February 11, 2014
By Bradley Burston
Maybe it’s the heroin allure of tribal bigotry, or the crystal meth madness of us-or-them fanaticism, but there’s something about the Holy Land which lends hate crimes an extra dimension of perversity.
Even if they take place in L.A.
Late last week, an organization that has spent 12 decades fighting intolerance and social injustice, became the victim of both. The target: a huge, splendid outdoor mural covering one entire 70 by 20 foot wall of the southern California building of the Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle.
The mural, by Filipino immigrant to Los Angeles Eliseo Silva, bears portraits of Martin Luther King, California farm workers labor crusader Cesar Chavez, and a range of Jewish and non-Jewish progressives and humanitarians, among them anarchist firebrand Emma Goldman, as well as cultural and scriptural imagery. All of it under the Hebrew Biblical passage “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof” (“Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue”) and the Yiddish title of the work: “Far A Shenere un Besere Velt” (“For A better, more beautiful world”).
In the space of less than a day, however, the mural became yet one more innocent victim of the very Israeli-Palestinian conflict that the Workmen’s Circle has labored for years to help resolve in justice and peace.
In the pre-dawn hours on Thursday, vandals painted “FREE PALESTINE!!!!” in large letters the entire length of the painting.
This is the same Workmen’s Circle which has been vocal in advocating full rights for Palestinians and an independent Palestine as part of a two-state solution. This is the same Workmen’s Circle that warned, long ago, of the potential threat of runaway nationalism and racist inequality coming to the fore in a Jewish state.
This is the same Workmen’s Circle which was unafraid to rail against monopoly and wage-slave capitalism in its own America, as well as the horrors of Stalin’s Communism and Germany’s Nazism abroad.
“It is ironic,” the Workmen’s Circle said the day of the attack, “that the slogan defaced the mural of an organization whose observance of kol nidre, a major Jewish holiday, includes an Arabic American singer leading the hymn, ‘Peace, Shalom, Salaam,’ and that includes the aspirations of the Palestinian people in our other secular Jewish observances.”
But the day was not over.
Before midnight, a different group of vandals struck the mural again. In black paint, they changed the last three letters of the world “FREE” to the letters “UCK.”
The vandals have yet to be caught or identified. But security cameras at a Chabad center across the street recorded both incidents.
If there is a silver cloud in this ugly incident, it may be that the world has been reacquainted in some small way with the Workmen’s Circle. This is a group of people battling a slew of challenges – advancing age, an indifferent and, in this case, hostile wider world, growing extremism around the issues of Israel and Palestine – in order to help rescue the Yiddish language and cultural tradition from extinction, and to maintain its pursuit of goals which, in our sad, jaded, often sadistic era, sound hopelessly naïve and also crucially necessary:
” … advancing democratic frontiers, eliminating poverty, strengthening civil rights, promoting universal health care and opposing bigotry, tyranny and totalitarianism.”
Meanwhile, Los Angeles Workmen’s Circle chair Ruth Judkowitz has invited “those responsible for the slogan-painting to meet with us to discuss far more effective ways of encouraging progress toward a lasting peace between the Israeli and Palestinian states and their peoples.”
One thing that can be learned from all of this is that there are people in this world who may spend much of their lives rowing against the current – in great difficulty and at no small personal cost – but who, in the final analysis, may have been moving in the right direction all along.
In the interest of full disclosure, perhaps, or to address something nagging in my conscience, I should point out that something in me takes this incident personally. My mother’s parents, who were full-fledged, societal convention-eschewing, Kropotkin-aware anarchists, were devoted members of the Workmen’s Circle in Los Angeles. My parents kept their subscription to the Yiddish anarchist newspaper, the Freie Arbiter Shtime until the day in 1977 that it died.
I realize now that, in this incident, I’m related to the victims. And that’s what two sets of blockheaded Southern California Price Tag criminals taught me this week: That it’s high time that I renewed my family’s membership in the Arbeter Ring/Workman’s Circle.
In its modest and important way, the group is actually working for a better and more beautiful world. It may be an impossible row. But it’s the right direction.