Finding religion at Occupy Wall Street

Back when the Occupy Wall street protests began, I complained about the lack of coverage in general and the lack of coverage of religion angles in particular. When the coverage improved, I made sure to note that as well. It's my observation that the best reporting comes from ideological outfits, particularly (as you might suspect) on the more progressive side of things. ReligionDispatches is a great resource, for instance. Let's look at a few recent stories. The Associated Press ran a piece headlined "Religion claims its place in Occupy Wall Street" in the Houston Chronicle. The article is a cheery look at the religious dimensions of the protest culture, beginning with a description of a Sacred Space tent at Occupy Boston. There, participants balance their chakras, engage in compassion meditation and discuss the Gospel of Luke. Inside, a Buddha statue sits near a picture of Jesus and a sign pointing toward Mecca:

The tent is one way protesters here and in other cities have taken pains to include a spiritual component in their occupations. Still, Occupy Wall Street is not a religious movement, and signs of spiritually aren't evident at all protest sites.

Clergy emphasize they are participants in the aggressively leaderless movement, not people trying to co-opt it. Plus, in a movement that purports to represent the "99 percent" in society, the prominent religious groups are overwhelmingly liberal.

Religion might not fit into the movement seamlessly, but activist Dan Sieradski, who's helped organize Jewish services and events at Occupy Wall Street, said it must fit somewhere.

"We're a country full of religious people," he said. "Faith communities do need to be present and need to be welcomed in order for this to be an all-encompassing movement that embraces all sectors of society."

Well, not all-embracing. We learn later that any actual sharing of religious views is strongly discouraged. A conservative critic is quoted pointing out that the only religious groups that are involved are from the liberal end of the spectrum.

I think it would have been good to quote some Occupy Wall Street sympathizers or activists who are uncomfortable with some of the religious aspects. Here's fatwa survivor Salman Rushdie, an early supporter of Occupy Wall Street, for instance:

#OWS: I thought yr protest was secular, about economic injustice. Now you're praying with (Islamic) religious pressure-group CAIR? Mistake.

And it would have been good to mention the allegations or examples of anti-Semitism that have cropped up at various Occupy protests. Heck, it would have been good to mention how Jewish protesters have handled religious celebrations during the protests.

Interesting articles dealing with Jewish participation and/or anti-Semitism include a couple that readers posted into comments on a previous post about this aspect. Here's the Jewish Telegraph Agency on Jewish participation and the anti-Semitism issue and here's Commentary on some anti-Semitic problems at the magazine that launched the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The New York Times ran a piece devoted to those issues that pooh-poohed any criticisms of anti-Semitism. Here's an example:

An Oct. 13 article on the Web site of Commentary, a politically conservative magazine founded by the American Jewish Committee, though no longer affiliated with it, argued that “it isn’t just a few crackpots engaging in anti-Semitism.” The article said that the “main organizer behind the movement — Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn — has a history of anti-Jewish writing.”

Mr. Lasn did not return a message left on his Adbusters office voice mail in Vancouver, British Columbia. But Patrick Bruner, another member of the Occupy Wall Street press team, said the magazine Adbusters had helped prompt the protest movement with a call for action but otherwise had “not been active at all.” He said the Occupy Wall Street movement rejected any kind of racism or hatred, but also was “open source,” meaning that anyone could take part.

Some might note that this is a drastically different posture than the Times took with another populist movement of recent memory, where unsubstantiated allegations became a dominant narrative.

Also, last week the New York Times was highlighting the importance of Adbusters in fundraising, contacting 90,000 activists, and setting the date and location of the event.

In any case, I think it's also odd that the Times doesn't mention anything specific about the "anti-Jewish writing" of Lasn. Just by way of example, there's the article he wrote headlined "Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?" Writings such as these also weren't mentioned in the previous piece about Lasn's involvement in Occupy Wall Street.

Now, one of my least favorite things that reporters do is take the fringiest of fringe characters at a given protest and make them seem representative of the whole. As such, reporters should be careful to document any instances of anti-Semitism (or other issues) but also the crowd response. For instance, early on in the Occupy Wall Street effort, I saw a picture of a man with an anti-Semitic sign. Next to him, though, was another man with a sign. That sign had an arrow pointed in the direction of the first dude and a word that is unprintable here. In any case, there's no need to ignore these delicate issues, dismiss them or hype them. Just some straightforward coverage will do. And if the media have suddenly realized that they should be more careful or consistent when tarring populist movements with unsavory allegations, well that wouldn't be bad at all.

Photo via David_Shankbone.

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