Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Open Letter on Food Justice to the "New Jewish Food Movement"

Call and Response! The 3 letters -- my original Open Letter, Hazon's reply, and my follow-up -- are posted sequentially below.

To be clear: In case there's any question, my missives are not intended in any way as attacks on Hazon or the "New Jewish Food Movement," who are doing truly wonderful work in terms of revitalizing critical consciousness about food within the Jewish community. I hope they will be received by fellow Jews in the spirit of constructive criticism, and used as a launching point toward collaborative discovery of ways to create positive change that strengthen the Jewish food movement's engagement with the many food security and justice challenges that lie ahead.

If you are a participant in the 2008 Hazon Food Conference, and the analysis expressed here resonates with you, I strongly encourage you to spread the word and initiate conversations at the Conference regarding how we can move forward together to grow food and justice for all! You are very welcome to print out the correspondence below to pass around.


December 3, 2008

Dear 2008 Hazon Food Conference organizers and food justice allies,

As a young Jewish organic farmer and nationally involved food justice activist, I am writing to express my concern regarding the unbalanced, incomplete quality of the food justice content in the program of the 2008 Hazon Food Conference -- as well as the exclusiveness of the event itself -- taking place December 25-28 at the Asilomar Conference and Retreat Center on the Monterey Coast of central California.

Justice may be the most important value within the culture of Judaism. We have intricate rules to dignify the treatment of animals, and the Torah requires tithing from every crop grown within Israel, as the means to establish food security for the poor. Traditionally, ethical practices such as these were focused within the Jewish community, and contributed greatly to high levels of intra-Jew solidarity and equity that Jewish communities have displayed throughout the world.

But in the present age of globalization and inter-connected crises that transcend all cultural, religious and geographical boundaries, Jewish people must realize that justice for Jews alone is no justice at all. And when we ignore the powerful food justice movements that have emerged in recent years from people of color communities throughout the USA and the world, we are in effect alienating ourselves from a potent new historical current and consciousness that could transform not only how we eat as a civilization (and who eats what) but also the ways in which the diverse cultures and regions of the world and our country relate to each other. Can food justice movements help lead the way from a rapidly failing international regime of "hyper-capitalism" that everywhere wreaks exploitation, war, and environmental destruction … to vibrant new systems of economic and ecological cooperation founded on common action for peace, fair trade, ecological health, and justice for all people and species? I would say, "Yes we can!"

As part of this historic shift, I believe the time now is ripe for Jews to seize our supposed biblical role as a "light unto the world" by embracing and mobilizing for the premise, enshrined in international law by the United Nations, that access to good food is the fundamental and inalienable human right of all people!

Yet sadly, I am disturbed by the somewhat less visionary and inclusive direction that the "New Jewish Food Movement" and its facilitator -- the Hazon Food Conference -- appear to be moving in, due to the following 4 specific reasons. My own commentary is offered mostly in the form of questions:

1) Absence of food justice organizers representing diverse communities from the 2008 Hazon Food Conference.

Scanning the list of more than 50 Jewish leaders who were chosen to deliver presentations at the Conference, I see only 2 individuals whose biographies explicitly state that they are involved with food justice issues. While I wish in no way to impugn their wonderful work, it does seem (although I'm not certain) that they are primarily engaged with food justice work within the Jewish community. Thus I ask: Where are the Jewish food justice activists who are working in solidarity with Black, Latino and Native communities across the USA? Where are the Jewish food justice activists who are struggling to provide healthy food to homeless people, such as folks from the huge "Food Not Bombs" movement? Where are the Jewish activists who are organizing to address the shame of widespread food and environmental injustice in Gaza and the West Bank, or in other Third World countries? Where are the Jewish activists who comprehend the variety of complex causes of food injustice, and who will articulate a comprehensive critique of the inequity and violence produced by the dominant paradigm of industrial-capitalist agriculture, as well as concrete strategies to change it?

2) Failure to recognize and become accountable to the divisive, polarizing impact of white privilege within the 2008 Hazon Food Conference discussion of food justice issues.

To its credit, the Hazon Food Conference does contain a substantive, interesting track about "Food Policy and Creating a New Food System." The Conference website states: "Sessions will cover topics such as getting pasture-raised beef to your kosher butcher, purchasing local food for Jewish institutions, and eco-evaluating the way you shop and eat within your home. From local food justice to hunger relief, food miles to GMOs: How do our Jewish values impact our passion for food, the land and social justice? What, if any, responsibility do we have as Jews to be active citizens in our respective countries on food related issues?"

"What, if any...?" Indeed! The very phrasing of that question seems to confirm my suspicion that, as a whole and in general, Jewish social justice movements are continuing to ignore the numerous ways in which the benefits of white privilege -- and blindness to the ways in which it plays out in our lives and work -- has severely undermined the effectiveness of our activism and cross-cultural relationships and alliance-building. As one of the foremost leaders in the Jewish-American social justice community, it should be the responsibility of Hazon to take the lead in bringing honest discussions and steps toward accountability regarding white privilege to the center of progressive Jewish activism.

At this point, I want to briefly establish a definition (borrowed from Wikipedia) for common understanding: White privilege is a sociological concept that describes advantages enjoyed by white people beyond that which is commonly experienced by non-white people in those same social, political, and economic spaces (nation, community, workplace, income, etc.). It differs from racism or prejudice in that a person benefiting from white privilege may not necessarily hold racist beliefs or prejudices themselves. Often, the person benefiting is unaware of his or her supposed privilege.

Thus, as a start to inspiring more awareness and discussion within the Jewish activist community regarding white privilege, I ask: How have our personal and/or institutionalized experiences of white privilege altered or corrupted Jewish identity in the USA? When we -- again, in general and as a whole (because we can't forget the existence of many non-white Jews who never experience white privilege, except perhaps within the context of the privileges afforded to the broader institutional Jewish community) -- transitioned from facing extreme religious and cultural persecution in other countries to benefiting from white privilege in the USA, what changed in Jewish culture during that process?

Here are the full texts of two books that provide more discussion of the historical context and complexities of Jewishness and white privilege:

"The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity"

"How Jews Became White Folks and What that Says about Race in America"

What Jewish-American culture is missing, however, is in-depth analysis and discussion of the implications of white privilege upon Jewish engagement with peace, environmental, social justice and other forms of progressive & transformative activism. After the 2008 election, it may be convenient for many American Jews to imagine that the Jewish voting pattern strongly in favor of Barack Obama is somehow indicative of Jewish distinct-ness vis-à-vis the rest of white American culture and of meaningful solidarity with people of color. But even if that were true (you be the judge) we still live in a society marked by widespread inequality, injustice and suffering that will only change through localized grassroots action from below and coordinated cross-cultural movement-building ... and never through the symbolic ascent of one black male! As people who historically have known both the horrors of oppression and the benefits of white-ness, Jews may indeed have a unique role to play in struggles to dismantle racism and achieve genuine justice. But to do so, we must come to terms squarely with the corrosive effects of white privilege, especially with the ways in which it limits and confounds the formation of relationships of solidarity and organized alliances with communities of color and their movements for justice. What strategies are necessary to call out and de-mystify the "invisible" elephant in the room of white privilege so that Jewish solidarity with people of color's activism occurs with ease, frequency and durability? I am tempted to also ask questions about how those partnerships for justice with people of color can best be achieved, but I realize that's getting ahead of the game; the first steps in this process are internal.

Finally, I want to extend a few more specific lines of inquiry related to food justice: When, for example, so many Jews have been so vocal in speaking out against violence in distant Darfur, where is our moral integrity when we are largely silent about the ongoing food catastrophe, intensified by a series of brutal hurricanes this summer, in Haiti -- our forgotten neighbor across the Carribean where children are starving, adults bake and sell mud cakes for daily sustenance, and food riots brought down the government? And domestically, how do we address the appalling violations of worker rights by Jewish management at kosher meatpacking factories, followed by federal ICE raids to deport those same immigrant workers, which has led to nationwide shortages of kosher food? (In other words, do we just care about finding new sources of kosher beef for ourselves, or will we engage radically to transform the systemic roots of injustice & oppression that will inevitably come around to affect us too?)

3) Exclusiveness of the 2008 Hazon Food Conference venue and the prohibitively expensive cost of attending it.

When one adds up the prices of registration ($290 per adult), hotel lodging, and travel to this peripherally located city, the total cost can easily add up to more than $1000 per individual! During a holiday season of massive economic implosion when millions of Americans are struggling just to put food on their tables and gifts under their trees (or bushes) ... what message does the comparative luxury of the Hazon Food Conference send, for instance, to our potential allies in the broader food justice movement? Do we truly think that food justice activists representing communities of color could ever get away with hosting a conference like this? And ultimately, how much do we really benefit from spending 4 days discussing food justice and sustainable food issues in at atmosphere of exclusivity that's more or less closed to the folks who need this information and networking the most?

4) My own personal experience of exclusion from the 2008 Hazon Food Conference.

In early November 2008, I wrote to the Hazon Food Conference organizers and asked to volunteer for the Conference. I hoped that by volunteering -- combined with the fact that I am a low-income Jew with extensive involvement in food justice issues from my local Chicano-led community farm in Albuquerque to the national Youth Food Movement -- Hazon might at least meet me half-way in terms of reducing the $290 conference cost, which would enable me to attend the Conference. However, I encountered a Hazon organization that refused to exhibit more than a minimum of compassion for my particular financial situation. This leads me to speculate: How many other low-income Jews are in a similar situation of being unable to attend the 2008 Hazon Food Conference despite our sincere desire to participate in the discussions and represent our communities? How different would the Conference be, both physically and conceptually, if more of us were able to attend? What is the "New Jewish Food Movement" missing from folks like us, and what networking opportunities or spiritual growth are we losing by not being there?

So because I am (one of many?) excluded from the 2008 Hazon Food Conference happening during Chanukah, I've decided to celebrate this holiday season by continuing my food justice work and organizing a personal humanitarian mission to support indigenous Navajo elders at remote and oppressed Black Mesa, AZ. The purpose of this mission is to deliver needed food and supplies to a family of 3 Navajo elders, and to spend the month of December helping to defend their sacred ancestral lands by herding their sheep and assisting with work tasks -- in a spirit of solidarity, not charity, so that they may get some rest during the cold winter, and hopefully continue their resistance against the theft and desecration of their land next year with a spirit of wellness.

I tell you this simply to graphically demonstrate that while you enjoy the luxurious oceanside 2008 Hazon Food Conference retreat in beautiful Monterey -- and you should! -- oppressed people around the world are continuing their age-old struggles for environmental justice, food sovereignty, and land rights. And sometimes, even in the depths of winter, in places with no electrity, running water, or Internet, a Jewish activist might there with them, working in solidarity. Please remember us!

In conclusion, I hope that this Open Letter to the "New Jewish Food Movement" spurs provocative discussion about food justice at the 2008 Hazon Food Conference. I hope that it inspires many participants and organizers to think seriously about how to make the 2009 Hazon Food Conference more open and accessible, and how to more fully embrace a deep and honest dialogue about white privilege and food justice issues in its program.

I hope that you will communicate with me your thoughts and dreams about how we may move forward together towards creating a world that grows food and justice for all. And last but not least, I hope that some of you will join me to begin founding a national movement of JEWS FOR FOOD JUSTICE in 2009, our collective YEAR OF CHANGE.

Please contact me at Jews4FoodJustice(at)

I'll be in touch with folks after the New Year.

Shalom, ahava v tzedakah l'koolam ba'olam, ("Peace, love and justice to everyone in the world")

Ethan Genauer

P.S. - You're probably thinking something like: "Who the heck is Ethan Genauer, and what has he done to earn the chutzpah to lecture the "New Jewish Food Movement" about food justice?" Well, my friends, let me quickly explain: I am just one Jew who strives to put my principles into action, and who has learned slowly through a decade of grassroots environmental activism to never fear speaking the truth as I see it to anyone ... even if it means waging individual protests such as saying "Farms Not Arms" to John McCain and his supporters during his presidential campaign visit to my city! Ever since I returned to the U.S. after studying sustainable agriculture in Israel at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in 2000, I have organized with "Food Not Bombs" in cities across the USA, sharing free public vegetarian meals with poor and homeless people. In 2005, I organized one of the largest protests ever in the USA targeting genetically engineered agriculture and corporate biotechnology. I injected food justice into the early discussion about the impact of unsustainable oil dependence on food availability through my essay "Peak Oil and Community Food Security." I mobilized a series of benefit concerts across the East Coast to raise fund for Palestinian olive farmers struggling to harvest their crops in the face of Israel's devastating Apartheid Wall and military occupation; then I published an essay about environmental injustice in Palestine, and initiated the Trees Not Walls network. I studied permaculture with the "Earth Activist Training" in 2006 and apprenticed with a biodynamic CSA farm in 2007. And for the past year, I have been greatly honored to volunteer in the field and raise funds for a remarkable new, Chicano-led community farm located at a sacred historic site called La Placita Gardens in Albuquerque's materially impoverished (but culturally extraordinary) riverside district known as the South Valley, where the population is predominantly Hispanic, Chicano & Native . By integrating youth -- especially former gang members and those previously incarcerated -- into every aspect of the farm project, we embody the philosophy of la cultura cura ("culture cures") through hands-on cooperative work, and help young people become reconnected with their traditional agricultural roots. So that's some of where I'm coming from...

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