Confused by the two apparently conflicting views of Occupy Wall Street's relations with the Jews — The Emergency Committee for Israel portrays the occupiers as a bunch of anti-Semites, while the Forward described Kol Nidre services being held at Occupy Wall Street on Yom Kippur — I went down there myself Thursday night for "Occupy Simchat Torah."
Sure enough, a couple of hundred mostly young Jews participated in joyous dancing and singing with two torah scrolls (video here) to celebrate the holiday that marks the end of one annual cycle of reading the Torah and the beginning of a new one. There were plenty of faces I recognized — Hebrew school directors, rabbis, seminary professors, Jewish day school teachers, and employees at other non-profits, many of which are funded largely if not exclusively by Jews who work on Wall Street.
What, exactly, Occupy Simchat Torah had to do with Occupy Wall Street was less than clear. The Simchat Torah took place in a plaza at Broadway and Liberty Streets, beneath the office building that houses Brown Brothers Harriman, and across the street from the Zuccotti Park that houses the Occupy Wall Street encampment. While the Jews were singing and dancing with the torahs, the Occupy Wall Street people were having a meeting to discuss such urgent internal organizational issues as, "What is the enforcement if a working group does not produce a charter?"
When the "Occupy Simchat Torah" Jews did cross Broadway to make a circuit around the "Occupy Wall Street" crowd, it felt almost disruptive. It was late enough that some of the Occupy Wall Streeters had already retired to their tents and sleeping bags. Then the crowd of noisy Jews came by to rouse them, and to make noise that interfered with their organizational meeting. If the Occupy Wall Street crowd had any latent anti-Semitism to begin with, the Simchat Torah event might have brought it to the surface, or at least generated a bit of non-bigoted annoyance. As it is, they are probably used to outside groups trying to glom onto their movement for their own purposes — anti-fracking activists, Ron Paul supporters. Why not Jews, too?
I walked through the Occupy Wall Street encampment wearing a yarmulke and was met with no open hostility. There was a lavish food servery worthy of a hotel buffet, an extensive library of both political and non-political books, a board listing the meeting times of the various working groups — "security" "media," "direct action," and "kitchen." There were tables devoted to "community affairs" — relations with the surrounding neighborhood — and "informacion en espanol." The police presence was surprisingly light by New York City protest standards.
I stopped by the English-language information table to ask what the occupiers' demands were, and the woman at the desk, who said her name was "Rose," 22, of Newburgh, N.Y., said every individual had his or her own demands. I asked her what her demand was and she said it was "student debt abolishment — a bailout for students." She said she had $35,000 in student debt after three years at SUNY Cobleskill. I asked her who should pay the debt? "The government," she replied.
A friend who arrived at the Occupy Simchat Torah event before I did said that some introductory remarks had associated the celebration with outdoor Simchat Torah celebrations at the Carlebach Shul on Manhattan's Upper West Side, which ended after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and with public Simchat Torah celebrations in Moscow during the age of the Soviet Union.
The Soviet reference touched a nerve with me, because no one knew better than the Soviet Communists how to use public shows of Judaism — whether at Birobidzhan or at a synagogue in Moscow — to mask a virulently anti-Semitic underlying agenda. It would be a shame if the pictures and videos of Jews with torahs and prayer shawls at Occupy Simchat Torah were used to advance a classically anti-Semitic agenda of scapegoating bankers and banks for economic hard times whose cause is actually much broader and includes not mainly bankers (whose work, after all, is essential to capitalist prosperity) but also consumers, politicians, and regulators.
The Occupy Simchat Torah crowd, for its part, seemed motivated not so much by anti-Wall Street rage than by curiosity and the chance to participate in a spirited outdoor service. I heard one participant tell another that she thought it would be a good answer to the charge that Occupy Wall Street is full of anti-Semitism.
In the Soviet example, there were communists with Jewish backgrounds, but they eventually turned violently on the Jews in the Soviet Union. Here in New York, there are Jews both among the bankers and among the protesters against the bankers, probably more a sign of Jewish integration into the overall American population than an indicator of any Jewish particularity.
If the Occupy Wall Street movement does turn against the Jews, it certainly wouldn't be the first American protest movement to do so. The Civil Rights movement (via Malcolm X) and the anti-Vietnam War (ask Martin Peretz) movements both, in their ways, did so in the end, despite Jewish participation at the outset in both. The Occupy Simchat Torah participants seemed to be trying to do what they can to prevent such a nasty turn in this one. If they succeed, as I hope they do, it will take more than a night of praying, singing, and dancing with torahs. And if they do not succeed, they might instead find themselves confronting the old and hard truth that anti-Semitism is spawned, in the end, not by the behavior of Jews, good or ill, but by the anti-Semites.