Opening remarks from the 17th Annual Labor Seder:
Good evening and welcome to the 17th Annual Labor Seder!
Many of you have seen me at protests carrying my Jewish Labor Committee sign. Almost every time I’m out there with my sign, someone comes up to me and says, “What’s the Jewish Labor Committee?” and I give them my elevator speech: “We engage the Jewish community in issues that affect workers and we engage the Labor Community in issues that affect Jews.” And then I ask them, no matter how they look, “Are you Jewish?”
And then often I have the pleasure of hearing some amazing story about this person that’s not a yes-no answer: like, “Well, my mother is Latina from Argentina and her parents were Holocaust survivors but I didn’t know I was Jewish until my grandmother died.” Or, “I’m Iranian and my father is Jewish, but we are also Muslim.” Or, “My parents are Jewish but we don’t go to synagogue, but we celebrated Passover and my dad worked as a organizer.” So after I listen to these wonderful stories, I invite this person to get involved in the Jewish Labor Committee.
So now I’ll tell you another story: About a month after the last Labor Seder, Verizon went out on strike. And there was a big protest out at Government Center, a few steps from our office. So a few people and I from the JLC went out to go to the protest. I carried several extra JLC signs in case I ran into other JLC people who wanted to hold one.
Shortly after we got there a man with a red Verizon T-shirt, clearly a Verizon worker, comes up to me and says, “Can I hold one of your signs?” I said “sure, and tell me, are you Jewish?” He answers, “No.” I say “Okay, so why do you want to hold one of our signs?” And he answers, “You are standing with us, so I want to stand with you.”
I’ll say it again because this is the most important part of what I have to say tonight: “You are standing with us, so I want to stand with you.” Now isn’t that the whole point? Isn’t that what we are doing here tonight and in most of our work?
By the way, the photograph of this man is on the cover of our Haggadah. I don’t remember his name but I think his last name was Connelly or Donnelly. After the Seder if you know him, please tell me his name.
(Another way of saying “you are standing with us, so I want to stand with you” would be, “the people united will never be defeated.”)
So we know that for thousands of years, some people in power figured out how to keep their power by dividing the people that they ruled over. It’s called, “Divide and conquer.”
Anti-Semitism is just one of the ways people get divided and are manipulated into believing that the other group is bad, or not okay, not as righteous, not as smart, not as good, not as hard-working, not as honest, not as beautiful, not as deserving, not as precious, as another group of human beings.
And if you look at the big picture, when one group is singled out for attack, it’s bad for all of us. For example, when Jews are targeted by anti-Semitism, we are not the only ones who lose. Working people from all backgrounds also suffer the effects of this divide and conquer tactic.
I’ll try and explain: People are told, in rather indirect ways, and sometimes direct ways, that Jews control the banks and are responsible for poverty, economic inequality, and our corrupt system. These are myths, just like the myth that all Jews are wealthy.
And non-Jewish working people, when they get fed up enough about how they’ve been treated, are more vulnerable to believing these lies and their attention is diverted away from changing our inequitable system.
And that’s a big loss for all of us. And anti-Semitism certainly isn’t the only way we lose our unity and direction towards a more equitable society. We are we are thrown off course by racism, classism, sexism, anti-immigrant oppression, LGBTQ oppression, disability oppression, Islamophobia, etc. All of us working people get divided from each other.
And right now working people and labor unions are also under attack. With this administration, there have already been moves to dismantle protections for workers and there will be more attacks on labor unions as the “right to work” laws are growing and some want make it national law. We will all be affected by this and we need to stand together to fight it which is what my friend the Verizon worker said, “You are standing with us, so I want to stand with you.”
What if we didn’t feel like we were alone in this battle? What if we could imagine we were in this together in one unified movement? So here’s what I’d like you to do as a start. Not now, but before you leave this room tonight, find someone who you don’t know. Ask them to tell you some little story about who they are, and the group they are in and the work they do. And listen. And then tell them something you want them to know about you, your group, your work.
But now, I invite us to follow the lead of my friend who I met that day at the Verizon protest. I want us to stand with each other.
Whoever isn’t Jewish, if you can, would you stand right now with me?
If you care about working people would you also stand right now?
If you will not let anyone use oppression to divide us, would you stand now with me?
Thank you, Happy Passover, and I hope you enjoy the Labor Seder.
Marya Axner is the Regional Director of the New England Jewish Labor Committee.