Occupiers must face the fringe


Occupiers must face the fringe

October 21, 2011|By Abraham Cooper and Harold Brackman
  • Occupy Pittsburgh protesters rallying last weekend. The sign in the foreground reads, "Cold? Burn a bank."
For protest movements that dare to change a nation's narrative, controversy is oxygen. Just as America's revolutionary firebrands understood that dumping British tea into Boston Harbor would grab the world's attention, so the more recently brewed tea partyers knew that dressing up in outlandish three-cornered hats would help them muscle into our national consciousness. And now the Occupy Wall Streeters are using bohemian antics, new technology, and rhetoric borrowed from the Arab Spring to forge a template for nationwide anticorporate protests.

The tea partyers and occupiers come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, and each side talks as if it's the sole source of truth. But the "99 percent" of us they view as potential recruits would do well to judge them by the same moral standards.

First, passionate advocacy is no excuse for conspiracy theories and bigotry. Despite a fringe element that equated Obama with Hitler and claimed the president was a Manchurian candidate with a phony birth certificate, the tea partyers eventually produced leaders who denounced such nonsense and racism. Though not everyone was convinced by the tea party's disavowals of prejudice, millions of Americans who aren't bigots supported its goals in the 2010 elections.

Like the tea party, Occupy Wall Street has attracted its own fringe. Demonstrators have been seen holding signs identifying "Wall Street Jews" as "Hitler's Bankers" and heard shouting about "Google Jews." There have been reports of protesters who consider 9/11 a U.S. or Israeli plot.

For almost 200 years, blaming the world's economic woes on the Rothschilds, Wall Street, or Jewish bankers has been "the socialism of fools" - and the mother's milk of demagogues, from Hitler to Henry Ford to the bloggers who insist Goldman Sachs' Zionist high command engineered the financial collapse. If the occupiers want mainstream credibility, they must distance themselves from the crackpots and hate-mongers who seem to think the detested "1 percent" is synonymous with Jews.

Second, while the tea partyers place themselves in a tradition of American protest dating to the Founding Fathers, the occupiers ought to take a more critical look at their own identification with the Arab Spring. Six months ago, who didn't applaud the young Egyptians using social media to topple a geriatric dictatorship? But now, who isn't having sobering second thoughts?

Egypt's idealists became prisoners of their trendy technology and failed to bridge the gap between Muslims and Copts, or connect with Egypt's undereducated, unemployed masses. While the Egyptian military has been a heavy-handed political caretaker, the country seems to be sliding toward the abyss. Next month's elections are likely to be won by Islamist theocrats who support the death penalty for homosexuality and apostasy, and who essentially believe in "one man, one vote - one time."

OK, occupiers, you have our attention. But to sustain it, it's not enough to use nifty social media to mobilize "flash mobs" of college students to occupy America's green spaces, from New York's Zuccotti Park to Los Angeles' Pershing Square to Philadelphia's Dilworth Plaza. For starters, how about moving beyond sloganeering to constructive action?

Worried about the poor? Use technology to feed the homeless just down the block from your encampments. And instead of demonizing corporate America, why not reach out to business people with a social conscience?

The sit-ins to unionize auto plants in the 1930s and the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s used nonviolent protest not as an end in itself, but as a means to create a more just society. Today's occupiers need to recognize that protest is not a lifestyle, but a tactic for making things better.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance, in Los Angeles. Harold Brackman is a historian and a consultant to the center.