Below is the text from the talk that I gave at our banned workshop at the Le Mood conference, "Where have all the radical Jews gone?". The talk was given outside the Le Mood conference at Espace Reunion on November 3, 2013. For the background story, go here:
Hello, and thank you for coming to our panel, despite the cold. I want to start by acknowledging that we stand here today on occupied Mohawk territory, and I want to thank the Mohawk people for having us as settlers (those who are settlers) on their land. I want to start with this assertion not to pay lipservice to the fact that Canada is built on expropriated native land, but also because it is senseless in Canada to talk about any kind of social justice without first addressing colonization. Colonialism in Canada is no distant history. It is a present reality for every indigenous person on Turtle Island, or so-called Canada, every time an oil pipeline is built, every time a Native woman is abducted and the cops turn a blind eye, or every time we allow our friends to dress up for Halloween as an “Indian princess” or “Native spirit warrior”. The Idle No More movement forced all of us as Canadians to wake up to this reality when it made its debut almost a year ago.
My politics are of decolonization. As Jews, we could talk and argue until the cows about Israel and Palestine, but it is morally vapid unless we deal with the very real issues of decolonization at home first, and put our support behind Native struggles for land and self-determination.
So to come back to the topic of the panel, Where Have All the Radical Jews Gone, as my co-panelist Sarah Woolf can attest to, I was really apprehensive about participating from the beginning. I found the premise of the question quite odd, because as an activist and community organizer in Montreal, I feel like I'm surrounded by radical Jews all the time. There are so many Jews involved in Montreal's migrant justice movement, queer liberation movement, anarchist movement, organizing anti-racist demos against the Quebec Values Charter, and yes, of course, doing Palestine solidarity work. I suppose the question is funny because as radical Jews, perhaps we congregate in very different places. The fact that we're standing here outside because our panel was censored is an illuminating example. But we are there. We hold radical queer passover seders. We organize anti-zionist Not In Our Name or Young Jews for Social Justice groups. We march in anti-police brutality demos with banners that say Dalloy Politzei.
The reason we are outside right now might be clear to many of you. We were disinvited, or censored by Le Mood, and their funders at the Federation CJA, not because of the actual content of our presentation, but because they wanted to punish Sarah and I for the values that we hold dear to our hearts around Israel and Palestine. What are those values? That's a whole other discussion, and if people are curious, they can google our names to find out more, because we have nothing to hide. We didn't accept to speak at Le Mood to try to sneak some pro-Palestinian position onto the table. I personally accepted because I am passionate about the lineage and history of radical and anarchist Jews in Montreal. It is a topic that I have researched over the last few years, and now offer walking tours of downtown Montreal on the subject.
But now that we are outside, and we are talking about censorship, it makes sense to address a few points. Ever since I got involved in activism more than 10 years ago, I have been interested in the plight of the Palestinians. This is because I fundamentally believe that Israel should and must end its military occupation, all Palestinians living in Israel deserve equal rights to those of Jews, and that Israel should abide by international law and allow all displaced Palestinian refugees to return to their homelands.
I actually don't think that these positions are very radical. In fact, many Israelis, and many esteemed lawmakers, academics, and activists throughout the world would agree this is basic. But these are the kind of views that the Federation CJA and others find deeply threatening. They find equality deeply threatening.
Sadly, this is not the first time I've been censored or reprimanded by my own so-called community. In late 2004, I was registered to go on a Birthright Israel trip, and was threatened to be pulled off the trip by the Bronfman Israel Experience Center and the CJA because I was a member of the Jewish Alliance Against the Occupation. They finally allowed me to leave with them, but under the explicit condition that I did not talk about politics with the other participants. I didn't really, but then stayed in the occupied West Bank for two months afterwards to work with the International Solidarity Movement.
Anyways, today Moishe, Sarah, and I join a long list of Jews who have been censored by our own community for the beliefs we hold dear. For example, today we would have told you about Rose Pesotta, a Ukrainian-born Jewish anarchist-feminist who lived in Montreal in the 1930s, and helped to organize the infamous Greve des Midinettes in the women's textile factories in 1937. It was a successful strike where 11 000 women won a 10% wage increase, overtime pay, and the right to a shorter work week.
As the great departed anarchist folk singer Utah Philips once said, reflecting on labour struggles of old, “My sister never had to work at the age of 8-9 at the looms. Why do we have that 8 hour day? Why do we have those workplace safety laws? Why do we have those laws busting the sweatshops? Were they benevolent gifts from an enlightened management? No! They were fought for, bled for, died for by people a lot like us. They died not on the battle field to fight another dumb bosses war, they died on the picket line to give all of us a better future.”
Anyways, Rose Pesotta was such an effective labour organizer that the bosses and the catholic church saw her as an incredible threat. They characterized her as a “dangerous foreign agitator”, and tried to have her arrested, and even deported.
Another, perhaps more well-known Jewish anarchist-feminist was Emma Goldman. Goldman agitated for workers rights, birth control, free love, and against militarism. She is an incredible inspiration. She gave her first talk in Montreal in 1908 in front of 500 people. Her public talks, often in Yiddish, were incredibly rousing. She spoke once to in Union Square in New York to a group of unemployed workers and famously declared “Ask for work. If they do not give you work, ask for bread. If they do not give you work or bread, then take the bread.” Her speech led to a food riot, but it inspired the kind of dignity that so many of us hunger for every day.
Goldman, like Pesotta and so many other radical Jews, was considered a threat to the establishment. Emma and her partner Alexander Berkman were deported from the USA to Russia in 1918 at the hight of the WWI Red Scare, simply because of their anti-war activism.
In a similar vein, Jewish artists like Reena Katz, academics like Ben Peto, or community organizers like Jeff Halper, have all been censored for standing up to Israeli militarism and aggression. It is a disgusting, silencing tactic that must be denounced and ended.
So when we look back at the question of “where have all the radical Jews gone?”, well we're everywhere. Everywhere there is injustice, everywhere there is war, everywhere people are struggling for dignity from occupied Palestine to Turtle Island. Perhaps the better question is “where has the moral courage and openess in the Jewish community gone?”