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News from the front

The Occupy Wall Street phenomenon continues, despite the eviction of protesters from lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and other similar venues around the country.

This is both good news and bad news.

It is bad news because Occupy Wall Street, or OWS, instantly became an amorphous brand name, signifying whatever a particular protest group wanted it to signify.

There is no structure to the OWS movement, despite all the talk about “general assemblies.” There is no agenda, no manifesto of any kind, no leaders to articulate a cause. People on the far right and the far left can live under the same “tent,” so to speak, because they each can imagine a different reason for that tent being there.

It is not surprising, then, that anti-Semitism rears its head every now and then in the OWS world. It is even less of a surprise that anti-Israel sentiment shows up there. Without an established set of values and goals, anyone’s values and goals are as available for promotion as anyone else’s.

At times, OWS feels less like democracy than like anarchy – and that is profoundly unfortunate.

And yet, that is not the really bad news. The really bad news is that because of the anything-goes nature of the movement, it is easily discounted by those who need to take it seriously – meaning we, the people, and our elected representatives.

Make no mistake about what the OWS movement represents, despite its lack of formal focus. We are seeing the boiling over of frustrations that have no other outlet. We are seeing frustration over do-nothing Congresses – Democrat-led, Republican-led, it matters not. We are seeing frustration over presidential promises that go unfulfilled, and it does not matter that no president can fulfill promises that require congressional approval.

We are seeing frustration over an economy in freefall that nevertheless makes the super-rich even richer, while it impoverishes so many others. We are seeing frustration over depression-like job losses while the failed executives who brought their companies to ruin go golden parachute-gliding into the sunset.

Much has been made about the carnival-like nature of the OWS encampments. Much has been made, too, about the lack of proper sanitation and necessary amenities. It even led one presidential hopeful, Newt Gingrich, to say to the protesters (accompanied by loud cheers from a friendly audience): “Go get a job right after you take a bath.”

It is doubtful that most people would choose to sleep outdoors, away from a comfortable bed, a nearby bathroom, a warm meal, and a solid roof to keep out the cold rain, yet these people made that choice and many are prepared to continue to do so. With unemployment at nine percent; with a scarily high rate of home foreclosures; with the exorbitant cost of repaying student loans; and with a major – almost obscene – differential in the income of our citizens, it is likely that many of these protesters do not have much choice.

They would love to take a bath and get a job, they just do not have a home to take a bath in and there are no jobs for them to get.

To be sure, not all the protesters are in dire straits. Some even come from privileged homes and are protesting because they have social consciences, or perhaps for less noble reasons. That does not make the protests any less relevant, or the economic realities any less real.

Were there abuses by OWS protesters? Absolutely. There still are; the group that wanted to play drums all night outside the home of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, showed no consideration at all for the rights of others. They cared only about themselves and the perverse joy they felt in keeping people awake all night.

The good news, of course, is that OWS is less about them and more about what brought them to the streets in the first place.

Underlying OWS is the sense that things must change in America for the benefit of all Americans, not just a self-anointed elite.

As Jews, we should be cheering on the OWS movement, not jeering at it. Feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless were Jewish values long before there ever was a Wall Street, much less an occupation of it. They remain Jewish values.

Rather than focusing on the aberrant behavior of the few, we should be focusing on the needs of the many. Rather than focusing on the anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist attempts at hijacking the OWS movement, we should be focusing on how we can help it achieve its nobler goals.

Jewish values do not change whether one is a conservative or a liberal, a Republican or a Democrat, a have or a have not. All that changes is how one approaches solving the problems those values dictate must be solved.

We do not have to like the messenger, but we do need to get the message.

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