Jews Occupy Oakland Federal Building for Gaza

I was there . . .

by Jim Haber, December 2023, originally published at Community Connection, the e-magazine of the author's synagogue.

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Jim Haber at the Dellums Federal Building in Oakland on November 13.

Photo by Jim Haber

Jews across the country and around the world are seeing images of a starving, bloody, and obliterated Gaza, and they are coming out to support a free Palestine like never before. On Monday, November 13, several hundred of us converged on the Ron Dellums Federal Building in Oakland to occupy the building and stand up against Israeli military assaults on Palestinians in Gaza.

Our coordinated T-shirts read, “NOT IN OUR NAME” and “JEWS SAY CEASEFIRE NOW.” We also decried worsening attacks on activists and Palestinian communities in Israel proper and in the West Bank (including Kehilla’s friends in Umm aI-Khair). We were demonstrating to protect the right to speak out for Palestine in the United States. However, we largely stuck to the main point, chanting, “Ceasefire now!” for hours.

I didn’t know who the central organizers were until the afternoon of the action. Prior to that, I did know that Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow sponsored the action, as part of a national strategy to pressure the US government to pressure Israel to stop collectively punishing Gaza. A feature of “direct action” organizing for most participants involves being kept in the dark about important details, such as location. I did know that the plan wasn’t to occupy a freeway or fully lock down a building, because we would have needed more briefing, practice, and personal agreement. Like over 95% of the occupiers, I didn’t know the meetup spot until the morning of the action or our target until partway through the meeting.

Kehilla Community Synagogue was well represented. Upwards of 20 Kehilla members participated in some way, including Rabbi SAM Luckey and Rabbi Dev Noily. Penny Rosenwasser and Brooke Lober served as featured chant and songleaders. Seth Morrison was a spokesperson, and Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb led us in song and prayer.

After the action, Penny Rosenwasser commented,

I was thrilled to be with 700 Jews and allies, sitting in at Oakland’s [Dellums] Federal Building for seven hours. 472 of us were arrested. Some say it was the biggest civil disobedience action in the Bay Area in 20 years. It was definitely the largest-ever Jewish direct action on the West Coast. I was a song leader, and I felt like I was pouring heart, grief, and outrage out of my body and into the chants and songs–and hundreds were right there with me. Activism as therapy. As I led the Israeli peace song “Lo Yisa Goy,” and sang “and everyone ‘neath a vine and fig tree, shall live in peace and unafraid,” I felt the tears. I kept remembering the babies… I felt, with a Palestinian child being killed every 10 minutes, if our actions could stop the genocide even one day earlier, one hour earlier, how many children’s lives could we save?

Meanwhile, Phil Weintraub, a Kehilla member involved in the three Kehilla Middle East committees, said,

Although an activist for decades, I had never been in a situation before where civil disobedience was an option for me. When invited to participate in this action, I knew immediately I wanted to join and said “yes” after receiving enthusiastic support from my partner. I was nervous to be arrested and unsure what to expect, but trusted that those organizing and leading the action would use their experience to make it impactful. We only knew it would be in Oakland, and being a federal employee, I knew the [Dellums] Federal Building was a good possibility for the site. I had no idea how large the action was until the night before when I learned that 600 people were on the Zoom call where we received guidance from an attorney as to what we might expect. When I arrived where we gathered prior to the action, I saw many familiar faces from Kehilla whom I had no idea were joining the action. I was particularly moved that several of Kehilla’s rabbis were participating, although not everyone gathered planned on getting arrested. The leadership and organizing of our leaders and the action were amazing.

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'Rabbi Reuben Zellman (from left), Rabbi Dev Noily, Rabbi SAM Luckey, Rabbi Cat Zavis, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Rabbi Faryn Borella, and Rabbi Elliot Kukla near the Dellums Federal Building in Oakland on November 13.

Photo courtesy of Rabbi Lynn Gotlieb

During the occupation of the federal building rotunda and foyers, I shared some video and images to the Kehilla Facebook group. I was grateful to get some response, mostly hearts and thumbs up. One thoughtful challenge came from a Kehilla member who wrote, “What? Can someone please explain what shutting down the Oakland Federal Building is going to accomplish?”

I wrote back, “To whatever extent Palestinians know these actions in locales all over the world are happening, it helps. Maybe our loving fierce determination will pressure them not to slaughter every Gazan. People have to do our local parts wherever we are. Palestinians have asked us to do what we can. We’re not beating or shooting our enemies though.”

Then I added, “Shutting down an ammunition plant would feel more satisfying; it’s true.”

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Shelley Sella (left) and Julie Litwin (right) at the Ceasefire rally at the Oakland Federal Building on November 13.

Photo courtesy of Julie Litwin

While the threat of riled-up police was ever present, our plan of entering the rotunda while singing fervently (but sweetly) was intended to communicate to law enforcement that we were not going to be violent, even if we were rushing through an open door to take over the space. Luckily, the police did not harm us. Some people were ready to risk arrest while others were not sure, and the action’s leaders did their best to accommodate these different needs. As the atrocities in Gaza continue, activists are rethinking the levels of risk that they are willing to take to face down war crimes.

The police said that additional officers were needed to process us, and I expected to wait a long time, also because the police often take a great deal longer than seems necessary. This night, however, the police didn’t go slowly and moved us out of the building faster than any arrest action I have ever participated in. We had said we wouldn’t leave until there was a ceasefire or we were arrested, and the police did physically remove us from the building, then photographed with our IDs and released us. We may get notices to appear.

No consequence will compare to what Palestinians have suffered for over 70 years or what any prisoner or hostage, Palestinian or Israeli, is going through. As activists, we are all fighting for relevance as we decide how to act up. We want to make a difference. We want to save lives. We fight feeling irrelevant and powerless. We are trying to do more than make phone calls and sign petitions as we watch a genocide against a ravaged people carried out with weapons and political cover paid for with American tax dollars, by a government demanding to be taken as THE Jewish authority in the world.

Kehillan and November 13 organizing team member Sara Shor said, “I was raised that Judaism was about fighting for social justice and speaking out when we see oppression in the world. What I learned from Jewish culture and history is that our freedom and safety is not possible without the freedom and safety of all oppressed people.” If like-minded Jews have to face off against other Jews and Americans, many more peace-loving Jews and Americans must join us, because, as it is written in Isaiah 32, “Peace is the fruit of justice.”

To connect with the groups at Kehilla that are working in solidarity with Palestinians, contact the Middle East Peace Committee at mideastcomm@kehillasynagogue.org, Chavurah for a Free Palestine at chav4freepalestinecontact@kehillasynagogue.org, and Face to Face: a Jewish-Palestinian Reparations Alliance at f2fjprepcontact@kehillasynagogue.org.

To look for upcoming local events, see the Arab Resource and Organizing Committee (AROC) calendar.