Members of Austin Jewish Voice for Peace stage vigil at Texas State Capitol.
AUSTIN — Elaine Cohen, an activist with Austin Jewish Voice for Peace (AJVP) and a Rag Blog contributor, invited me to join a Chanukah vigil outside the Texas State Capital on Wednesday, December 21. The aim? to protest Islamaphobia, racism, and Trump’s appointment of David Friedman — an extreme right-wing settler supporter — as the next ambassador to Israel.
Traditional Chanukah songs hit my ears as I approached the Capital along 11th Street. Families I recognized from the orthodox Lubavich community were gathered on the sidewalk enjoying latkes.
Surely this wasn’t the AJVP gathering? I texted Elaine. “You’re early” she texted back. “Don’t panic.” Soon members and supporters of AJVP including Palestinian-, Moslem-, and Christian-Americans began gathering alongside the more traditional Chanukah group. We all exchanged glances with the families to the right of us. Was one group there to balance — or challenge — the other? Did anyone know the other group would be there?
A huge brightly lit Christmas tree added a touch of ecumenicism behind us. A Santa-on-horseback trotted by. A young woman from the Lubavich group approached us with plates of latkes to share.
Democracy in action? Or, as Elaine said, “a perfect example of philosophical bifurcation?”
Elaine reminded the gentleman that the book has been denounced by Arab scholars.
I held my breath when an elderly, bearded member of the Lubavich group wandered over to ask if everyone had read Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong? Elaine reminded the gentleman that the book has been denounced by Arab scholars (most notably by Professor Edward Said who said Lewis aimed to “debunk and discredit the Arabs and Islam”). Our bearded friend looked puzzled as though he wasn’t even aware of Arab historians. I wondered where the conversation might lead? Elaine was firm but gracious. The gentleman ambled back to the safety of his family, none the wiser.
As more of us gathered in the AJVP group, we were given placards to create a sort of protest Chanukah Menorah bearing slogans pinpointing the purpose of the vigil : “We will not be silent about anti-Moslem hate speech” and “We Fight anti-Moslem profiling and racial profiling in all its forms,” and “Jews against Islamophobia and Racism — rekindling our commitment to justice.” Other placards expressed solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the Standing Rock protest.
Candles flickered at the edge of the sidewalk. We were asked to read commitment statements from a script. We sang variations of “We Shall Not Be Moved” accompanied by AJVP organizer Ben Goodman on guitar.
Our protest was dignified. Certainly the presence of both groups presented a kaleidoscopic view of many different expressions of Judaism. Passing cars tooted and gave us thumbs up signs of support. We then went our separate ways, to be enveloped by the unseasonably warm Austin night.
[Pam Ferguson calls Austin home after living and working in a dozen world capitals. Dual national British and American, she spent nearly two years as a journalist traveling around Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt between l966-76. The author of 10 books published on both sides of the Atlantic, Pam’s first book was a past-and-present study of the Israeli-Palestinan conflict titled The Palestine Problem published in l973, followed by a novel about the Middle East titled The Pipedream. Her last visit to the Middle East was with the BBC Man Alive production team.]