Sunday, June 20, 2010


More than 200 elders, youth, artists, educators, and activists packed the small theater of the Furniture Factory last night for the Opening Plenary of the US Assembly of Jews: Confronting Racism and Israeli Apartheid. Hailing from as far north as Montreal and as far south as Buenos Aires and ranging in age from 6 to 76, one theme binds the Assembly attendees: "An explicit commitment to supporting Palestinian self-determination and to anti-Zionist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist politics and practice" (from the Assembly's Goals, Assumptions, and Expectations). This historic event marks the first national (and arguably hemispheric) gathering of anti-Zionist Jews, a powerful movement moment that one of the evening’s featured speakers, Kali Akuno of Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and US Human Rights Network, called "long overdue." Over the course of the evening, a chorus of voices from the stage and the seats spoke of the histories of resistance that buoyed participants into the Assembly, and also of the importance of remembering that anti-Zionist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist organizing must always be led by and accountable to the grassroots of the struggle, those who are fighting daily to throw off the chains of their oppression.

While the Assembly is geared towards anti-Zionist Jews, the contributions of Palestinians, non-Jewish movement leaders, and allies have been crucial in realizing the vision of the gathering. The Michigan Peacemakers will provide security support throughout the Assembly, and last night's program was held in a Palestinian-owned space. Hasan Nawash of Dearborn's Palestine Cutural Office welcomed the Assembly's participants to Detroit, which is home to the largest Arab population in the country. Nawash, whose family were evicted from their home in Ein Karem (now part of West Jerusalem), spoke of the resilience of the people of Palestine, noting that "giving up is not in our dictionary," and reminded the attendees of the important contributions Jews like Ilan Pappé and Norm Finkelstein have made to the struggle for the liberation of Palestine. Andrew Dalack from the local chapter of the US Palestinian Community Network reminded the audience that Palestinian voices are the "heartbeat" of the Palestine solidarity movement, and everyone must work to create space for those voices.
Feminist activist and scholar Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi, cofounder of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Associations in North America, spoke of the ways in which “feminism” has been used by imperialists to dictate what the experiences of colonized women should be. When colonizers define women exclusively as caretakers and forces of peace, women who struggle against occupation and its supporting ideologies such as Zionism can only be seen as repressed and backwards victims of colonized men in their society. Abdulhadi stood strong on the basic premise that any colonized woman or man has the right to fight their oppression, and colonizers don’t have the right to dictate the terms of that struggle.
Kali Akuno talked about the need for solidarity with ongoing struggles for sovereignty and self-determination within the US, and the crucial task of reclaiming civil society from the nonprofit-industrial complex, which pits organizations against one another and discourages paid activists from doing necessary movement-building work that is not always popular with foundations and other granting organizations.

Some Assembly attendees feel somewhat conflicted about attending a gathering specifically for anti-Zionist Jews. Barbara Lubin, the founder of the Middle East Children's Alliance spoke openly about the discomfort she feels in attending an anti-Zionist conference geared towards Jews. She told the audience that she looks forward to the day when she can attend a conference designed for all anti-Zionists. Many attendees and organizers agree with this sentiment, and speak of the Assembly as a precursor to the US Social Forum, where Assembly organizers and participants will lead and attend a variety of sessions focused on Palestinian liberation in addition to other anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggles throughout the US and around the world.
Sara Kershnar, a founder of the International Jewish anti-Zionist Network, another of the Assembly's sponsors, emphasized that Jewish allies are not the grassroots of the struggle for Palestinian liberation, and must understand their role as one of solidarity with the grassroots of the struggle. However, Kershnar noted that anti-Zionist Jews have their own complaints about Zionism. She explained that Zionism separates Jews from the rest of humanity by convincing them that anti-Jewish sentiment will always exist. But "the Assembly is comprised of Jews who are interested in being a part of humanity," she said, and "when Jews let go of our own exceptionalism, it means seeing ourselves as a part of a history and a broader struggle for justice." Celebrated activist, author, and elder Selma James pointed out that Zionism "cuts [Jews] off from their traditional position of struggling with those who are struggling."

More than 4 hours after the start of the plenary, the theater inside the Furniture Factory began to empty as organizers packed up Assembly merchandise and put away folding chairs and tables. As most of the participants filtered out into the lobby, around 50 stayed behind to participate in a short havdalah. Candles were lit and the lights were dimmed, and the group took a series of collective deep breaths. Then, with thoughts of the tremendous work to come in the days ahead, fifty voices rose to the candle-lit ceiling: shavua tov, they sang, a gut voch. Wrapping themselves in the ceremonial glow that has bound 6000 years of tradition and the languages that have come to represent so much about oppression and resistance, fifty Jews from across the US held each other and swayed, preparing for a challenging, inspiring, and movement-building week.

By Emily Ratner and Greg Hom


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