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An Interview with Ezra Berkely Nepon by Ben Lorber
Ezra Berkley Nepon’s book, Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: A History of New Jewish Agenda, published in May by Thread Makes Blanket Press, is the first serious attempt to document the history of this progressive Jewish organization of the 1980s and to weigh its accomplishments and shortcomings. NJA was a multi-issue, national membership organization with local chapters in many cities. It worked for a dozen years to advocate for Middle East peace, nuclear disarmament, rights for lesbian and gay Jews, economic and social justice, peace in Latin America, an end to South African apartheid, Jewish feminism, and a variety of other issues in a climate of increasing Reagan-era neoliberalism and Cold War conservatism. Twenty years after the organization’s official dissolution, Nepon seeks to draw inspiration from Agenda’s dedication to what the book describes as “participatory (grassroots) democracy and civil rights for all people, especially those marginalized within the mainstream Jewish community.”
Nepon is a writer, performer, and political organizer who was featured in the 2006 documentary film Young, Jewish and Left. Nepon has written about gender identity, Jewish identity, and queer culture for Zeek and Tikkun, and has co-created and performed in the annual Purimspiels organized since 2004 by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, and the Great Small Works puppet troupe.
Ben Lorber is a Jewish activist in Tucson, Arizona and a journalist who worked with the Israeli-Palestinian Alternative Information Center in Jerusalem. His articles have appeared in The Abolitionist, Common Dreams, The Palestine Chronicle, Links, Green Left Weekly, The Earth First Journal, and many other outlets. Currently he works with the migrant justice organization, No More Deaths, delivering food, water, and medical aid to migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona’s Sonora Desert, and advocating on behalf of undocumented immigrants.
Ben Lorber: This summer you took your book on tour. What was it like to see former New Jewish Agenda activists and the next generation of Jewish radicals reflecting together on the past, present and future of progressive Jewish organizing in America?
Ezra Berkley Nepon: It was spectacular. For the most part we would have a great group of NJA veterans and a room full of younger activists. Sometimes there were also people who came from the same generation of Agenda activists but hadn’t been part of the organization, so there was more than one dynamic — but there was consistently this exchange happening between Agenda activists and a younger generation, which was very interesting and moving to witness.
In the book, I focused on the organization at the national level, because I was trying to give an abbreviated version of a very long and complex history. The book tour events gave us all a chance to learn the juicy local organizing stories. People shared what on-the-ground organizing for Agenda looked like, with specific details about local issues and the flavor of each community.
BL: In your introduction to Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue, you write that in 2003 you were reading “all the Jewish feminist writing I could get my hands on, and references to NJA kept showing up,” which led you to be “curious about this organization that so many profound movement builders, writers and thinkers had been part of.” But when you went “looking for a book or good long article to learn more,” you found “a strange lack of record.” How do you explain this amnesia that the present Jewish progressive movement displays towards its past?
EBN: I’m in my mid-30s, and I find people of my age to be hungry for stories of people who have done really radical work, yet I’ve met very few who have heard of Agenda — and that’s just very strange, because it was an influential element in Jewish Left history. One explanation is that NJA was so exhausting for people, especially at the end, because of the rigors of having direct democracy on a national scale, with international allies, but without e-mail, without easy conference-calling, without Skype — people, I think, were drained when the organization ended and were happy to move on to other things. In the ensuing years, Agenda didn’t get talked about that much because people kept doing and thinking about their new work.
But people’s eyes light up as they learn about Agenda, and it has been very powerful to create a space for activists from Agenda to witness the joy that younger people have in learning about their work. We have enthusiasm for critically engaging the details of Agenda platforms and the dynamics of its democratic process. People are excited to think about the theoretical questions Agenda was immersed in: multi- vs. single-issue organizing, the place of identity within organizing, the diversity of tactics,the intersection of issues, etc.
BL: One of the defining things about Agenda was its success as a multi-issue organization. When it closed up shop in 1992, it was replaced by a multitude of single-issue organizations, some of which formed in its wake, others of which were offshoots organized during its existence. One point you bring up is that today there is no unifying force such as Agenda to articulate and coordinate a mass progressive movement among American Jews.
EBN: Many single-issue organizations came out of Agenda, and some were led by leaders of Agenda, but the multi-issue model has been somewhat lost, especially that model of nationwide, membership-based, grassroots organizing. NJA helped a lot of different groups join each other’s struggles. It can be very valuable to have an organizational context through which Jewish groups can stand with other left groups and say, “We are in solidarity with what you are doing,” and to stand together in common resistance against oppression — and to promote that kind of visibility on the left for radical Jewish organizing. Agenda made that possible. Many of the qualities Agenda was known for could today inform the way we build organizations and the way our organizations can align with each other.
At our Baltimore event, at Red Emma’s Bookstore and Coffeehouse, former NJA members related that their organizational model was, “Every issue is a Jewish issue!” Definitely, I want to talk to other people who think that way! I want to talk about how our feminist politics and our Middle East politics relate to each other. I want a space where intergenerational Jewish activists can learn and work together. I want to work on Israel/Palestine, but I also want a broader range of Jewish issues. I want our ethics and our politics to intersect with all our work. There’s a conversation to have about whether the current political moment could support an organization like Agenda — and if not, what options do we have for at least bringing some of those qualities to the work we do now.
BL: Today’s political moment, in many ways, does remind me of the one in which Agenda took root. Two months before the NJA Founding Convention, Ronald Reagan was elected president, ushering in an era that would become known, as you write in Justice, Justice, “for brutally cutting resources for the U.S.’s poor and low-income, breaking unions,” and concentrating “wealth in what we now call the ‘1%’; for supporting military terror in Central America, the Middle East, Argentina, Grenada, and around the globe; for the Iran-Contra scandal and the Savings and Loans crisis; for an obsessive battle against Communism; and for staying silent as the AIDS pandemic swept the nation and the world.” Since then, the failure of the Oslo Accords, the violence of the second Intifada and Operation Cast Lead, have increased the disillusionment many American Jews feel towards Israel; wealth has become further concentrated; and a neo-imperialist global war on terror has pushed the American political climate further right.
EBN: And we have plenty of organizations to say, “As Jews, we oppose this,” or “As Jews, we stand in solidarity with this” — but I would like to see the different pieces of our Jewish work for justice brought together through dialogue, so we can build wisdom. It’s a Midrashic version of activism, in which different kinds of Jewish work add complexity and nuance to each other.
There’s this story about a khasid who’s lost walking in the forest, and he’s saying to God, “Oh, it’s been days, I’ve been lost for too long, I don’t know if it’s shabes. I want to say the shabes prayers, but I’m so hungry and thirsty and out of my mind, I don’t even remember them. I’ll tell you what, God. I’ll say the alef-beys, and you, in your wisdom, can put the letters together.” I love that story so much: It’s like, we have all the pieces, and our work would be really enhanced by having more opportunities to talk about how those pieces fit together.
BL: In one of the afterwords to your book, Daniel Rozsa Lang/Levitsky speaks of the complicated question of Israel and Zionism in NJA. Agenda broke huge ground within the Jewish mainstream by getting a resolution for a West Bank settlement freeze brought up in the General Assembly of the Council of Federations in 1983, even though the proposal was tabled. And Agenda succeeded in balancing the work of the Middle East Task Force with the work of many other sub-committees devoted to other local and national issues.
EBN: It was a huge balancing act for Agenda, and I argue that they were successful in important ways. Agenda people had to work really hard to get their voices into the mainstream and not to be isolated by their Israel politics. They did that through committed, on-the-ground organizing in their local chapters, and by making opportunities for people who shared their politics —and even those who didn’t — to join in. In our session in Seattle, someone recalled the time in 1985 when Reagan laid a wreath at the Bitburg Military Cemetery in West Germany, which included the graves of members of the SS. The Seattle NJA chapter organized a protest about that, which attracted people who did not have the same politics about Israel but still connected with Agenda about this outrageous thing that Reagan was doing!
Agenda also had activists who were very involved in Jewish communal life and knew people who were “insiders” within the Jewish mainstream. The organization didn’t simply walk around outside the Federation with a sign saying “We’re against settlements” — they created an opportunity to present it to the Federations by finding allies inside. A group pushing hard from the left allows some that are closer to the center to make changes. Part of Agenda’s legacy is found in the changes that other people were able to make because of Agenda’s advocacy.
BL: Still, the Jewish Federation is unabashedly supportive of Israel’s policies, is extensively connected to America’s corporate-political establishment, and represents middle-class and upper-class Jews, marginalizing the voices of queer Jews, Jews of color, and working-class Jews.
EBN: Many things haven’t changed that much — but some have! I keep seeing reports of how few women are in leadership in the biggest Jewish organizations. It’s like, “What year is this?” It’s not as if there’s a shortage of amazing and capable Jewish women to be in leadership roles! On the other hand, in the course of my research, I’ve come to realize how many more opportunities I have as a queer Jew today, opportunities that were created by NJA’s generation. Many of the people pushing for those changes built analyses and gained influence together in Agenda — like Avi Rose and Christie Balka, who were national NJA co-chairs together and co-authored Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian, Gay and Jewish, which was a groundbreaking publication in 1989.
BL: You end your book by saying that “the new Occupy Judaism movement, and the Occupy movement as a whole, have reinvigorated strategies of mass mobilization and direct action that challenge the trend of professionalization in social-change work, and bring new voices from the margin to the people’s mic every day.” What do you think Occupy Judaism takes from the legacy of Agenda?
EBN: One of the primary positives of the Occupy movement is creating big gathering spaces for people to come together in person and figure out what they want to do together. Agenda did not have social media, and people had to be together physically in a way that built culture, built community, and provided opportunities for synchronicity and spontaneous inspiration. That provides for the kind of relationship building that allows you to go through something hard with somebody and still want to talk to them: You actually know each other, and have actually seen each other grow and change over the course of days or weeks or years.
Another very powerful aspect of Occupy Judaism is the commitment to direct action, including the street-theater element — enacting spiritual ritual in the midst of public space. All the holidays that were celebrated during Occupy Judaism were mobilizing and inspirational, and that was a crucial New Jewish Agenda tactic, to bring Jewish life out into the streets, into public parks, into alignment with protest movements, and to put politics and culture together. It sets a great example for Jews on the left to say, “We are here as Jews in solidarity, we are going to have a public ritual to say why we are here as Jews, we’re going to talk about how Jewish culture has brought us here and about what Jewish culture says about this issue.” That’s what New Jewish Agenda did.
BL: NJA also allowed progressive Jews to ally themselves, as a unified bloc, with social justice movements in the larger community. As we speak, I am sitting in the office of No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid and advocacy organization that fights for migrant rights along the U.S.-Mexico border. No More Deaths grew out of the Sanctuary movement, which counted New Jewish Agenda as a powerful ally.
EBN: The Sanctuary movement started with churches providing sanctuary for refugees fleeing the dictatorships in Latin America, and NJA linked up early on to bring Sanctuary into synagogues. Agenda sent out packets with information on the sanctuary issue to over two thousand synagogues, and many congregations got involved.
This legacy of working with allies continues today. One example is Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), which over the last decade has allied with the Domestic Workers Union (DWU) to fight for a domestic workers’ bill of rights and advocate for economic justice for domestic workers. JFREJ went to synagogues and did education, reached out to Jewish legislators and community members — many of whom employ domestic workers for childcare and elder care — to raise awareness on issues of fair pay, sick days and other rights.
BL: There are many times throughout its history that Agenda experienced what you describe as “growing pains” — instances when local and national task forces came face-to-face with manifestations of white privilege, racism, and homophobia within the organization. You relate how the Feminist Task Force (FTF), for example, sought in 1985 to convene meetings among African-American, Arab and Jewish women in New York to address the contentious “Zionism equals racism” equation that surfaced at the UN Decade for Women Forum in Copenhagen. FTF received a challenging letter from Carol Haddad of the Feminist Arab Network, identifying the problematic power imbalances inherent in the proposal for meetings, and pointing to the need for FTF members to examine their own white privilege and racism. Your book also brings up the lingering homophobia within NJA that challenged queer Jewish organizers in the mid-1980s, as well as NJA’s last official conference in 1991, which, as you wrote, “received significant criticism, especially for a lack of representation of Jews of color, reinforcing a false dichotomy between white Jews and African, Latino/a or Arab peoples.” How did Agenda deal with these problems within its own organization, and what can we learn from that today?
EBN: Everything that exists in the larger world also exists in activist organizations, and a lot of the time the exact dynamics we are trying to fix in the world show up in our organizations. This is part of what happens when people are building new awareness about the ways that privilege works in a community: people who are able-bodied and can’t imagine otherwise, or men who aren’t aware of all the sexism that’s happening, or white Jews who think all Jews are European. NJA functioned as a space where people could find each other, build power, and make demands. All the conversations and confrontations about the organization’s platforms, over the years, served as a space for analysis to happen, for people to show up and say, “We need to have a position about Jews of color, we need to have a position about economic privilege in the Jewish world.” That’s why that letter from Carol Haddad is so powerful: somebody taking the time to write a letter like that is offering a gift! It’s upsetting to learn that you’ve contributed to someone else’s marginalization, of course, but when people speak up about dynamics that need to change, that’s how we transform.
BL: If there’s one central legacy that NJA can leave to a new generation of progressive Jewish activists, what does that legacy look like?
EBN: As the keynote speaker at one of Agenda’s national conferences, Adrienne Rich asked, “If not with others, how?” Having all of our politics in the same room matters, having a space to show all the facets of ourselves matters. Being able to say “I’m Jewish and queer,” “I’m Jewish and feminist,” “I’m Jewish and working-class,” “I’m Jewish and wealthy,” matters. The ability to create that wholeness inside oneself and together in a room — that matters.
At our Seattle event, one veteran of Agenda said that “the wins were momentary wins, and the challenges were ongoing — we were always in debt, we were always overwhelmed by the problems of democracy on a large scale.” Why, given that, did the organization last for a dozen years? The thing that was consistent, from chapter to chapter, was that people were in community with each other. They were doing life-cycle events, they were doing holidays with each other, their kids were friends with each other, they were partnering romantically and creatively — people were in community together. That enabled them for a dozen years to handle the other things that were ongoing, and that was what weathered the storm.
Readers can learn more about New Jewish Agenda and its legacy at www.newjewishagenda.net, where Ezra Berkley Nepon’s book can be purchased.