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“Occupy” versus Corporate Idolatry

The Editorial Board
December 6, 2011

An Editorial

From the Winter, 2011-2012 issue of Jewish Currents

“LET EVERYONE WHO HAS ZEAL FOR THE TORAH and who stands by the Covenant follow me!” Those are the words with which a Jewish priest named Mattathias launched the Khanike uprising more than two thousand years ago (according to I Maccabees 2:27). His battle cry can be troubling for progressive people who are trying to celebrate Khanike today, as in: What, exactly, are we celebrating here — a Jewish fundamentalist revolution?

This year, however, Occupy Wall Street has helped us distill a simpler message from the story of the Maccabees and a new translation of Mattathias’ call to arms: “Let those who belong to the 99 percent come to us!” This year, the “Syrian Greeks” and their Hellenist allies are corporate idolaters who are running swine through the “temple” known as the planet Earth — and the Maccabees are we who want to create a “miracle of light” by pooling our oil, our wealth, and our passion.

“Idolatry” may be an old-fashioned concept, but it’s hardly outdated when applied to corporate culture and its political priests. Their very language — “rugged individualism,” “supermodels,” “Drill, Baby, Drill,” American Idol — bespeaks a worship of the Almighty Dollar and an exaltation of human competitiveness and hierarchy. They view wealth as a measure of virtue, poverty as a measure of unworthiness; corporations as human beings, human beings as disposable commodities; individual liberty as holy writ, the claims of the community as “socialist” blasphemy. The “marketplace” is their supreme arbiter of our well-being — regulations be damned! — and our Earth is just another livestock yard, another vomitorium, another charnel house.

The results of this modern idolatry are measurable in statistics — millions of houses foreclosed in the past four years, a median wage of $26,364 (only $4,000 above the poverty rate for a family of four), a third of the nation’s wealth held by 1 percent of the population, a planet losing its glaciers and therefore a substantial part of its water supply, a third of the planet’s species of animals and plants expected to be extinct within three decades, gevald!... But harder to measure is the depth of cynicism and hopelessness about the future that money madness has fostered among younger generations — until they began laying out their sleeping bags and tarps in Zuccotti Park.

“BUT WHAT ARE THEIR DEMANDS?” ask critics on both the right and the left, frustrated by the mish-mosh of libertarianism, anarchism, communitarianism, nudism, and numerous other “isms” that have been on display at Occupy encampments in scores of cities and towns (you can view a directory at Occupy Together). “How can protestors be effective without articulating demands?”

In fact, their fundamental demand is clear to us all: Share the Wealth. Anything more specific would have been met, up until now, with scorn from the Furies of the right and with headshakes from the liberal class, all telling us why such demands are unrealistic, unachievable, would hurt the marketplace, destroy jobs, and so forth and so on. Americans would have been pushed back into despair and scapegoating as the great propaganda machine did its work. Instead, some cops did the pushing, arresting seven hundred on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 3rd. With sudden media attention and labor union support, the Occupy movement became a wellspring of political dialogue and democratic community-building, approved by a majority throughout America.

[caption id=“attachment_8164” align=“alignleft” width=“300”] ‘Maccabee’ means ‘hammer’[/caption]

The police actions that tore apart the New York encampment in mid-November and have worked similar repression from Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Diego to Halifax, Nova Scotia, are serving only to push the movement into new actions that creatively use First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly to awaken more and more people to the responsibilities and rewards of participatory democracy. Occupy Wall Street seems intent on becoming Occupy the World (see our coverage of Occupy Israel in the Winter 2011 issue) — in a world that desperately needs just that kind of caretaking.

“NO DEMAND IS BIG ENOUGH” FOR THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT, wrote Charles Eisenstein, author of The Ascent of Humanity, in an October 30th article republished by Alternet: “Our job is to take a stand for a world that is truly beautiful, fair, and just... [E]ven a small step in this direction takes courage, for it goes against the gradient of money and all that is attached to it. I think the task of Occupy Wall Street is to provide a context for that courage, and a call to that courage. With each step taken, the necessity of far larger steps will become apparent, along with the courage to take them.”

Eisenstein continued, echoing Che (“revolution is an act of love”) Guevara:

At risk of revealing the stars in my eyes, let me call [this] a revolution of love.... What else but love would motivate any person to abandon the quest to maximize rational self-interest? Love, the felt experience of connection to other beings, contradicts the laws of economics as we know them. Ultimately, we want to create a money system, and an economy, that is the ally, not the enemy, of love.

If Eisenstein’s thinking is representative, it seems that the mostly young people who are driving the Occupy movement are intent on making a revolution in how human beings view and treat one another — for as Martin Buber, the socialist Zionist visionary, predicted sixty years ago, “We will not persist in existence if we do not learn anew to persist in it as a genuine We... [a] genuine community of human beings.” By turning their own lives into public experiments in “genuine community,” they are applying their weight to the seesaw on which our society and the world beyond now teeters — between cooperation and competition, between the embrace of the reality of human interconnection and willful blindness to it.

THERE HAS BEEN WONDERFUL JEWISH CREATIVITY at Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy sites during these weeks. A kol nidrei service with nearly 1,000 participants on Yom Kippur used the “human microphone” in Zuccotti Park; Dan Siedradski, a spark plug of what is now called “Occupy Judaism,” described it as “civil disobedient davening.” Radical sukes and simkhes toyre observances have also been held (see Occupy Judaism at Facebook for more information), and activist groups like the Jewish Funds for Justice, Progressive Jewish Alliance, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice have created a stream of participation and blogging. As is typical within American social movements, secular Jewish activists such as David Graeber (whose father was a Spanish vet and whose mother was an original cast member of Pins and Needles) have generated important ideas and strategies for OWS — with Graeber coining that evocative slogan, “We are the 99 percent!”

In early November, more than a dozen Jewish politicians and organizational leaders issued a statement of support for “the ideas behind Occupy Wall Street” and opposition to “right-wing attempts to smear the movement with false charges of anti-Semitism.” In general, however, mainstream Jewish organizations have kept their distance. On November 8th, Julie Wiener, writing in New York’s Jewish Week, quoted various Jewish leaders’ explanations for this non-involvement with OWS, ranging from “I am not sure people know what to make of them yet” to “Wall Street is not what’s wrong with America” to “Jews historically don’t like to speak out about” economic injustice “because no matter what you say [it] could spark some anti-Semitism somewhere.”

Whatever organizational, ideological, or self-protective instincts are keeping them at bay, these Jewish organizations are missing a major opportunity to truly “occupy” their Judaism, express contemporary relevance for Jewish values, and thereby inspire the devotion to Jewish identity that they all seek. Jewish participation among the bankers, brokers, academics and other ganovim (thieves) whose financial hijinks brought about the current economic crisis was made embarrassingly clear by last year’s Academy Award-winning documentary, Inside Job, which featured among its villains Alan Greenspan, Lloyd Blankfein, Martin Feldstein, Frederic Mishkin, Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, and a score more identifiably Jewish titans of finance and economics. Surely, if only for damage control, the Jewish community should be showing up elsewhere than in board rooms, and bringing more to the American public than new strategies for generating and concentrating wealth.

Within Jewish philosophy, after all, are many insights about the cultivation of “genuine community” that date back centuries — and contrast starkly with the culture of corporate idolatry.

Compare, as one example, Jewish teachings about loshn hore, evil and careless speech, with the dehumanizing poisons that are spewed on Fox News and other media outlets each and every day, and the relentless violence and sadism they offer as our entertainment.

Compare the Jewish relationship to immigration — our lives enabled by the open door, our survival denied by the closed door — to the hard-hearted new immigration laws in Arizona, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

Compare the Yiddish story of the Jewish draftee in the Tsarist army who fires his gun into the air time and again instead of aiming at the enemy soldiers. “Over there, over there!” his Cossack captain keeps hollering, until the Jew responds: “But Captain, there are mentshn, human beings, over there!” — to America’s easy resort to warfare, our willing resort to torture and the denial of human rights, in the name of national security.

These are just a smattering of the Jewish resources that could be subjects of discussion and study at OWS encampments, among both Jews and non-Jews. The Jewish historical vocation of testifying against idolatry could be fulfilled in the most meaningful way imaginable. But first, as in many Bible stories, we have to declare, “Hineni! Here I am.” First, as in the story of Khanike, we have to take sides.