Is "Occupy Wall Street" anti-Semitic?

By Kenneth Stern

October 22, 2011

Occupy Wall Street (OWS), and its spinoffs across the United States, is still not fully defined. It cannot fairly be labeled a movement, since movements have core ideologies, agendas and leadership. OWS, launched in mid-September, is a continuing demonstration, focusing anger around the economic status quo and the assertion that people are suffering in ways they perceive corporations are not. It prides itself on its lack of leaders, and, according to the OWS website, points to the non-violent Arab Spring protests as its model.

But it is also a magnet for people of various backgrounds, reflecting a hodgepodge of concerns and participants. Various political groups see opportunities. The labor movement and some Democrats see a natural constituency in opposition to Republicans and the Tea Party. Fringe groups of all stripes are trying to leverage OWS.

For anti-Israel groups, OWS is a no-brainer: people are talking about money, so the issue of U.S. aid to Israel is a natural. Or is it? Despite efforts to leaflet and organize OWS, there is no evidence to date that anti-Israel groups are gaining any real traction. OWS is too anarchistic, so attempts to organize there remind one of efforts to herd cats.

OWS is slightly different in each city, depending on the local activists. Occupy Boston may have the most significant contingent of anti-Israel veteran protesters, including a person with a history of picketing the Israeli consulate, a co-chair of a group advocating Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), and a contingent of Students for Justice in Palestine. Yet, few showed up for an “Occupy Boston, Not Palestine” event on October 18. It was generally ignored except for observers from the mainstream Jewish community.

Individuals holding up signs, like one person in New York’s Zucotti Park whose handmade sign states “Google: Jewish Billionaires,” have been few, and have frequently been countered by other OWS participants.

Furthermore, a poster promoted by “Occupy Together,” points to kindred “Occupy” activity in cities across the globe, and specifically lists Tel Aviv.

While the potential for increased anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity associated with OWS is a concern that requires careful monitoring, and will be an ongoing focus of AJC attention, some recent complaints from partisan quarters and in the media alleging widespread anti-Semitism are unfair. They attempt to paint the episodic incident as routine and ignore both the repudiation in instances of anti-Semitism, as well as the hospitable environment for Jews. Yom Kippur and Sukkot were both celebrated at OWS.

Still, one anti-Semitic sign is too many. We live in a world where an image or moment can be captured by a cell phone camera and put on the Internet within minutes. A picture may be the equivalent of a thousand words, but it should not be taken as reflecting the ideas of thousands of participants.

A Canadian named Kalle Lasn is credited for instigating the call to occupy Wall Street. Lasn was a founder of the anti-consumerist group “Adbusters,” which has promoted projects such as “Buy Nothing Day” and “TV Turnoff Week,” and has been cited as a source of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic material. He may be responsible for initiating the call to action, but OWS is being carried forward by a diverse group of actors. There is no evidence that anti-Israel elements are playing a significant role in this anarchistic demonstration.

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