Jelle explains that Oy Vey Amsterdam was founded by Lievnath and Timor Faber with the idea of creating a space in the Jewish Cultural Quarter in Amsterdam where Jewish life is celebrated inclusively and accessible: ‘unapologetically Jewish’. “In Amsterdam there are many museums and monuments in which dead Jews are central, but there are few places where living Jewish culture can be openly celebrated. While much of Jewish life takes place behind high, thick walls, Oy Vey wants to be open and outward-looking.”
As the murder of George Floyd took place and the Black Lives Matter movement spread worldwide, Oy Vey also developed a desire to facilitate visible Jewish activism. Oy Vey Acts was born from that wish. “We wanted to create a space for Jewish activists within the social justice movement,” says Jelle. “Activist movements are not always inclusive spaces for Jews. This is mainly due to the fact that Jews are often incorrectly identified with the state of Israel and the occupation and settlement policy there.
The first question you often get as a Jewish person in activist circles is ‘but how do you view the state of Israel?’ It’s almost like an entrance test before you can join. Jews have lived in the Netherlands for hundreds of years and it is very strange that Jews living in the Netherlands are held responsible for oppression and injustice in another country. That is just as unjust as holding all Muslims responsible for IS. We would like to separate such confusions. We also really see activism and the struggle for social justice as Jewish values that we want to propagate.”
Jelle explains that the theme of social justice is very much alive in the Jewish community. “You could almost say that it is a Jewish tradition to concern yourself with justice for all.” Chaja recognizes this: “Just look at the involvement of Jewish people in the civil rights movement in the United States, or in the LGBTI movement, or at Jewish anti-fascist movements from Eastern Europe and Yiddish protest songs. Throughout the ages there have always been Jewish groups that have been activists or allies in the fight for justice. We stand on the shoulders of giants.” Jelle adds that this is also clearly visible in the Netherlands. “Look at the activism in the Transvaalbuurt, for example, the housing movement or the feminist movement – Aletta Jacobs was also Jewish. I think it is a pity that in recent years a climate has arisen in the Netherlands in which Jews can no longer manifest themselves visibly Jewish in activist circles. That is why I find it almost touching that we as Oy Vey Acts are visibly once again engaged with social justice as Jews.” Chaja shares this feeling: “Previous generations struggled with the trauma and insecurity that being visibly Jewish entails, but we are reclaiming our Jewish identity: loud and proud.”
Judaism and Sustainability
One of the injustices Oy Vey Acts opposes through activism is climate injustice. Both Chaja and Jelle feel inspired by the Jewish tradition in this struggle for sustainability. “Judaism is closely linked to nature, agriculture and the climate,” says Chaja. “All Jewish holidays are associated with certain events in the agricultural calendar, such as the perfect times to sow and harvest. The climate crisis is severely affecting agriculture, increasing drought and shifting the sowing and harvesting times of certain crops. If this continues, the Jewish holidays will lose their connection with nature and agriculture. When the climate is affected, our faith is also affected. I cannot therefore separate my climate activism from my Jewishness.”
Jelle says that the religious aspect is less important to him. “We are a very diverse group of Jews. Some of us consider ourselves religiously Jewish, others culturally Jewish. We are all Jewish in our own way. People often fail to understand that Judaism is much more than a religion: it is a tradition, a culture, a people.” Yet Jelle is also inspired by the Jewish tradition in his climate activism. “For me, the concept of tikkun olam very important. This refers to the idea that the world is damaged, not quite whole. The world needs to be restored and Jewish people have a part to play in that. To me, this is both literally about healing the planet, and more abstractly about social justice. Even though I don’t consider myself religious, it inspires me.”
Intersectionality is a word that comes up often in the conversation and is central to the activism of Oy Vey Acts. “We see the connections between all the different forms of oppression and injustice,” says Chaja. “Climate justice and social equality are inextricably linked. The climate crisis is also a crisis of social inequality, racism and human rights.” Jelle explains that it is important to realize that marginalized groups are hardest hit by the climate crisis. “You see this in the aftermath of natural disasters, for example,” he explains. “Marginalized groups not only suffer from natural disasters, but often also have more limited access to aid.”
Jelle explains this based on the example of the LGBTI+ community. “I am one of the co-founders of Queers4Climate. Queer people are often denied help in times of natural disasters, such as not being allowed to enter air raid shelters. In addition, you see in Jamaica, for example, that many queer young people live in tent camps on the coast, because they have been put on the street by their families. In the event of a flood, which can occur on an island like Jamaica as a result of the climate crisis, these queer people are the first to be affected.”
Chaja tells us that it is important to check with ourselves whether we see the different forms of injustice in the problems of our time. If we see some injustices but not others, it can say something about our prejudices and our view of the world. “Keep examining your own gaze. I see the sexism in this problem, but do I also see the racism? Do I also see the homophobia? I see anti-Semitism, but do I also see Islamophobia? The climate crisis is not an isolated problem, it is inextricably linked to, and amplifies by, other forms of injustice.”
Inclusion and anti-Semitism
Chaja and Jelle point out that Jews today are often not taken seriously as a marginalized group. “Jews are the forgotten vegetables of inclusivity,” says Chaja. “Jews and the fight against anti-Semitism are often forgotten, including by ‘intersectional activists’. This while anti-Semitism is so evident, especially when we talk about the rise of fascism and the fight against the far right. No matter what problem we have in the world, the Jews have always done it. We cannot address the injustice of the far right without involving Jews.”
Jelle agrees. “The word ‘Jew’ has almost become a controversial word in the Netherlands. People prefer not to talk about Jews. And when it comes to Jews, it is almost always in a negative sense: about the holocaust or about the abuses in Israel. But it is actually very little about people who are Jewish and live in the Netherlands.”
And that’s exactly what Oy Vey Acts wants to change by building an open, inclusive space for living Jews together. A space where Jewish activism can be celebrated and this deeply rooted tradition continued towards a more just and sustainable world.
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