By Hava Liebowitz | Guest Writer
Hava Liebowitz is a white Jewish woman from South Carolina. She studied fine arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and got her start organizing with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. At SAIC, she was a student leader with SAIC Hillel and member of the Social Art Department and the Student Advocacy Alliance for Health and Disability. This fall, she relocated to New Orleans to participate in the Avodah Service Corps. She is an interdisciplinary artist, and much of her art is made through a queer feminist lens. You can connect with her at havaliebowitz.com or on Instagram @havaliebowitz.
I am a white Ashkenazi Jewish woman from the rural South. I am an openly queer person who practices Reform Judaism. I am the daughter of my hometown’s only Rabbi, who is, by virtue of this, somewhat of a public figure.
Growing up, I was often at my father’s side at interfaith, multi-faith, multiracial, and political events. I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of when various groups attempt to be in solidarity with each other.
But I have also seen that when it really matters, my small town of Spartanburg is a united front when it comes to issues of oppression. That means we are more open to hearing each other and meeting each other where we’re at, even when it’s uncomfortable.
Only a couple months ago, the world was holding its breath, waiting to find out who would be elected to the U.S. presidential office. This January the world watched again as supporters of Trump’s hostile administration ransacked the Capitol building and threatened Congresspeople in an attempted coup.
We will soon be entering a new political era, one led by a president who does not openly court the favor of white supremacists. As hopeful as I am, I know that this shift in power will not save us from the oppressive elements woven into the fabric of our country. Our work continues.
When the Tension Finally Snaps
Ironically enough, times of peace ushered in by more progressive administrations and limited reforms can be some of the worst for organizing and solidarity between groups. Internal divisions come to a head and less radical allies abandon the cause.
I have observed this in many movement spaces outside of my hometown and even in the larger Jewish community. The Jewish community has plenty of internal issues. White Jews need to check our own biases around race and the way our community operates for us to ever truly be in solidarity with BIPOC.
The Problem with Burning Bridges
Building these relationships takes continued effort. Often when I attempt to connect with organizing spaces beyond the Jewish and queer communities, I find that organizers can be as quick to burn bridges as they are to form coalitions in the first place.
Organizers sometimes come into coalition building defensively, with both groups expecting unequivocal agreement from each other and assuming the other’s needs, priorities, and goals without asking.
In my experience as a Jewish organizer, I find that other organizers make assumptions and thus feel compelled to interrogate me or even give me ultimatums around Israel and my boundaries with the more moderate or conservative parts of my community. While I want to challenge my community on its relationship to the state of Israel and the American Right, I find it particularly frustrating when given ultimatums by those outside the community.
Due to the nature of the work, organizers often find themselves burnt out and world weary. But seeking liberation by its very nature requires us to move in new and compelling ways. To continue on that path, we have to commit to a level of trust, vulnerability, and humility.
Under the Trump administration, activists were almost always responding to a state of emergency. Whether it was the separation of families at the border, the attack on the civil rights of transgender people, or the use of military force against protestors in the M4BL, organizers were putting out fires left and right.
But these new challenges were also met by new alliances. The Jewish organization Never Again Action mobilized across the country in solidarity with Movemiento Cosecha to protest the detainment of migrants in camps. Now we must sustain these connections and commit to these relationships.
Throughout history, there have been activists who reached across divides and created connections where none existed before. Despite having a contested reputation due to his political affiliation, the life and work of Chicago activist Fred Hampton is an incredible example of solidarity and coalition building.
Fred Hampton began organizing as a young teen, first with the NAACP and then as a Black Panther. As a Black Panther, he was able to negotiate a nonaggression pact between Chicago’s various gangs. He then founded the Rainbow Coalition with Jose Cha Cha Jimenez of the Young Lords and William Fesperman of the Young Patriots.
The Rainbow Coalition was a multiracial alliance that later grew to include Students for a Democratic Society, the American Indian Movement, and the Poor People’s Coalition. The original three groups had similar working class backgrounds and collaborated together to create community run health clinics, breakfast programs, and child care. They also defended each other from police and provided jail support.
We don’t think you fight fire with fire best; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. –Fred Hampton
Fesperman, a white Appalachian transplant to Chicago, stopped wearing a Confederate flag out of solidarity with the Panthers and urged other Patriots to do the same. The coalition was so uniquely effective that many believe it was what motivated the Chicago Police Department to assassinate Hampton at the young age of 21.
How to Build Better
Where I grew up, both in my public interfaith sphere and personal queer community, we didn’t leave anyone behind. We couldn’t afford to.
At the same time, most if not all communities have prejudiced attitudes within them, and we must be willing to critique ourselves and our communities when it comes to anti-Blackness, nationalism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia.
When I am coalition building with any group for the first time, I am aware that we will be creating something entirely new together. Living during a global pandemic has only strengthened my awareness that we are all interdependent and responsible for each other’s lives.
If you’re looking to reach out to the Jewish community, I highly recommend the 30 page pamphlet “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere” by April Rosenblum. Having a general idea of our history and our contemporary concerns will set the tone for a more conscious and richer relationship when organizing with Jewish communities.
Besides being inclusive and breaking down prejudice within our movements, we must remain authentic and open to growth. As our beloved singer Leonard Cohen said, “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”