May First and Repairing the World

Posted by: on May 3, 2012 | Leave a comment
May Day Chalk

It won’t come as any surprise that the mission of repairing the world takes on many forms, including that of advocacy for the social rights of various groups. We have historically seen Jews and Jewish organizations at the forefront of rights based campaigns. In the 50s and 60s it was in the civil rights movement. More recently, we have been active in support of Darfur in opposition to a 21st Century genocide.

A century ago, we’d be talking about the Jewish role in the fights for labor rights, the 8-hour working day and workplace safety. But rather unlike today, those fights were not for some other oppressed group, but by and for Jewish workers, as part of the American labor movement.

In recent years, a thriving social justice movement has emerged that includes service-oriented Jewish organizations. These include Avodah and Bend the Arc, who joined previously established groups like the Workmen’s Circle, Jewish Labor Committee, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Recent campaigns that received support from Jewish organizations include the fight for a domestic workers’ bill of rights and for agricultural workers raising tomatoes in Florida.

In 2006, during one of the peaks in public debate over immigration reform, community groups and advocates called for marches on May 1. The relationship between immigrant rights and worker rights made perfect sense to many, and since then May 1 has become an annual day for highlighting the ongoing struggles of immigrant workers. Interestingly, support for immigrant rights is one of the more unifying political issues in the Jewish world.

At the same time, many of the organizations engaged in service are dealing with the poor and marginalized in our communities.  These often include immigrants, day-laborers, the unemployed, and people with jobs that place them near the bottom of the economic ladder. But our Jewish voices championing those people and the rights we wish they enjoyed are not the same as the Jewish voices clamoring for workers’ rights in the slums of the Lower East Side a century ago.

This past September a small group of radicals captured the world’s attention by symbolically occupying a now familiar park near Wall Street. The movement they sparked was in the name of ‘the 99%’, language that highlighted the growing gap between rich and poor over the last few years. In the months since then, they have seemed to fade in and out of the public eye. But this week on May 1 they attempted a comeback.

Working closely with unions, immigrant rights organizations and other constituencies, Occupy Wall Street is linking current struggles for social justice with the history of workers rights in America and around the world. It makes perfect sense; after all, May 1 was born in America, and those who gave birth to it were often immigrants – many of them Jews.

American Jews, by and large, are no longer the socialist, Yiddish-speaking factory workers we may have been a century ago. But we still have a lot in common. In particular, the desire to have a positive impact society and make things better for others. In the end, we are all just trying to repair the world in our own way.