Allies against anti-Semitism

Cherie Brown was a college student at UCLA in the ’60s, when ethnocentric pride was in vogue. As the progressive Jewish activist went knocking on doors of the various ethnic organizations, trying to build alliances, doors slammed in her face.

“I am here because I’m committed to ending racism, but anti-Jewish oppression diverts this work over and over again,” said Brown.

A longtime activist in the progressive Jewish community, Brown relayed those thoughts to about 300 people gathered in a conference room at the Oakland Marriott on Saturday afternoon, as part of the opening panel for “Facing a Challenge Within: A Progressive Scholars’ and Activists’ Conference on Anti-Semitism and the Left.”

The three-day conference, organized by Judy Andreas of Richmond, a non-Jew who is writing a dissertation on the topic, brought together a diverse crowd of concerned activists, both Jewish and not.

For example, Victor Lewis, a dreadlocked African American who identified as a “pro-Semite, shamefaced Judeophile,” said even though he was raised in the black underclass, he identified with Jews as “hyper-intellectual,” and “hyper-literate.”

Lewis made the point that because views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are so polarized, most people have compassion only for one side.

“If this is true, there is no hope for the human family,” he said.

Gina Waldman, a Tiburon resident who co-founded JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, had the audience saying one of her frequently repeated lines: “Hate is a weapon of mass destruction.”

Andreas decided to organize such a conference when she got a difficult time from her own academic institution over her plan to do her doctoral thesis on anti-Semitism on the left. After overcoming several hurdles, she is currently in the middle of the dissertation.

If Andreas thought the conference was necessary, so did the many attendees, who came from diverse parts of the country.

Lucia Jimeno, a Latina from Brooklyn, N.Y., works for a New York-based national organization called GLSEN, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network.

“As progressive and as forwardly thinking individuals, a lot of times we don’t make the connection between anti-Semitism and other forms of oppression,” Jimeno said.

Eryn Kalish, president of the Compassionate Listening Project, which brings delegations of people to the Middle East to hear views from all sides of the conflict, came from Seattle to conduct two workshops.

Kalish had to serve as a mediator at times when things got heated. “I’ve been saying since the last intifada that the world needs to embrace both peoples rather than rejecting either,” said Kalish, adding that attending the conference “was one of the ways people who were not Jewish were coming forward to embrace Jews.”

While there were some difficult moments at the conference, two women who participated in a panel called “Bridging Mainstream Jewish Groups and Jewish Activists” had positive things to say.

“What the left has to offer is process, and the level of dialogue and manner in which people handled really difficult subjects was really impressive,” said Rachel Canar, associate director of the regional office of the New Israel Fund.

And Abby Michelson Porth, who as associate director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, had the difficult task of representing the mainstream Jewish community at the conference, was asked some tough questions, but she was still upbeat about what she saw.

“As moved as I was by Judy’s initiative and motivation and compassion and hard work, I was equally moved that there are so many Jewish progressives who want to play a part in eliminating anti-Semitism from leftist activism,” Porth said.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."