The Jewish and Palestinian Activists of the Ferguson Movement

“Here was this massive moment happening in history, and it was happening right here in St. Louis. I thought, ‘Jews have something to say about this,’” says Rori Picker Neiss, the Director of Programming, Education and Engagement at Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis.

“I don’t want to draw equivalencies between the Jewish and black experience. But I think as Jews we could understand what it’s like to have people assume negative things about you because of how you were born, and to treat you differently because of who you are, to let things happen to you. The idea that here are a group of people asking for help and saying that they’ve been subject to terrible injustices — for the Jewish community that story rings in our ears and we think ‘We’ve heard this story before.’”

Since the killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, Ferguson has been a tale told largely in black and white. The continued protests against police brutality and exploitation have been led by black activists fed up with decades of discrimination and a white leadership that has been, at best, apathetic, and at worst, overtly hostile.

But St. Louis’s other ethnic minorities have also been drawn into the regional conflict. From the summer 2014 days when rabbis marched in the street to cries for black liberation to the present when a “Black Lives Matter” sign campaign is spearheaded by a concerned Jewish citizen, Jews have played a role in the Ferguson protests. It has been a controversial role, one that has caused debate within St. Louis’s diverse Jewish communities as well as hardship for those who participate.

Neiss is one such example. On August 10, she was one of 57 protesters charged with “blocking an entryway” of the St. Louis federal courthouse during a protest commemorating the one-year anniversary of Brown’s killing. As an Orthodox Jew, Neiss wears a head covering, which she was asked to remove before being placed in a holding cell. She asked the officers who arrested her for a private space to remove it, which they allowed. That was when she realized yet again that she lived in a city where fairness, like everything else, was unevenly allocated.

“The others who were arrested were mostly black. The look on their faces when I said I asked for a private space — it occurred to me that was something other people would not have done. I was comfortable being alone with a police officer without a second thought to my safety. I was treated well by them. And people were surprised that they gave it to me. That’s when we realized there was another woman, an African-American Muslim woman, who didn’t have her head covering. That’s when we saw the breakdown. I would have assumed that’s how everyone was treated until I realized that’s not the case at all.”

St. Louis has the largest Jewish population in Missouri, making it one of the largest in the Midwest. It is diverse, with a tightly knit Orthodox community in the University City area, where Neiss works, and a number of conservative and reform communities, the latter of which have of lately attracted Jews of color, including black converts. It is difficult to tell how many Jews are involved in the Ferguson movement because the movement itself is fluid: protests can be massive or sporadic, with little consistency in participation.

The problems of St. Louis, however, are shared by the region as a whole: segregation, discrimination, corruption, and the existence of a black underclass — very much separated by geography — that goes back decades. White flight has plagued the region since the early twentieth century, and Jews, while initially subject to discrimination, have generally followed their white Christian neighbors, fleeing to the western part of the county away from the black inner city. Although outreach groups dedicated to bringing Jews and blacks together exist, they speak to pre-existing segregation as much as a desire for camaraderie and collaboration.

According to Neiss, the amorphous nature of discrimination in St. Louis makes it difficult for local Jews to find their place in the protest.

“As Jews, we should appreciate what it means to be treated differently,” she says. “Yet our frame of reference is a whole government, in Nazi Germany, whose laws were targeted against Jews. Here we have a system that is biased against people, yet it’s in a country that’s democratic. There are no laws on the book that are specifically discriminatory — yet statistics show that discrimination unequivocally to be true. How do you account for that? No one wants to think that’s the country we live in. We don’t know who to blame. We’ve created a system where every step of the way the deck is stacked against a group of people.”

Racism and religion in St. Louis are extremely touchy subjects. Many St. Louis Jews approached for this story shied away from discussing the issues on record — one rabbi said he feared offending his congregation, and other Jewish residents said they feared the animosity publicly commenting on a controversial issue would bring. Debate continues over whether Wilson’s shooting of Brown was justified, which has complicated how Jews who otherwise advocate for social justice participate in the cause. But everyone interviewed agreed on one thing: there is no monolithic Jewish community in St. Louis, no monolithic voice. Instead, there are competing narratives and individual pathways to activism. And one of the most complicated parts of the narrative is the role of Palestinian activists, many of whom have linked their own struggle to the Ferguson cause.

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In the summer of 2014, the streets of St. Louis were shut down by dozens of activists crying for social justice. They marched through suburban roadways, holding signs, chanting slogans, while police monitored them at every turn. But this was not Ferguson. This was the business suburb of Clayton, about three weeks before Michael Brown was killed, and the protest was not for black rights but over Israeli violence in Gaza. On a hot summer day, the people of St. Louis took to the streets — Jews supporting Israel on one side, Palestinians and their supporters on the other.

The explosion of Ferguson as a national issue in 2014 underplayed the activism that was already building in St. Louis. The spring of 2014 saw multiple mass protests over wage increases, school funding, and then Israel and Gaza. By the time Brown was shot, St. Louis was primed for activism. According to Bassem Masri, a Palestinian-American protester who has become a well-known figure in the Ferguson cause, taking on black rights in St. Louis was a natural evolution.

“Being a Palestinian is like being a life-long activist,” he says. “It’s just moving to a different struggle. We’ve been doing this for a long time. So this was more about acknowledging the black struggle and helping in as many ways as we can. In this country, black liberation is the status quo. Once they’re free, everyone else can be free.”

As black citizens of St. Louis were teargassed in the street, Palestinians gave tips and advice on Twitter on how to deal with suppressed protest and police oppression. The bond forged during this period gave birth to the “Ferguson to Palestine” movement, which culminated in a group of black and Latino activists, many from the Ferguson area, visiting the Palestinian territories in January. Students from the West Bank also traveled to St. Louis, offering sympathy to the family of VonDeritt Myers, a teenager killed by police in October 2014, while an American-based Palestinian contingent of over 200 activists marched in the “Ferguson October” protest event that same month.

Though according to Masri, most Palestinian-Americans in St. Louis are not politically active as they are too busy with their businesses and personal lives. But bonds have long been forged between the black and Palestinian communities since many Palestinians own gas stations and grocery stores in majority black neighborhoods where whites have long fled.

Tensions surrounding Jewish, Palestinian and black activism came to a head in March 2015, when an event held by the Missouri History Museum called “From Ferguson to Ayotzinapa to Palestine: Solidarity and Collaborative Action”, scheduled and advertised for over six weeks, was abruptly canceled. According to St. Louis activist Michael Berg, a member of St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace, the event was called off because other Jewish leaders — in particular the Jewish Community Relations Council — protested the inclusion of Palestine in a narrative about black and Mexican oppression.

In an email, Missouri History Museum Managing Director of Community Education and Events Melanie Adams stated: “Remove the Palestine group from the program or find another location.”

In an interview, Museum Director Frances Levine similarly questioned the appropriateness of the link: “By the time I saw it on March 17, my concerns were: Have we lost that first message? Have we lost that message of community policing in Ferguson? And the student protests over Ayotzinapa. Those are two terrible tragedies. And, could we bring it back to that?”

Berg says the Museum’s decision speaks to the contentious ways St. Louis Jews have interpreted the Ferguson cause and to a broader goal of Jewish-Palestinian collaboration: “There is of course some collaboration between some St. Louis Jews and some St. Louis Palestinians regarding the struggle for black rights,” he says. “Jews and Palestinians of conscience have been on the streets demanding justice together. However, there is nothing close to a unified view of events in Ferguson within the Jewish community, nor I believe within the Palestinian community. But there is agreement within the groups that claim to represent the Jewish community — JCRC, ADL, Jewish Federation — in opposition to Palestinian rights.”

Sandra Tamari, an activist with the St. Louis Palestinian Committee, a group which often works with St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace, said she was greatly disappointed by the museum’s decision to cancel the event, but encouraged by ties between Jewish, Palestinian and black activists.

“When the PSC made the decision to stand in solidarity with the black liberation movement in Ferguson, we did so because it was the right thing to do,” she says. “We never expected or anticipated that that movement would, in their time of great struggle, need to step up for us, but that is what happened. The co-presenters on the panel refused to speak at the Museum without us and since that time, our love and solidarity with one another only grows.”

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From the moment Michael Brown was killed, Ferguson has been a story of competing narratives: the “thug” gunned down rightfully by the law or the innocent teenager brutally executed without repercussion. The addition of Jewish and Palestinian activists, with their own competing narratives of suffering and brutality, has further complicated how the event is interpreted. Some St. Louis activists have drawn inspiration from millennia-old tradition of Jewish narrative preservation, and have sought to capture the stories of Ferguson activists in their own words.

“As Jewish leaders and Jewish people, we’ve got 3000 years of texts. It’s very natural to want to tell stories that combine the past with the present on one theme,” says Sarah Barasch-Hagans, a St. Louis rabbinical student who is the founder of Fargesn, a web series that invites viewers to “experience the connection between the African-American and Jewish Communities coming together in protest” through stories activists tell themselves.

“Fargesn” means “forgotten” in Yiddish, but it was not only the obvious homonym with “Ferguson” that led Barasch-Hagans to begin her project. She says Jews have an obligation to not recreate the whitewashing of the civil rights movement and the complicated history of Jewish participation within it. (Neiss and other Jewish activists interviewed for this story made the same critique.)

“A lot of it came out knowing that the full story hadn’t been told at all, even about the past,” she says. “My family is from Alabama. When I was growing up I was frustrated to find out that my family’s community was so resistant to her rabbi doing anything. She talked about that, how frustrated she was, about the lack of Jewish resistance. My father’s rabbi was one of the people Martin Luther King wrote the letter from a Birmingham Jail to — a white moderate who was not helpful. I’ve read a lot of history and I know the Jewish involvement is complex.”

Barasch-Hagans stresses that there is no monolithic Jewish or Palestinian voice in St. Louis, and regrets that the “family drama aired in public” within the Jewish community over Ferguson and Palestine, as in the case of the Missouri History Museum, has caused so much pain. She sees the canceling of the museum event as a violation of freedom of speech. Without confronting these issues, she says, no progress can be made. She wants to prevent future generations from rediscovering the complexities of this second wave of civil rights in the way young activists have rediscovered the first one.

“We were like, ‘I don’t want people to have to rediscover Fannie Lou Hamer and Assata Shakur. We don’t want people to have to rediscover the activists who are working in Ferguson now,’” she says. “And we decided that we have to be responsible for making that happen. Whenever people post a black and white photo, you don’t know if it’s Selma or Ferguson. And you’re not supposed to, and that’s the point. That felt very Jewish too, we are raised to expect tragedy or oppression to cycle back around. It’s not foreign to Jews to talk from a perspective of ‘We’ve been here before, we’ll be here again.’ America, in contrast, is very invested with ‘The past is the past, we’re all good now.’ I think what people see as a depressing narrative position is not — it isn’t specific to Jews, and I think the films I make capture that.”

Barasch-Hagans says that most St. Louis Jews are not involved in the Ferguson protests, much in the same way the white community is not heavily involved. Despite the massive media attention and aggressive police reaction, the number of activists actually participating in protest is small compared to the population of the metropolitan area. She echoes many Jewish activists by stating that as Jews, there is a moral obligation to work for black rights despite the controversy of the cause within multiple communities.

“I’m not interested in using photo ops to make the Jewish community look good,” she says. “I’m interested in using Jewish beliefs to help achieve black liberation. And I think if we know that in America, if we achieve black liberation, that will be enough of a struggle that other good things will come along. I hope other people can find their way into that. It’s the most meaning we’ll find in our lifetime, to be involved in a movement for freedom.

“I don’t know that the majority of St. Louisans understand that, or what that will mean. As a Jew, I’m like, we’ve been here before. I hope people get on the right side of history before that happens.”