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Jewish Activists Hold Solidarity Shabbat Defending Angela Davis in Birmingham & Across U.S.

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Jewish supporters of Angela Davis across the nation held solidarity Shabbat on Friday evening, the night before the civil rights icon had been expected to receive the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The institute rescinded the honor in January due to Davis’ support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting the Israeli government and Israeli institutions. The institute later reversed this decision after international outcry, but Davis has yet to accept the award. Democracy Now! was in Birmingham on Friday and attended a Shabbat in support of Angela Davis.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Civil rights icon and scholar Angela Davis returned to her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, over the weekend. She was originally planning to come to receive the Fred L. Shuttlesworth award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, but the institute withdrew the award last month, soon after the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center sent a letter urging the board to reconsider honoring Davis due to her support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.

The institute faced swift and widespread outcry. The Birmingham mayor condemned the decision. He’s an ex officio member of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s board. The Birmingham City Council unanimously passed a resolution of support for Davis, as the Birmingham’s Board of Education.

The institute then reversed its decision and reinstated the award. But Angela Davis has yet to say if she will accept it. While the institute canceled its gala event scheduled for February 16th, last Saturday night, the Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation organized its own event to honor Davis, an icon of the black liberation movement.

Dr. Davis is a Birmingham native who grew up in a neighborhood known as Dynamite Hill, because it was bombed so frequently by the Ku Klux Klan. Her work around issues of gender, race, class and prisons has influenced critical thought and social movements across generations. She’s a leading advocate for prison abolition, a position informed by her own experience as a prisoner and fugitive on the FBI’s top 10 most wanted list more than 40 years ago. She’s also a professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Well, on Friday, Jewish supporters of Angela Davis across the nation held Angela Davis Solidarity Shabbats, declaring, “Angela, you are welcome at this Shabbat.” The language was inspired by the posters that supporters of Davis put in their windows, declaring, “Angela, sister, you are welcome in this house,” when she went underground four decades ago as the FBI hunted her down.

Well, Democracy Now! was in Birmingham this weekend to cover all the events around Angela Davis’s homecoming and a remarkable event of more than 3,000 people welcoming her to Birmingham on Saturday night. We’ll play a part of the conversation she had Saturday. But first we go back to Friday, when we first arrived in Birmingham and covered an “Angela Shabbat.”

JESSE SCHAFFER: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz. Amen. My name is Jesse Schaffer. A whole series of events sort of occurred that got me here. After I heard about what happened with Angela Davis, I had a lot of intense feelings, very intense and strong feelings. And as somebody who my Judaism is directly rooted in social justice and building the world that I seek, it felt like a really amazing opportunity to share this space that I was feeling with other people. So, for me, a direct expression of that was hosting a Shabbat to create space to both honor Angela Davis and also to demonstrate Jewish support for Angela Davis, that the true reflection of Jewish values is this, like building community around building a better world. Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, borei p’ri hagafen.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned, as you were blessing the bread and the candles and the challah, the bread, that Angela Davis embodied your Jewish ideals. Can you explain that?

JESSE SCHAFFER: Yeah. I was raised in the context of historic Jewish oppression and harnessing our historic peoplehood, and that the greatest way to utilize that is to understand that our struggles are linked—right?—that we are more powerful when we understand that our oppression and our liberations are linked. And so, for me, Angela Davis is a direct expression of those values, and she has always understood that our historic struggles are linked, whether it’s Palestinians, it’s black folks in the South, Jewish folks—really, any struggle for justice—that they’re all linked and that we’re stronger together.

PHYLLIS MARK: My name is Phyllis Mark. I have lived in Birmingham for 22 years and was on my head to leave for the first 18 or so. I am here tonight because one of the things that has been so difficult for me to live here has been the conservatism, and the Jewish community here also has never felt like my home. And I grew up culturally very strongly as a Jew, and it was something that I’ve missed since I’ve been here.

AMY GOODMAN: How many synagogues or shuls are there here?

PHYLLIS MARK: There are three synagogues here. There’s one Orthodox, one Conservative, one Reform. And there is a Chabad. So, that’s the four organizational homes for the Jewish people here, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what was your response to Angela Davis, hearing that she was receiving a major award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Fred Shuttlesworth award, and then hearing that the institute and the museum had rescinded that award, and the reasons for it?

PHYLLIS MARK: I was extremely excited that she was invited here. I thought that she would be a voice that people would listen to. She has very strong roots here in Birmingham. She has been involved in social justice issues across the board in terms of culture, nationality. And I thought it was very important for them to offer her that invitation. I thought it was a very apt invitation.

When they rescinded it, I was shocked. And then I wasn’t so shocked, because I realized most of the board of the civil rights institute are white, corporate men, or at least some of them, the powerful ones on the board. There were also conversations about Jewish organizations and people who were very upset by the fact that she had been invited, and apparently had voiced their protest to the civil rights institute. And they’re involved, I think, financially with them, and they’re involved in other organizational associations. And that really upset me, because, as a Jew, I felt that it was especially important for somebody like Angela Davis to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you understand were the objections to her getting this award, from those in the Jewish community you’re referring to?

PHYLLIS MARK: Primarily that she was pro-Palestinian, and therefore anti-Israel. And, unfortunately, I did not hear any distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli policy. I heard that it was all grouped together, and it was just a blanket kind of condemnation that was based on the fact that there was this dualistic kind of policy in terms of you’re either for us or against us, and there’s no in between.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel about that?

PHYLLIS MARK: I’m heartbroken. I’m angry. I believe that Palestinian people deserve to have the rights that they’re not allowed to have currently in Israel. I think that, as a Jew, it’s a deep, deep embarrassment and shame that I feel, that we would become an oppressor, even though we see ourselves as an oppressed people. And I think that people don’t realize that you can be both. A lot of people who see themselves still with the paranoia and with the insulation of being a Jew don’t realize that we have the capacity also to be prejudiced and to be biased against people who are not us.

JESSE SCHAFFER: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, b’ahavah uv’ratzon.

AMELIE RATLIFF: My name is Amelie Ratliff, and I live in Boston, but I grew up in Birmingham. And I came because I’ve been following this story ever since it broke. I feel like that I spend a lot of time in the South. My family is still down here. I do political work with progressive organizations in the South.

And one of the things that was so disheartening to me was that after the story broke, it was unclear—the civil rights institute was not making it—they were not saying explicitly, “This is why Dr. Davis is not qualified to receive this award,” but there was discussion about whether or not it had to do with her support of Palestinian human rights. And I was not hearing—I have Jewish friends who live here. I went to school with a lot of Jewish students. And I didn’t hear progressive Jewish people in Birmingham standing up and saying, “Not in our name.”

I’m very moved by the number of people here and the youth. I think that’s really helpful, and I’m really glad. There were clearly Jewish people here who knew the words to the Shabbat. I’m not Jewish, so I don’t know if I’m even using the right language, but I was very moved that there were Jewish people who were saying, in effect, “Not in my name.”

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Birmingham and what it was like to grow up here?

AMELIE RATLIFF: It was very segregated. It was very segregated. And I lived in a wealthy suburb called Mountain Brook. And we were pretty—we were kept pretty much from what was going on downtown. I remember that our church was—my mother said, “On this particular Sunday, black people may come to our church. And we will handle that as we handle it.” She didn’t expect them to be turned away, but she just wanted to warn us, as kids—I was, I think, 13 at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: And why were they coming?

AMELIE RATLIFF: It was after the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, and Martin Luther King had written that the 11:00 hour was the most segregated hour—11:00 on Sunday was the most segregated hour in the week. And he had called on pastors who had—who were saying, “It’s too quick. Don’t go so fast.” He was saying, no, that it’s time. It’s time.

MARGARET WEINBERG: My name’s Margaret Weinberg. I’m not from here originally. I’m from Vermont originally, and I’ve been in Birmingham for three years. I’m here tonight because I was really—maybe not “surprised” is the right word, but taken aback, by the decision by the civil rights institute to not give Angela Davis the award. And I think my Judaism has always been very tied up in social justice. And I was really excited when I heard that there were folks in Birmingham who also didn’t agree with that decision and wanted to have a conversation about it. I think that having this discussion is really important. Obviously, there are people with all sorts of different opinions. And it’s just good that we’re using this as an opportunity to talk about it.

AMY GOODMAN: When you heard that the Holocaust center sent a letter to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute criticizing Angela Davis for her support of Palestinian rights, what were your thoughts as a Jew?

MARGARET WEINBERG: To me, I’ve never—I know that other people feel differently about this, but I’ve never equated Palestinian solidarity with anti-Semitism. And to me, those are just two different things. And we need to keep them two different things so that we can have discussions about anti-Semitism and racism.

AMY GOODMAN: When you heard that the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute reversed their decision to rescind the honor, how did you feel?

MARGARET WEINBERG: I mean, I think it’s good that they rescinded it, but it did—you know, I think that they—it seemed to me that they didn’t anticipate that level of pushback at the decision. And, I mean, I guess I think it’s good that they took it back, but they should have made a different decision in the first place. But, I mean, I think the important part now is that there have been so many fruitful conversations that have come out of this in Birmingham amongst different groups of people, and that’s been—that seems to be a really powerful thing. So, I’m glad that it’s not something that just happened and faded away.

AMY GOODMAN: Participants in the Angela Davis Solidarity Shabbat in Birmingham, Alabama, Friday night. There were scores of such Angela Shabbats organized around the country by Jewish Voice for Peace. When we come back, Angela Davis herself. Stay with us.

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Angela Davis Returns to Birmingham, Reflecting on Palestinian Rights & Fight for Freedom Everywhere

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