by Isaac Brosilow
A year ago, activists blockaded a railroad in Port of Olympia, Washington, to stop shipments of materials used in the fracking process as they make their way to the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. The action was in solidarity with Standing Rock, and lasted for a week before people were evicted by police.
On November 17th of this year, the Keystone XL pipeline burst, spilling more than 200,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota. The same day, a new blockade went up in Olympia, in the same place as last year. I spoke with Jewish Anarchists Tavi and Yaakov about their experiences at the blockades. We discussed solidarity with Indigenous political movements, the radical potential of Jewish traditions, and how Thanksgiving is one of the most goyishe holidays there is.
Isaac: Can you describe what it was like at the blockade and how long each of you were there?
Yaakov: I felt like it was really special. In a short amount of time people came together and took all the lessons from last year's blockade and got things rolling, and had a really good idea about what materials could be scavenged, and quickly set up a strong blockade. They had food, medical supplies, and were just ready to pick up where they left off. I thought it was really exciting.
The town’s response to the blockade was good, there wasn’t much animosity towards it from people who aren’t involved in anarchy or radical politics. And this year there are a lot of new younger faces.
Isaac: Why is the blockade in the Port of Olympia?
Tavi: The Port of Olympia is and has been getting in shipments of fracking proppants, also called fracking sands, which are shipped to the Bakken oil shale among other places. They’re shipped on rail from the port (so the blockade sits on those railroad tracks). There's a professor at Evergreen, Zoltan Grossman, who makes really great maps that show how the fossil fuel industry has infrastructure all across the continent that makes it able to function, and what the stopping points, the bottleneck points, are. The Port of Olympia, which is on occupied Coast Sallish People’s land, is one of them. Last year everyone was talking all the time about Standing Rock, so many people in our town were leaving and going there. A lot of people wanted to leave couldn’t, or they felt it wasn’t their place to go, so people wanted to do something here. And we have known for a long time that the Port of Olympia has been bringing in proppants.
Isaac: Some of the discussions that I’ve seen come about the blockade this year have been about making Shabbos behind the barricades. What does it mean for you both to be there as Jews?
Yaakov:There are a lot of friends who have created space for learning and ritual with each other in Olympia over the years. Because we have experienced being in the streets together and creating these intentional spaces, it synthesizes a particular Jewish anarchism.
Isaac: I’d be interested to have a conversation about the politics of Jewish diaspora and fighting settler colonialism, something we texted about before this interview, specifically at this present moment, as it’s also going to be Thanksgiving tomorrow.
Tavi: Oh, yeah, that is tomorrow.
Yaakov: Well, first off Thanksgiving is a goyishe holiday. It’s terrible. Thinking about solidarity with indigenous struggles as Jews, it highlights a lot of intersections between the assimilation of Ashkenazi Jews into whiteness, and what Jewish life in North America has been since, I guess, since, post-1945.
Isaac: Yeah, Jewish life after the Shoah is almost all in settler-colonial contexts.
Yaakov: Right. Our collective history shows a resilience to persecution and a resistance to authority. And there’s a long lineage of people engaging in the work of repairing the world or seeking justice that speaks to me, so that when I am engaging in work that resists settler-colonial nation states, I feel connected to a collective ancestry that has also struggled against states and authority, and feel like the work that is being done is the work of repair. The states and corporations that we are fighting against, if they are not acting out of an intentional evil, they have somehow disconnected from the reality that the actions they are taking are genocidal and destroying the planet.
Isaac: So, this interview is for Jewish Currents, which comes out of a Jewish Socialist tradition, and around a half century ago there was a more pronounced antagonism between secular and religious discourses. Given all that, what does it mean to bring Jewish ritual and belief into this work?
Yaakov: Well I think that a lot of the Socialist movement fifty years ago amongst different aspects of the Jewish left was defeated by different aspects of assimilation, recuperation, and state repression. In the contemporary world, there’s a rift between Jews that are religiously observant and those that were raised in secular homes and families. Personally, growing up in a Reform synagogue left me feeling that I was without a spiritual history, and lacking connection to a Jewish community.
[caption id="attachment_65474" align="alignleft" width="300"] Protesters with Yiddish banner, “A Brewing Storm of Hatred for Our Enemies,” in Olympia, March 2017[/caption]
Isaac: Recently I’ve seen photos of Yiddish banners in blocs during protests in the Pacific Northwest. Tell me about some of the ways Jewish radicals and Anarchists are building community.
Tavi: I can’t speak for everyone, but I definitely have seen that growing. I feel that being very important for people who didn’t know it was missing, particularly community that integrated spiritual and cultural analysis into a pre-existing disposition to anarchism and radical politics. We have been a part of groups that have studied Yiddish and Jewish anarchism. And I think that just generating a common experience with a group of people allows you to have that background when things come up, to apply that understanding of your history and your background together. Which may end up with a picture of people marching down the street in bloc with a Yiddish banner.
Isaac: Or making shabbos in a barricade...
Tavi: Making shabbos in a barricade! It just ends up feeling natural. Because this is what you do with your friends, and it’s where you end up together on a Friday night. And maybe you already had plans for shabbos but this is where you all are and this is something you want to do, and it’s not because you want to show off how cool and Jewish you are but because your Friday night would be incomplete without it.
Isaac: Are there particular Jewish teachings, rituals or experiences that help you do this work of decolonization?
Tavi: I feel like it’s been very important and meaningful for me to remember that I am Jewish and that I am not some floating mass that has no history... For many years I didn’t remember that my family came from anywhere and had stories that came together to make the world make sense. To be able to tie together this understanding of myself and my understanding of the world makes it clear that I’m not entitled to this land and that I’m a guest here. Even though my family came to this continent under coercive conditions doesn’t mean we are entitled to run it.
Isaac: I’m reminded of the concept of Hakhnasat Orchim, Bringing in Your Guests.
Yaakov: That resonates with me, especially recognizing that Ashkenazi Jews who faced persecution and come to North America, a lot of us have been assimilated into whiteness. This is a social construction that can be undone and destroyed. This social fabric is woven together of many different strands, and when white Jews act together in solidarity with groups who are being attacked by the United States and Canada, we are tugging at those threads, and working toward an unraveling. By being traitors to whiteness we we are pushing back against the erasure of our own history and traditions, which works to create this culture where a lot of Jews don’t feel a connection to being Jewish. In pushing back against white supremacy we also help ourselves, by claiming a culture that was taken from us.
We would like to see more direct action against Capitalist and Colonial infrastructure. There’s a liquid natural gas terminal that’s being proposed to be built in the port of Tacoma. The Puyallup tribe is opposing it, but are having their own dialog about how they want that opposition be. I think in this coming year it would be great to build relationship with Tribal leaders and members of that Tribe to develop ways that people in Olympia and can act in solidarity. And it would be great if we had more spaces to interact with one another and learn from each other and cultivate a politics and spirituality that bring a sense of interconnectedness and resistance to this hellish world.
Isaac: Is there anything that the blockade needs, like supplies or information, anything that we can do on the outside to support and share with you?
Tavi: We will be spreading the word if there are arrests and if we need help with bail funds. Seems like the blockade has a lot of its needs met now. And it seems like it’s best to focus on where you are now and what you can to do there.
Isaac: Well, we will be waiting, and doing what we can to support. Personally, I am thankful for your actions, and in no relation to this goyishe colonialist holiday that’s happening tomorrow.
Isaac Brosilow is an educator and freelance writer living in Chicago.