event. We encourage students and members of the community to attend, pose their questions, and air their views.  (See my collection of documents

Read by an apologist for the Department, the statement might be interpreted to mean that the Department merely wishes to present BDS views without endorsing them.  But to anyone else, the phrase “a non-violent response to the State of Israel’s handling of the Palestinian conflict” clearly signals support to the BDS movement.

5. Corey Robin, an Associate Professor in the Department (whose anti-Israel traces can be found on the internet), sent an e-mail to students and staff in January:

From Professor Corey Robin: URGENT: Hi everyone. I need you all to stop what you’re doing and make a phone call or write an email to the administration of Brooklyn College. A few weeks ago, my department (political science) voted to co-sponsor a panel discussion, featuring Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti, on the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement against Israel. In the last week, we’ve gotten a lot of pressure and pushback from the media, students, alumni, and now Alan Dershowitz (who’s been trying to track down our chair to “talk” to him). So far, the administration has held firm, but the pressure is only building and they are starting to ask us whether we endorse these views or are merely seeking to air them (to which we responded: “Was the Brooklyn College administration endorsing the pro-torture and pro-Israel views of Alan Dershowitz when it decided to award him an honorary degree?”) Anyway, I need you guys now to send an email or make a phone call encouraging the administration to stand by the department and to stand for the principle that a university should be a place for the airing of views, ESPECIALLY views that are heterodox and that challenge the dominant assumptions of society. Please contact: President Karen Gould ….; Provost William Tramontano ….; and Director of Communications and Public Relations Jeremy Thompson ….. Please be polite and respectful, but please be firm on the principle. Right now, they’re only hearing from one side, so it’s imperative they hear from many others.

(See my collection of documents)

Robin’s reference to Alan Dershowitz is particularly telling:   A) Robin indulges in defamation of Dershowitz (“pro-torture,” etc.) that is currently common in the Far Left but is totally without foundation.  For example, Dershowitz has never spoken at Brooklyn College on any contentious issue, let alone on Israel or the Palestinians.  See Dershowitz’s own refutation of these attacks against him here. B) When Robin speaks about alleged appearances of Dershowitz  on the BC campus as justification for the BDS rally, his argument is of course tu quoque and not actually worthy of an Associate Professor of any discipline whatever.

In any case: is this the letter of an educator or of an agitator ?

6.  The following is a list of the sponsoring organizations for the BDS events (See my collection of documents)

Adalah NY
Al-Awda NY: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition
American Muslims for Palestine
The Political Science Department at Brooklyn College
Brooklyn College Student Union
Brooklyn For Peace
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transexual Association at 
Brooklyn College (LGBTA BC) – Upholding freedom of speech
Critical Palestine Studies Association at the CUNY GRAD Center
CUNY School of Law National Lawyers Guild Chapter
Existence is Resistance
Hunter SJP
International Socialist Organization
Jewish Voice for Peace
Jews say No!
Jews for Palestinian Right of Return
John Jay SJP
Columbia SJP
Muslim American Society Chapter – MAS on Campus
New Yorkers Against the Cornell-Technion Partnership (NYACT)
The Occupy Wall St Social Justice Working Group
Students for Justice at NYU
Labor for Palestine
New York City Labor Against the War

Each of the groups other than the Poly Sci Department  is well known as overtly and unabashedly anti-Israel, some more so than others.  The Independent Socialist Organization, about which I have written elsewhere, is perhaps the most radical in this respect, demanding continuing intifada and the complete destruction of the Jewish state.

Why is an ostensibly neutral academic department in this list ?

Conclusion

If this were a church/state issue, the endorsement by a public, taxpayer entity of a sectarian cause would by clearly unconstitutional (Abington School District v. Schempp, 1963).  Mutatis mutandis, the sample principle should apply here.  New York’s Jewish community and the elected officials of Brooklyn are right in demanding that Brooklyn College adopt more politically-neutral policies in the future.

UPDATE, February 15

Jonathan Marks, in an article “Department of Excuses,” throws more light on the affair.  For instance, we now know that the Political Science Department attempted to secure the collaboration of other departments for its endorsement of BDS but was decisively rebuffed in all cases.