I am here as a Jewish Feminist (@theTable: Intersectionality & Political Action)
By Judith Plaskow.
When I retired, I wanted activism to be an important part of my life. After Eric Garner was choked to death by the police in the summer of 2014 for selling loose cigarettes, it became very clear to me that I needed to find a way to get involved in anti-racism work. I decided to join the Campaign for Police Accountability of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. JFREJ, as it’s called, is a twenty-five-year-old social justice organization in New York City that works in coalition with other many other groups on a variety of issues. A central principle of JFREJ organizing is that those most affected by particular issues should take the lead in formulating priorities, so JFREJ is part of Communities United for Police Reform, an umbrella organization that includes many organizations of people of color, with which JFREJ works in coalition.
I wanted do anti-racism work in a Jewish context for two reasons: a) because my commitment to social justice grows out of my Judaism; and because b) whatever connection Jews had to struggles for racial justice during the Civil Rights movement—and the extent of Jewish involvement is a matter of debate–has become frayed. It’s important to create or renew those bonds in the present and to live out the idea that issues of social justice are central to Jewish identity. Moreover, Trump’s rise made very clear the connections between racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, and, in the aftermath of the election, it seemed to me especially important to show up as a Jew against the rising tide of racism and xenophobia.
My original plan for the Feminist Liberation Theologians Network session at the AAR was to speak about an action I participated in disrupting Trump at a Republican fundraiser in December 2015. But post-election, it feels rather beside the point, so I will focus on my engagement in two other JFREJ projects. The center of JFREJ’s police accountability work is passage of the Right to Know Act by the New York City Council. The act has two parts, the first of which would require police to identify themselves when they stop people and give them a card with the phone number of the Civilian Complaint Review board and the second of which would require police to tell people why they are being stopped and inform them that, in the absence of evidence of probably cause, they can refuse to be searched. In the summer of 2016, JFREJ held four very successful Jews for Black Lives demonstrations around the City centered on demanding passage of the Right to Know Act. The actions were led by the Jews of Color Caucus within JFREJ, and lifted up the need for anti-racist work within the Jewish community as well as in the larger society.
The day before the third demonstration, the Movement for Black Lives published its platform, one paragraph of which referred to Israeli treatment of Palestinians as genocide. Several mainstream Jewish organizations that obviously had not read the whole platform issued statements disassociating themselves from Black Lives Matter. I was very struck by how important and powerful it was to be reading the platform in the context of active involvement in anti-racist work as opposed to sitting in my apartment thinking about it abstractly. As part of actions led by Jews of Color, I could not possibly think of the Jewish community and Black Lives in us versus them terms.
Then this Sept, I was one of six JFREJ seniors who had the opportunity to attend the We Won’t Wait Summit in Washington, DC. We Won’t Wait is a collaborative that prioritizes women’s economic agenda and that involves a wide range of organizations including the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Make It Work, Caring Across Generations, MomsRising, Black Women’s Roundtable, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, and others. The summit brought together over a thousand women seeking to advance a progressive public policy agenda that would put women of color and low income women at the center. JFREJ was invited as part of Caring Across generations because one of JFREJ’s big campaigns has involved building alliances between domestic workers and their employers.
I’ve read and talked a lot about intersectionality in the last many years, and the concept is central to JFREJ’s work, but I’ve never seen it more powerfully enacted than at the Summit. At one point, hundreds of women from the Domestic Workers Alliance marched into the dining room in bright red T-shirts shouting “we won’t wait.” Their collective energy made very vivid the exciting potential of a movement led by low-income women of color, many of them immigrants. The summit included session after excellent session, on voting rights, economic security, reproductive justice, violence against women, ensuring that all families are valued, and many other issue. Every single session stressed the connections between economic inequality and racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism. The organizers clearly tried to ensure that no group was left behind. Queer, trans women, and disabled women, for example, were part of panels addressing many different topics. It was quite amazing to be able to be part of that collaboration.
On the Wednesday after election, I found this message from JFREJ in my inbox:
We write you this morning in grief and rage, in mourning and in action.
For you who . . .
Want to give up
Are under direct attack
Whose beloveds are directly under attack
Don’t know where to turn or what to do
For all members of our community
Now more than ever, our work together matters. Our work didn’t begin and won’t end at the ballot box. We aren’t going anywhere.
In the hours, weeks, and months ahead we need to double down on our efforts, stand with our partners at the front lines, and those in our own community most directly under attack. We are grateful for our movements and our communities, and in this difficult moment we will show up for each other in ways we never have before.
The message made me very grateful–not for the first time–to be part of a Jewish group that’s working together with many others to try to create a more just society.
Next: Andrea Smith, “Intersectionality and Ableism” (Part 4)
Back: @theTable: “Intersectionality & Political Action” and Open Call for Submissions