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Words of Torah, funny anecdotes about my students, rants about education policy, and observations on politics, progressive Judaism, activism, and culture will all make appearances on this blog. Each post will end with a question for the reader; please respond if you feel moved.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Rallies Rule and Rally Rules

I spent 10 hours Sunday on a bus-- and incidentally spent a few hours in Washington DC at the Save Darfur rally. It was, all in all, a positive experience, and I felt strongly about being there. While teaching an interdisciplinary elective on Genocide this past fall, I spent a great deal of time reflecting about the fact that we always end up regretting our silence and inaction.

The rally was also a terrific example of the power of focus in organizing; many Jewish institutions worked together to make this a "must-do" event and to make it as easy as possible for many people to participate. People turned out because the Darfur rally organizers stayed on message and maintained a constant pressure. Someone once asked me how I decide which causes to support and one of the many parts of my answer was, "whatever everyone else is focusing on." In these types of battles, especially, numbers are crucial for success. My time creates social change more effectively if I jump on the bandwagon (obviously, provided I support the cause) rather than striking out on my own. Note that here I am not talking about major projects I might devote large amounts of time to, but rather smaller committments like which rallies to attend, which protest letters to write, etc.

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles."
-- Bob Dylan, "Subterranean Homesick Blues"

I have two rules for rallies that I'd like to introduce here, based on two unfortunate parts of the Darfur rally.

Rule One:
A rally speaker should check in with other consituencies before invoking them.

One of the rabbis who spoke at the rally went on and on about the "historic Black-Jewish partnership for social justice," and spoke as if there were an unbroken connection between Rabbi Heschel marching in 1965 and today. Now, I am extremely proud of the contributions Jews made to the civil rights movement as freedom riders, as voter-registration activists during the Summer of Freedom, as leaders who lent their voices to the struggle. However, we haven't really stuck our necks out for the African-American community very much since then. So invoking the "historic Black-Jewish partnership for social justice" feels downright disrespectful.

One of the most surprising moments of my entire college career was during a forum we held at Hillel with the head of the NAACP chapter in New Haven and the pastor of one of the largest African-American churches in the city. One of our rabbis started out by saying that he felt that the Jewish and African-American communities had a lot in common, because both knew what it felt like to experience oppression and prejudice. Well, the NAACP chairman and the pastor nearly fell off their chairs. Their experience was that the Jews in New Haven were the rich absentee landlords and the privileged of the city-- and where had we been for the past 30 years, anyway, if we cared so much about social justice? They did NOT perceive Jews as brothers and sisters in oppression in their community, and they were right. So before we go assuming anything about how other communities see us, let's reflect and perhaps check in with them, OK? (Read the awesome book How Jews Became White Folks and What that Says about Race in America by Karen Brodkin for an exploration of some of these issues.)

Rule Two:
Don't spew hatred and prejudice when that's what you're supposedly trying to combat.

My friend SB and I were wandering through the crowd at the rally when we spied a homemade protest sign that disturbed us both. One side said something like: "You can't murder us just because we don't believe in Muhammad" (with a large cross and Jewish star) and the other side said "Arabs stop murdering people of Darfur." Now, you have to understand; I had already seen three or four Muslim groups at the rally and the head of the Arab-American League had just spoken. So self-identified Muslim and Arab groups were a vocal presence against the genocide. And if I were Arab or Muslim, that sign would have made me feel alienated, unwanted, and threatened (not to mention disgusted and angry.) One of the attitudes that makes genocide possible is the habit of stereotyping and generalizing the motives, "conspiracies" and characteristics of whole groups. I found it extremely offensive that someone at an anti-genocide rally would create a sign that indicted all Arabs and all Muslims.

A note for the reality-based community members among us: The Muslims perpetrating the genocide in Darfur are killing mostly Muslims, so they aren't killing the Fur people because they aren't Muslim; it's an ethnic conflict and a conflict over access to scarce resources-- the genocide is a tool being used to exert power over a volatile country.

SB and I were so disturbed by the sign that we decided to speak to the couple carrying it. Although I just wanted to yell at them, SB prevailed in her desire to engage them in a productive dialogue, because she is an amazing, tolerant person and really wanted to try to change their minds.

We approached and let them know that their sign bothered us. They replied that they believed it was important for us to "point the finger" at the people who were responsible for the genocide. When we suggested that they could have written "Khartoum Government" or "Janjaweed" on their signs to be both accurate and less harmful, they became very defensive. "They're killing us!" they said. It became somewhat clear to me that these were people who felt afraid of Muslims and Arabs in general and that this conflict was a chance for them to express their fears.

Reasoning out of fear rarely leads us to smart conclusions.

SB and I were gratified to see that many of the people in the crowd who witnessed the dust-up were nodding in agreement with us, and a few also chimed in to say that they had been offended by the sign as well.


  • At 10:59 PM, Blogger Ruby K said…

    General, sorry I couldn't be there with the crew and with you. Your rules are great. One's particularly important, especially in light of the issues we Jews seem to have on this rally with regard to proper coalitions building. And I'm glad you and SB talked to the people about their sign. Maybe next time, those people will think before they make a sign.

  • At 11:07 PM, Blogger ALG said…

    Thanks for posting this. Since I never get to see you these days, it was great to get your perspective on the Darfur rally. ("Never get to see you" was not meant to be an indictment of you or anything. It's just that we're both so busy! Such is life.)

  • At 11:10 PM, Blogger ahavatcafe said…

    I had a similar rally experience, with regard to strange signs and strange messages about the historical black jewish partnership.

    The oddest signs I saw read: "Grow Ganjaweed not janjeweed" and "invade Iran and the Sudan." There are definitely more productive messages to send.


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