‘Occupy The Occupiers’ Disrupts Birthright Israel Event

Written by Adam Horowitz

From a Young, Jewish and Proud press release on the first "Occupy the Occupiers" protest:

A group of 10 young Jews with YJP: the young adult wing of Jewish Voice for Peace issued their new declaration "Occupy the Occupiers: a Jewish Call to Action" in novel form last night. Using the "human microphone" or "people's microphone" made famous by the Occupy Wall Street protests they interrupted a Birthright Israel Next-sponsored event. The event featured CEO Steven Pease, and was called "The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement," part of Birthright Israel's Next's "Wall St." series. Pease was addressing the question of "Why Jews are disproportionately high achievers?"

The young Jews used the human microphone, one person saying a short phrase and others repeating back, to read a site-specific version of their declaration which calls for young Jews to take similar actions wherever the "1%" of their own community gathers. The disruption will be broadcast on Occupy Wall Street's video stream. Afterwards, protesters stayed outside to continue reading their declaration and share stories of their experiences of what they saw as Birthright's dishonest presentations of Israel. Their numbers more than doubled as passers by joined them. Later that night, via twitter, Birthright Israel offered to "dialogue" with the protesters. Birthright Israel was previously the target of a Young, Jewish, and Proud spoof email offering a fictional "Birthright for All" trip that included Palestinians.

Noting the incongruity of inviting a CEO representing the "1%" while Occupy Wall Street rages a few miles away, participant Carolyn Klaasen noted "For weeks now, I have been proudly protesting at Occupy Wall Street with other Jews and celebrating Jewish holidays in Zuccotti Park. I feel that such actions are far more in line with Jewish tradition than this event, which lifted up as a model of ‘success’ people like illegal settlement builder Lev Leviev who profit from exploitation of others. That is part of the problem we’re protesting in the Occupy movement.”

Liza Behrendt, participant, adds "Birthright is a symptom of a larger structural problem in the Jewish institutional world in which our version of the 1%, a handful of wealthy donors including people like the Schustermans or Sheldon Adelson, is able to dictate the social and political agenda of the 99%. That's because Jewish institutions are so dependent on the 1% for funds.

In the case of Birthright, hundreds of millions of private and now Israeli public dollars are being spent on free propaganda trips for predominantly middle and upper class American Jews while urgent needs in the United States and Israel go unmet. At the same time, within the dominant Jewish institutions, like Hillel, critical thinking about israel is not only discouraged but actively suppressed."

Kiera Feldman, one of the 'Occupy the Occupiers' activists, sets the scene in a post for Waging Nonviolence:

I did my best to smell and look expensive, like someone who would normally come out on a Monday night to hear “venture capitalist and turn-around CEO Steven Pease,” author of a 622-page book called The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement. The program began with a complimentary light dinner, then the talk: “Why Jews are Disproportionately High Achievers.” This was the first in a series of Wall Street-oriented events hosted at Birthright Israel’s alumni headquarters, a loft on West 13th Street with exposed brick walls and tasteful track lighting.

Inside my free copy of The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement—Birthright, flush with the cash of Wall Street bajillionaires like Michael Steinhardt, is very big on free—I found tables with statistics: 21% of Ivy League students are Jews, 11% of senators, 40% of NBA team owners, 31% of Forbes’ 400, 24% of Fortune‘s “25 Most Powerful People in Business,” 72% of “25 Real Estate Fortunes Among Forbes 400,” 23% of all Nobel prizes, and on and on. In every arena you could think of, Pease extolled “disproportionate Jewish achievement.”

The last time I’d been in that loft was early 2010, for a pre-trip Birthright orientation. (I wrote about my subsequent trip in The Nation.) But this time, I came with ten young Jews—a minyan—to Occupy Birthright. To liberate Birthright by repurposing its space.

It turns out that the human microphone is a powerful disruptive tool. Last Thursday, for instance, teachers in Chicago rather awesomely Occupied Scott Walker. “Mic check!” they yelled, times two, and proceeded to shut down a fancy breakfast.

“Watch out for the microphone,” Steven Pease told me as I stepped over the cable, en route to the food table. He is a kindly gray-haired man, with a pair of glasses perched atop his head. “Aren’t Jews very accomplished at everything?” I goaded him on. “I thought we were the best at not tripping.” He smiled and answered, “Basketball, the Olympics—very good.” This man apparently cannot be satirized.

I wanted to know who these people sitting around me were, what kind of jobs they work, how they feel about the occupiers laying claim to public spaces and shaping them for their own purposes. But then my friend and co-interrupter Max interrupted my schmooze plans, pointing out the chapter in Pease’s tome devoted to glorifying Lev Leviev, the blood diamond billionaire and settlement construction impresario. Leviev was once a major Birthright donor.

This article was first published by Mondoweiss, The War of Ideas in the Middle East.