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“I Thought I Knew You”

Michigan womyn's music festival

“I ‘m scared, Papusa,” I confided to my friend. “What if nobody comes?”

“You’ve done the work, baby. Now is the time to let go,” she said, wrapping her arms around me. “And remember, I’m at your back.”

I found myself hesitant to trudge up the hill to the Night Stage that early August evening in 1997, where we would be leading the first Jewish Liberation workshop for festival workers in the 23-year herstory of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, an annual event that draws 5,000-7,000 women from all over the world. What if no one came?

As I carried a chair onto the stage and nestled it near some of the other Jewish women, I noticed the area filling up. The air was buzzing with anticipation. I couldn’t even count all the diversity workshops I’d led—those were scary enough. But I hadn’t done anything like this before, about my own oppression, on this scale. What if the non-Jewish women, my friends and co-workers, think that Jewish oppression is not really that important, that we’re being self-indulgent and whiny?

Now in my late 40s, my mind wandered back to my 20s, when I shrank from any activism around “Jewish” issues. I organized for everything else: from safe energy to prison reform, from labor struggles to police brutality, from healthcare reform to women’s empowerment and lesbian rights. I had grown up in white Christian middle-class suburbs in Northern Virginia. I tried to blend in, and felt uncomfortable around people who were “too Jewish.” When people had said I didn’t “look Jewish,” I replied “thank you.” Since then I had been visible as a Jew working for justice for Palestinians. But this was a new step.

During our preparations for this workshop, xeroxing information on Jewish oppression, co-organizer Mel Bramyn yelled across the yard, “How many more copies of the Jewish Liberation piece do we need?” I felt myself shrink, my muscles tighten, right there in the Michigan sunlight, surrounded by women, mostly lesbians, many of whom I loved and considered family. I felt, “Ohmygoddess, what will they think. We should be quieter.” I meant, “We should not be so out there as Jews.”

Now I gazed around. There were nearly 200 women gathered in the lopsided circle on the stage. More straggled in. Soon it was my turn to speak.

As I explained about the cycles of Jewish oppression, new words spilled out of my mouth. This mistreatment, I said, is really about class, about economic privilege. Who has benefited from anti-Semitism? Those with wealth and institutional power who used Jew-hating as a way to divide everyone else against each other while they stayed in control. I saw eyes light up and heads nod; many in this community understood all too well the experience of class domination.

A non-Jewish ally, Darby, led the next exercise (created by Jewish activist Michael Taller). She spoke deliberately, slowly, asking the Jews among us to “Stand up if you have ever been called names because you are a Jew.” Almost all of the 35 identified Jews in the circle rose. We looked at each other. We sat down.

“Stand up if you’ve ever heard jokes told about Jews.” Again, most of the Jews rose. And sat. A numbness seeped through my body. “If you’ve ever been treated unfairly in a school or work situation…been the target of violence because you were a Jew…not asked for what you wanted for fear of being called too pushy, loud or demanding…been afraid to wear something that identified you as a Jew…” We stood, we sat, we stood again. The fear from my internalized oppression thundered in my ears. What were the Others thinking? Were they getting bored? Impatient? When is this going to end?

When Darby finished, the night air hung with a shocked stillness. Only afterwards did I learn how many of the non- Jewish women broke down and wept as we stood and sat and stood and sat. “I thought I knew you,” a friend stood up and said. “But I didn’t know this. How could I not have known? How could you not have told me?” The refrain I heard over and over, for days to come, from conversations at the fire pit to the lunch line to the showers. “We didn’t know. We just didn’t know.” A woman of color told me, “Almost everything you all stood up for, I could’ve stood up for too.”

As Jewish women, we had connected with each other. We had shown ourselves, in our diversity and our courage. And we had been received, and listened to, and loved. For at least one moment, the isolation and invisibility of anti-Semitism crumbled, and a fragile layer of trust was forged.

The rest of the festival was different for me than it had ever been before. Something had changed. We had truly moved some energy. After 28 years of working for social change, for the first time in my life I sensed what liberation might really feel like.

Penny Rosenwasser works with the Middle East Children’s Alliance and is the author of a book about Palestinian and Israeli peace activists, Voices from a ‘Promised Land.’ She is writing her dissertation about internalized Jewish oppression. For a copy of the Jewish liberation workshop outline, email PenRo@aol.com or write: 3792 Canon Ave., Oakland, CA 94602.