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If Not Now…When?: Colorado Jews Draw The Line: National Jewish Day of Resistance

December 1, 2016
IfNotNowWhen Protest in front of the Jewish Community Center in Denver, November 29, 2016

IfNotNowWhen Protest in front of the Jewish Community Center in Denver, November 29, 2016

If Not Now, When? – Background

The saying originated from the Babylonian Jewish philosopher and leader, Hillel The Elder (110 BC-10 AD). It comes from a longer quote: “If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” Part of the quote, the “If not now when?” portion became the title of  one of Italian Jewish writer Primo Levi‘s semi-autobiographical novel that details his circuitous journey from Auschwitz concentration camp through East Europe back to Italy at the end of the war. The expression, shortened a bit to IfNotNow, was picked up in a timely manner as the name of a relatively new Jewish organization in the United States whose stated mission is:

During the violence of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, young Jews angered by the overwhelmingly hawkish response of American Jewish institutions came together under the banner of IfNotNow to demonstrate their resistance through the beauty of Jewish ritual. Moved to act by moral anguish and inspired by Hillel’s three questions, they organized Mourner’s Kaddish actions in nearly a dozen cities across the country and lamented the loss of both Israeli and Palestinian life. They had three demands: Stop the War on Gaza, End the Occupation, and Freedom and Dignity for All.

The demand for American Jewish institutions to end their support for the occupation has only grown more urgent and clear since that summer. While the out-of-touch establishment claims to speak for our community, we know that American Jewry is eager for change.

We are building a vibrant and inclusive movement within the American Jewish community, across generations and organizational affiliations. This movement is open to any who seek to shift the American Jewish public away from the status quo that upholds the occupation.

Some months ago, a Denver chapter began to take shape. I attended what I suppose was an organizational meeting. There were about fifteen people in the room, mostly young Jews (the allusive “young” keeps changing for me – my latest definition: under 40). Many had been to Israel and to Occupied Palestine. There was a mix of people from both religious and secular backgrounds. As people briefly introduced themselves I realized that many of them had reached some kind of emotional watershed and were trying to deconstruct what they had been taught in school and synagogue and grapple with what Jews is THE issue, at least, the contemporary issue: their relationship to Zionism, how they were trying to process it all, struggles with their families, how to tell their parents, etc.

Something was stirring. Although much of all this is long behind me, still, it was moving to see their honesty, the emotional, psychological and political struggles they were going through. I felt the best way I could contribute to what I saw happening in the room was to leave, give them their space to find their way, make their way on their own, but when I could, I’d pitch in and help out in whatever small way I can. If last night is any indication, they’re doing just fine.  Last night was IfNotNow-Colorado’s first public activity (to my knowledge). It was well focused, clearly and humanely articulated, well organized event, widely advertised on their Facebook page and through email beforehand. Along with a friend (a Chicano goy!) I went.

A Chicano goy in solidarity with Jewish human rights activists and opponents of the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian lands

A Chicano goy in solidarity with Jewish human rights activists and opponents of the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian lands

The Protest: What Was It About?

Between sixty and seventy-five people attended the protest well-organized by IfNotNow-Colorado. It was, it turned out, a part of national actions taking place all over the country to protest the racist, homophobic and misogynistic explosion that was an integral part of Donald Trumps successful presidential campaign. Protest movements among Jews in Colorado, opposing both the Community’s position on national and international issues (read – Israel-Palestine) while not unknown, are not exactly commonplace. Even small ones – and this one boarded on “beyond the small” – make Community leaders nervous, in part because they know that while less than 100 protesters came out to brave the cold, that many many more Colorado Jews agree with the message of those who did, especially among the Community’s youth.

The protestors held picket signs reading “Oy Vey, No  KKK,” “Jews Say No To Islamophobia,” “White Supremacy Will Never Be A Jewish Value” and others opposing homophobia and misogyny, the group stood in front of the entrance of Denver’s Jewish Community Center; there were a few stirring short speeches calling for Colorado’s Jewish Community to be more active in opposing the current racist hysteria sweeping the state and the country.

Among the chants were:

“End Islamaphobia–end it now! Peace and harmony is our vow; The end is coming, the end is near..The end of oppression and the end of fear”

“JEWISHcolorado, you say you speak for Jews, So don’t be cowardly–you’ve got to choose! Tell Trump we won’t tolerate Islamophobic hatred…Religious tolerance we hold sacred.”

Here in Colorado, there was also a specific focus, to oppose the position of the Jewish Community Relations Council “not to comment upon specific Presidential appointments.” The Colorado Council’s position essentially mirrors that of its national organization, Jewish Federations of North America.

This failure to condemn the blatant racism and antisemitism of the Trump campaign and now, presidential appointments, was the spark that triggered IfNotNow nationally and in Colorado to action. The op-ed written by the Denver-based group zeroed in on the appointment of Steve Bannon as Trump’s chief of staff, an appointment that does not require Congressional scrutiny or approval. It also noted the rather disturbing background of incoming National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, fired by Barack Obama as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the potential incoming Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, denied a federal judgeship because of a lifetime of racism. IfNotNow’s statement said in part:

“Incoming Chief Strategist Steve Bannon was the chairman of Breibart News, which became a home of the alt-right under his leadership. [Even] Glenn Beck has referred to him as a “nightmare” and compared him to Joseph Goebbels, a name which rings especially coldly to Jewish ears. Potential incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has advocated curtailing Muslim immigration and consider a Muslim registry. He also regularly re-posts the vitriol of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim commentators.” Potential incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been named “Amnesty’s worst enemy” because of his track record on immigration. He has been accused of racism throughout his career and was denied a federal judge position because of his use of racist language. “

The op-ed goes on. It notes the rapid growth in harassment and hate crimes “brought about and legitimized by the rhetoric of Trump and those he has appointed.”

“These [the proposed appointments and cabinet nominees] are all men who espouse and support open racism and xenophobia and whose very appointment to these positions emboldens and affirms this hatred and bigotry. We believe the line should be drawn here, and this normalizing of hate speech and actions should be called out for what it is. Not a single policy has been enacted, bu the damage is already substantial.”

The statement was signed by many of the protest participants and will be handed over to the Jewish Community Relations Council today (December 1, 2016).

in front of Denver's Jewish Community Center

in front of Denver’s Jewish Community Center

Some Colorado-Specific Considerations: Mizel, Brownstein and Farber (once again)

While Colorado’s Jewish Community is by a large margin Democratic and voted that way in the recent presidential contest, there are notable exceptions, among them Larry Mizel, local real estate developer (Richmond Homes) and philanthropist, who is a leader among Colorado Republicans, and something of a power broker both in the Republican Party and certainly within Denver’s Jewish Community. In the past he has often been associated with Norm, Brownstein and Steve Farber whose law firm, Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber and Schreck are powerbrokers in their own right. Along with Denver Bronco co-owner and football legend (in Colorado anyway) John Elway, Mizel endorsed Trump and facilitated much of his Colorado campaign.

At the picket, the names of Mizel, Brownstein and Farber were not mentioned, but anyone familiar with Colorado Jewish politics knows who seems to run the show among Colorado Jews.  While he doesn’t hold all the cards, Mizel’s voice in the decisions of the Jewish Community Relations Council is rather authoritative, but his support for Trump (combined with some of his past actions listed below) has eroded some of his base among Denver Jewish constituents who feel he’s gone overboard to the right politically, cozying up with bigots like Trump and his coterie of billionaires, war mongers and bigots. For some Colorado Jews, and among them, some influential ones, Mizel’s support for Trump was “the last straw.” If they were not present at IfNotNow’s rally, still, I would guess that they are not at all displeased to see this unusual (for Denver) show of open opposition to what amounts to as Mizel’s influence and politics.

Although a long-time popular personality in the Denver political scene as a result of his philanthropic work, Mizel’s reputation has long been tarnished. He’s never really been able to overcome his role in what was called the Silverado banking scandal of the 1980s. Although he was not convicted of anything, several of his associates did prison time at the time. He is the founder of a bizarre “museum” in downtown Denver called “The Cell” – an “anti-terrorism” museum that tends to romanticize and support U.S. military intervention around the world.

Finally a number of years ago, he personally invited one John Hagee to speak before the annual Jewish Men’s Dinner (quite a big annual event). Hagee, the leader of the country’s Christian Zionist movement, is a key figure in the Christian right of this country. His support for Israel is tinged with more than a small dose of overt anti-Semitism. The Hagee invitation triggered a powerful and until then unique negative response. Under community pressure, Mizel, miffed, had to withdraw the invitation.

As for Brownstein and Farber, whose lobbying firm went sometime ago gone national (by some estimates the fifth largest lobbying firm in Washington DC with growing influence in the country’s energy sector, theirs is a fascinating history too detailed to go into here. In the recent election though, good power brokers that they are, they had their feet in both the Clinton and Trump camps. Their close personal relations with the Clintons bore fruit in Hillary Clinton’s choice of former U.S. Senator Ken Salazar, to head what would have been her transition team. Salazar is a long time friend – cynics say clone – of Brownstein and Farber. As the transition team chooses 2500 federal employees, the position as head of the operation comes with considerable political clout. But alas, Hillary lost and that particular door to power (and the wealth that comes with it) was slammed shut. With it the national aspirations of a number of Colorado politicians, among them Colorado’s Governor, John Hickenlooper and Denver’s Mayor Michael Hancock went “poof.” “all gone” (in neither case no great loss to the national common good).

Had Hillary won the presidency Brownstein and Farber would have been able to literally run the transition team from behind the scenes with Salazar as a kind of front man for them. As that was not to be, and never ones to give up without an effort, they tried through another medium. But appearances suggest their efforts to influence the Trump transition have run into a wall of sorts. Originally David Bernhardt, headed up Trump’s esteemed Eenergy Department transition. A lawyer and Westlands (California) Water District lobbyist, Bernhardt co-chaired the natural resources department at  Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and served as a George W. Bush Interior Department official, as the head of the Interior Department team.

But on November 21, Trump pushed out Bernhardt and replaced him with someone even more to the right, naming Doug Domenech, the director of a pro-Big-Oil think tank, to lead his Interior Department advisory group, the Center for Biological Diversity reported.  Trump had made a promise to purge lobbyists and other Washington insiders from his staff, but since the election, just the opposite has happened. Theses creepy crawly types are everywhere in the transition. This has triggered considerable public pressure to limit lobbyist access.

After Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael (CA) floated an amendment that would have highlighted Bernhardt’s (and ultimately Brownstein and Farber’s) conflict of interest, Bernhardt was pressured to resign from his leading post in the transition team, reducing Brownstein and Farber’s future influence at the Department of Energy, a key government plum for a lobbying firm that represents a fair number of the firms involved in fracking in Colorado and the West.

As Dan Bacher reported in an article on Counterpunch

Domenech is director of the Fueling Freedom Project, a subsidiary of the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation, an organization heavily funded by the billionaire Koch brothers and ExxonMobil. The project advocates and celebrates the continued burning of fossil fuels — and its goals include ending “the regulation of CO2 as a pollutant.” Its prime directive is to defend “the forgotten moral case for fossil fuels.”

So although they still have a finger in the Energy transition team pie –  Bernhardt remains on the team – or so it seems – but in a less influential position, Brownstein, Farber and Mizel took a bit of a hit in all this.


Related (more or less) links:

Colorado JCRC Lost Me With Their Non-Response To Steve Bannon by David Schneer

Keith Ellison Isn’t An Anti-Semite: He’s The Victim of a Vicious  Smear by Jesse Myerson

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Shirley "Billie" Bramhall permalink
    December 1, 2016 9:10 am

    As an older long-time liberal-lefty Jew I am overjoyed at this new group. Good luck and good wishes to you. Since I haven’t heard a word about you except from another oldie, Rob Prince, I assume you’ve decided you don’t need us long-struggling old timer progressive Jews. When you welcome us I’ll be with you.
    Billie Bramhall, retired city planner, full-time volunteer for the rights of homeless people in Denver, long time advocate for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine debacle with full rights to the Palestinians living in Israel.

    Billie Bramhall

  2. John Kane permalink
    December 1, 2016 9:45 am

    As a Catholic I am also happy to see the arrival of this group on the Denver scene, and continue to appreciate Rob’s insights about the Jewish power structure in Colorado.

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