by Ben Lorber
On a Monday evening in early March, about forty Jews of various ages, gender identifications, sexual orientations, and shades of leftism crowded into a room at the Workmen’s Circle in New York City for a meeting convened by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). Passover was fast approaching, and the city was in the throes of a struggle to hold the New York Police Department (NYPD) accountable for discriminatory policing and racial profiling. One question was on everyone’s mind: How does the story of liberation from the repressive regime of Pharoah relate to the world in which we live today, a world marked by economic inequality, racism, persecution, and systemic injustice?
Ideas were traded over cookies, chips, and hummus, and a vision formed to enact a “Seder in the Streets,” a ritual-as-public-spectacle that would connect the Passover seder to the growing campaign against police racism. Should they portray New York’s Mayor Bloomberg as Pharoah? Could they compare the enslaved Israelites to the underprivileged communities in New York plagued by systemic poverty and racial profiling? Might they collectively part the Red Seas of discriminatory policing?
Three weeks later, inside New York’s federal courthouse, the Floyd vs. City of New York trial began to unfold. The case was a challenge to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, which police applied more than half a million times in 2012, 87 percent of the time to detain, question, and search African-Americans and Latinos, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. More than than 89 percent of these stop-and-frisk incidents yielded no charges of any kind, not even a summons. According to the New York Times, 4.4 million such stop-and-frisks took place between 2004 and mid-2012, with less than six percent resulting in an arrest, and with guns found in only 0.14 percent. (Data is available from the NYCLU.)
In the plaza outside the courthouse, drumbeats and chanting heralded the appearance of giant blue horse puppets, surrounded by a radical marching band and a crowd of Jews chanting an old Russian revolutionary anthem, “Daloy Politsey” (“Down with the Police”), originally written by the Jewish Labor Bund to protest the rule of the tsar in Russia.
The protestors were guided through an interactive reading of the hagode: “We wash our hands of the injustices of stop-and-frisk;” “we eat bitter herbs to commemorate the bitterness of discriminatory policing.” They discussed “The Four Questions of Stop-and-Frisk” and “The Ten Plagues of Discriminatory Policing” (“the 603 percent increase of stop-and-frisks between 2002 and 2011,” “police harassment of homeless queer youth of color,” “police using possession of condoms as evidence to accuse people of sex work,” “police filling quotas rather than keeping people safe”). Finally, they affirmed “next year in a world free of discriminatory policing!”
This Seder in the Streets is the latest in a long line of exuberant political spectacles organized by JFREJ. Formed in 1994, JFREJ aims, in the words of its website, “to pursue racial and economic justice in New York City by advancing systemic changes that result in concrete improvements in peoples daily lives.” Since its inaugural action — a Jewish reception for Nelson Mandela’s visit to New York — JFREJ activists have joined picket lines, initiated and supported boycotts, risked arrest, and stood in solidarity with Chinese, Latin American, and other workers seeking to unionize throughout Manhattan. JFREJ has partnered with myriad progressive organizations to fight Islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, and racism in all its forms, and to organize vocally against Republican attacks on welfare, affirmative action, and immigrants’ rights. The group also holds forums, presents awards, and sponsors events that celebrate progressive Jewish history and honor present and past tzadikim of the progressive Jewish community.
JFREJ’s Campaign for Police Accountability started in October 2012, when JFREJ partnered with Communities United For Police Reform and other organizations involved in the fight to end stop-and-frisk and NYPD surveillance of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities. On a Saturday night in February, JFREJ’s eleventh annual Purimshpil brought hundreds of costumed Jews into a Brooklyn warehouse space to watch an extravagant and politically charged recreation of the Purim story, “I See What You’re Doing: Purim, Puppets, Politsey,” complete with puppets, a brass band, and a message of police reform. JFREJ organizers are also working to bring together rabbis and leaders of the Muslim, Arab, African-American and Latino communities to discuss the Community Safety Act — a landmark police reform bill being weighed by the New York City Council that would protect New Yorkers from discriminatory policing and establish an NYPD Inspector General Office to provide accountability and oversight of police activity.
JFREJ’s history of resistance to police brutality stretches back to 1999, when a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, Amadou Diallo, was shot to death outside his apartment by four NYPD officers. In a dramatic display of solidarity, 120 JFREJ activists, including thirteen rabbis, were arrested along with others on the steps of City Hall in response to the acquittal of the officers in their murder trial. “That was definitely a moment where JFREJ provided a very, very visible Jewish presence against police discrimination in New York,” says Executive Director Marjorie Dove-Kent, “and that was a key turning point for people within and outside the organization to see the role Jews could play in multi-racial coalitions within the city around issues that weren’t so obviously issues of Jewish community concern.” Fourteen years later, Dove-Kent insists, “it’s really important that JFREJ is once again a Jewish presence in the issue.”
JFREJ hopes to mobilize rabbis, their congregations, and the broad Jewish community not only against police profiling of New York’s African-American community but also against the intensive and invasive police surveillance of Muslim communities. The organization’s anti-Islamophobia work started immediately after 9/11, notes Dove-Kent. It reached a height in protest of Jewish blogger Pamela Geller’s 2012 subway ads, one of which depicted the World Trade Center in flames next to a quote from the Koran about “casting terror into the heart of the unbelievers.” The ads proclaimed: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” Geller’s organization, Stop Islamization of America, has been identified as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Still, “there are some Jewish organizations,” says Dove-Kent, “that see a growing and thriving Muslim community in New York . . . as a threat. Some of that Islamophobia comes from 9/11 and other events, both international and national. The historical and the present-day get confused, and we want to be part of parsing out that confusion.”
Another JFREJ campaign, since 2003, has been Shalom Bayit (Peace in the Home), which has organized synagogues, rabbis, Jewish legislators, Jewish community organizations, and employers of domestic workers within the Jewish community to fight for a living wage, dignity, recognition and protection for domestic workers. As an unorganized, informal, precarious, predominantly immigrant and often undocumented workforce, domestic workers are frequently underpaid and almost completely excluded from the protections of labor law. They usually work without a written or oral contract. In the worst cases, live-in domestic workers are subject to abuse by employers and, afraid to report wage theft or other problems for fear of deportation, are made to endure what Domestic Workers United (DWU) calls “conditions indistinguishable from slavery.”
In partnership with DWU, JFREJ helped pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010, a landmark piece of New York legislation that gives domestic workers the right to overtime pay, protection under human rights law, a legally mandated day of rest, and other rights often withheld from this vulnerable population.
JFREJ works to publicize the issue in the liberal, middle-class sector of the New York Jewish community, where many families employ domestic workers, to raise awareness of the rights outlined in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and to cultivate networks of support among Jewish families to ensure that the law’s mandates are implemented. Shalom Bayit’s focus on synagogues has its limitations: “A lot of Jews, including a lot of Jews within JFREJ, don’t feel affinity with synagogues,” says Rachel Schragis, one of ten organizers in the 2012 JFREJ Grace Paley Organizing Fellowship, a leadership development program that builds and trains effective organizers within the Jewish community. Nevertheless, she says, “synagogues are a physical space where you have resources, you have programming and events, a relationship to ritual, social groups that want speakers and activities, youth programming that needs content — it makes a lot possible.”
Schragis, an arts educator, brought the Shalom Bayit campaign to a mitsve art project class for the bney mitsve students at Congregation Beth Elohim, the largest synagogue in Brooklyn. Students learned about the plight of domestic workers and the need for immigration reform as they created works of art, which were then sent as postcards to New York Senator Charles Schumer, himself a member of Beth Elohim, and the rest of the “Gang of Eight” currently involved in the Senate’s Bipartisan Framework for Immigration Reform. The proof of steady employment required by the Senate’s current immigration overhaul bill threatens to exclude many domestic workers, who are paid in cash and cannot furnish a record of employment. “Our message to the Gang of Eight,” says Schragic, “is to please include domestic workers in immigration reform!”
Schragis’s curriculum makes use of visual art to educate the entire synagogue community, as she experiments. The Hebrew school class, for example, held a bake sale and circulated petitions, and students took their artwork home to middle-class families, many of whom employ nannies, cleaning ladies or home-care workers. “People feel a lot of tension around the issue in privileged communities,” Schragis says. “In saying, ‘Let’s all treat domestic workers with respect,’ you are implicitly accusing someone of not treating a domestic worker well. My mother often says that she feels a lot of pain about not having been able to give my nanny health care, because as an individual employer, health care is completely unaffordable.”
Parents of students are drawn to get involved, and JFREJ connects them to Hand In Hand: The Domestic Employers Association, a national network built to educate employers of domestic workers about their responsibilities as outlined in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, and to organize employers to fight for reform. “Organizing,” Schragis adds, “requires a transformation of individuals. Being able to use education and family relationships to make those transformations happen is very effective.” Now, students are creating a Tumblr site to post personal stories about “My Immigrant Nanny,” and JFREJ hopes to form youth groups to help mobilize the community around the issue.
Like New Jewish Agenda in the 1980s, JFREJ allows Jews to engage in progressive politics both as progressives and as Jews. Schragis was first drawn to JFREJ during the Occupy movement, and saw it as “the perfect way,” in her words, “to think about identity politics and spirituality from a Jewish perspective . . . it allowed me to affirm my Judaism, and to affirm my radical politics, at the same time.” Through JFREJ, Schragis transitioned from what Arthur Waskow in a 1969 essay called a “Jewish radical” — a radical who happens to be Jewish — to a self-identifying “radical Jew.” “At first, I was very intimidated” by the idea of an explicitly Jewish progressive organization, she admits. “I thought, ‘This must not be right! I shouldn’t be organizing around being Jewish!’” Being Jewish, she had been conditioned to think, “was inherently conservative and old fashioned, so if I was going to be progressive and radical, I couldn’t identify as Jewish.”
Schragis was also drawn to JFREJ as “a very queer space . . . which helped me think about, and served as a platform for building a queer community for myself in New York, as well.” Indeed, JFREJ serves as one of many focal points and safe spaces for New York’s vibrant Jewish LGBTQ community to organize around LGBTQ issues, and to affirm the intersectionality of progressive struggle. At anti-stop-and-frisk-themed events such as February’s purimshpil — a celebration of what JFREJ called “a favorite Jewish holiday for feminists, young people, queer folks, and party animals of all stripes”— activists were quick to point out that transgender and queer people are often profiled by police with the assumption of being sex workers. NYPD officers currently treat possession of even a single condom as evidence of prostitution, and grounds for arrest.
For Marjorie Dove-Kent, the Jewish struggle to organize and resist oppression stretches back, in the last century alone, through the multi-issue progressive mobilization New Jewish Agenda in the 1980s, to the self-defense and food networks of the Warsaw Ghetto, to early-1900s Jewish radical socialist organizations like the Bund. “Jewish political activism has been one of the things that has kept Jews alive, safe, and strong throughout history,” she insists. “Leaving that space and moving to a depoliticized or politically conservative place in the U.S. has not helped us and does not serve us.”
Ben Lorber is a journalist, activist and organizer currently based in Chicago. He has written for a variety of print and electronic progressive publications. He has been active in the Palestinian solidarity movement, the migrant justice movement, and workers’ struggles in America. He is currently involved in Walmart worker organizing in Chicago, and can be reached at benjaminlorber [AT] gmail (you know the rest). Visit his blog at benlorber.wordpress.com.