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In Solidarity With Angela – 4 – Reflections on the Birmingham Incident

January 11, 2019

Fania and Angela Davis…sisters in struggle and in life

(Note: Although I will not deal with it in this entry, this whole incident brings to light the long sometimes cooperative, in recent decades more contentious relationship between this country’s Jewish and Black Communities, the key element of which is how and on what basis can the two communities re-establish a working relationship based on mutual respect and cooperation that characterized their relations up until the 1970s. Mike Wilzoch in his letter touches on this history. Today America’s Blacks and Jews – among others – need to find each other again but on a new, more democratic (and in the case of the mainstream Jewish Community less patronizing) manner. With the time she has left, it is Angela Davis and others like her – Black Marxists to be precise  – who brings to the struggle against racism – that great blotch on American history – a class analysis as well; key to the healing process, Tikkun – as Larry Grimm noted. )

Suggest that blog readers take a look at the article on the on-line source from “Mondoweiss” “Birmingham Institute’s recission of Angela Davis award over BDS becomes an embarrassment to pro-Israel groups that applied pressure” by Philip Weiss.  “Recission” – great word. It is thorough and well done.

Besides dealing with the issue at hand, it exposes in many ways how these Federations like the Birmingham Jewish Federation operate all over the country.

It speaks of “over reach of the Israel lobby”.

It also documents, carefully and I might add, tastefully, what went on behind the scenes which many thought was happening concerning “the pressure” exerted by the Birmingham Jewish Federation – the threat was pressure from the Federation, and apparently other Jewish organizations to withdraw funding and donations to Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in which Jewish donors are significant.

Faced with this threat and all the hysterical nonsense about BDS being anti-Semitic because it calls for boycotts, divestments and sanctions against companies supporting and financially benefiting from the Occupation – the Civil Rights Institute’s leadership caved under the pressure.

And then all hell broke loose locally, in Alabama, nationally and internationally. I still think that the Birmingham Jewish Federation and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute don’t understand what hit them quite yet.

For those of you who interested in following the never-ending political struggles over conflicting narratives on the Palestinian-Israeli divide – you could do a lot worse than following Mondoweiss. Pretty much everything I have read by them is like this article, ie. it has a point of view but the tone is controlled, informative, politically sound; the articles have a cutting edge – if not – why read them? but they are about as good “committed political journalism” as is found anywhere. From where I am sitting it represents the best in a tradition of progressive Jewish writing on the subject.

Phil Weiss has a clear and steady understanding of the processes and the political wrangling unfolding. The website provides a genuine service in interpreting and explaining events like this.

More – There are federations like the Birmingham Jewish Federation all over the country, including here in Colorado. Such Federations bring together diverse numbers of Jewish organizations, religious, social work, human rights, whatever into a coordinated whole. They are essentially coalitions of different Jewish organizations. While they claim in principle to be democratic, in essence – no surprise here – they are run in a centralized, ruthless manner, especially where it concerns support for Israel, and not just Israel but the Netanyahu political perspective. That is the case here in Colorado where local power brokers essentially dictate policy behind the scenes. This has caused no end of turmoil.

So beyond the issue of pressuring the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to cancel Angela Davis’ award there is another one – probably many others actually – at play: struggles for democracy within the Federations themselves. These struggles are not just about Israel but about all kinds of issues facing the nation and the world and for more democratic decision making within the community that takes into consideration the diversity of view. What might be referred to as the Jewish rank and file in these organizations – which is liberal to left on most domestic issues, anti-racist and on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is moderate to left – is increasingly frustrated across the county with how things are run and ramrodded through the decision making processes.

The underhanded back-room way the pressure was exerted on the Civil Rights Institute is also typical, most of the pressure is exerted informally, behind the scenes. It has been going on for decades. A call to a church that might be thinking of sponsoring an event where a Palestinian voice will be heard; a visit by prominent local Jewish rabbis and business leaders to a Israeli critic’s employer, requesting, or suggesting that the person be fired, a threat to break from inter-religious organizations if the question of Israel is raised…and of course the completely scripted free trips to Israel funded by AIPAC or like organizations. Rarely do the Federations get caught “in the act”, so to speak, as in this Birmingham case – but in this asymmetrical political warfare – watch and see how it resonates nationwide. You can bet that the Federations nationally will discuss how to manage the criticism, some kind of temporary tactical retreat I would guess, maybe even a mea culpa before they go back to business as usual, which they will do…but in new uncharted waters because a veil has been lifted.

Frankly the way that the Birmingham Jewish Federation is operating is nothing new; what is new is that they caught with their pants down so the speak for the city of Birmingham, the nation and the whole world to see. Their modus operandi is for the world to see and for the first time in a long time, they’ve had their wings clipped. What lessons will the Federations nationwide draw from this experience? I doubt there will be any from the Federation’s leadership and the power brokers behind the scenes. But from the base of the Jewish Community, the voice of which has long been censored or silenced, I expect a different, more vibrant honest  and progressive response. 

Let me be clear, it is not just mainstream Jewish organizations like the Birmingham Jewish Federation that needs to be either renewed or swept away but so many other institutions in our country that have grown stale and out of touch with the realities  and constituencies they supposedly represent. The labor movement, other religious denomination institutions – the Catholic Church comes to mind – many old guard civil rights organizations – old left formations be they communist, socialist or whatever, the Democratic Party…one can make similar criticisms of all of them – out of touch to the point of being irrelevant, with a bureaucracy clinging to what’s left of their power and influence. If the Birmingham Jewish Federation’ backroom shenanigans have come to light – and they have – know that they part and parcel of a whole world of institutions that need to go back to basics, renew their their original commitments, let the new young dynamic blood in…and for old folks to step aside. If reform is not possible, and frankly I serious question whether it is in these Jewish Federations, they should be replaced by institutions more in tune with the times and their constituency.

I will elaborate upon the history in later entries.

Although I will not deal with it in this entry, this whole incident brings to light the long sometimes cooperative, in recent decades more contentious relationship between this countries Jewish and Black Communities, the key element of which is how and on what basis can the two communities re-establish a working relationship based on mutual respect and cooperation that characterized their relations up until the 1970s. Mike Wilzoch in his letter touches on this history. Today America’s Blacks and Jews – among others – need to find each other again but on a new, more democratic (and in the case of the mainstream Jewish Community less patronizing) manner. With the time she has left, it is Angela Davis and others like her – Black Marxists to be precise  – who brings to the struggle against racism – that great blotch on American history – a class analysis as well; key to the healing process, Tikkun – as Larry Grimm noted.

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