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Rabbi Jeffrey Newman on Reform Judaism and the Occupy Movement

Rabbi Jeffrey Newman reflects on the Occupy Movement and how he feels it relates to Judaism and our Movement in particular.

Since I first visited the tents at St. Paul’s, I have been preoccupied with the Occupy Movement.


The global financial crisis and the associated injustice it entails is merely a symptom of even greater issues the world is now facing: climate change, over-population, food and water shortages; shortages, too, of other resources, including oil, copper, phosphorous, fish, timber, leading to continuing crises of migration, violence, terrorism and security. The enormity – and urgency – of these issues appear to paralyse governments’ ability to respond.

Most of us are in or near the top 1% of the wealthiest on the planet. We currently lead lives of incomparable luxury, compared, for example, with our grandparents, previous generations, the majority of humanity, many in the UK, the tent-dwellers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (even though they had many more sheep.) We have a commensurate responsibility. How do we discharge this?

Those living in tents at St. Paul’s, Finsbury Square, another 15 or so other locations in UK, and more than 750 locations throughout the world symbolise active and creative engagement with these issues (see the Camp’s Initial Statement of founding principles) and it is, in my view, lazy to dismiss them as ‘anti-capitalist protestors’. Rather, they are following in the line of the prophets who, sometimes with the help of symbolic actions, raged against those kings and people who forgot God and preferred to follow Baal and Mammon.

Conditions in the camps are challenging in the extreme. They attract not only intelligent and dedicated thinkers – university lecturers and graduates unable to find work, doctors, barristers, chemists but also homeless people, alcoholics, drug addicts (followed by dealers), disabled people and others who are mentally ill (Rabbi Howard Cooper writes well about this). Though there are occasional outrageous and off-putting activities (many of us are probably more repelled than attracted by ‘Vendetta’ masks,) the organisation of the camp, the food, generosity, thoughtfulness; the care, attention, sheer hard work and willingness to overcome difficulties, the ingenuity, imagination – a building left empty by UBS for three years has been ‘taken over’ and is now flourishing as a ‘Bank of Ideas’; a weekly newspaper is produced: not the ‘Financial’ but ‘The Occupied Times’ – the evidence of what can be achieved by people working together: Tent City University, the library; the continual flow of information, discussions, with Church authorities, with Hector Sant of the FSA, with visiting personalities ensuring that the Camp’s issues constantly attract the attention of the media, all these far outweigh the negatives.

Meanwhile, the Camp struggles. There is a court case about to open. The local democracy which is the decision making mechanism of the Camp is under attack from infiltrators. The purposes of the Camp are easily forgotten.

So, there is continual outreach work to be done – to unite the Occupations throughout the UK and connect with the 99% in whose name the movement exists. A multi-faith and no-faith Winter Carnival has been proposed, to open the doors of mosques, synagogues, churches and cathedrals up and down the country to debate the issues and strategy and to understand better our own history; but, also, to spread light in dark times, to join together and eat, celebrate the achievements of the movement so far, enjoy music, humour and food.

Purim, carnival time, 8th March – how apt for us to offer invitations to our neighbours, to those in whose name the Occupy Movement protests. We have survived – we were saved by Esther and Mordechai from extinction at the hands of the wicked Haman. We were, and always have been, a tiny minority: we know the pain of those who suffer. 11 bishops and the two archbishops wrote, protesting to government about the benefit cuts: could we not join them in concrete action?

Is this Jewish? Is this an example of ‘Reform Judaism’ in action? A few words from Abraham Joshua Heschel may explain. What manner of man is the Prophet? asks Heschel and he explains, under the heading: Sensitivity to Evil. The prophet, says Heschel, is horrified by the everyday occurrences that we pass by, torn apart by the strength of his feelings and emotions. He rails, some might say hysterically, against corruption; he sees extortion and misery as catastrophes; he takes note of those ignored by others – women and children: ‘even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions.’ Unfaithfulness to God is seen as bringing an end to the world. What a contrast is this to our ‘incapacity to sense the depth of misery caused by our own failures.’ Heschel summarises: ‘Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.’

It is on respect for Prophetic Judaism that Reform Judaism basis itself.

The Occupy Movement can best be understood by us as a manifestation of the spirit of prophetic Judaism. Acting together we can make a difference, and governments act only when they hear the clear voice of the people.

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