11/02/2011 12:54 pm ET | Updated Jan 02, 2012

What's a Jew to Do?

In the United States during the 1930s, revolution was in the air. With the stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression, the broken economy was failing most Americans. This gave rise to a spectrum of responses, providing communists and socialists on the left and fascists on the right with a compelling argument that capitalism and democracy were fundamentally flawed. With millions unemployed and living in poverty, people were primed for change.

But in the United States, the revolution never came. Capitalism survived the 1930s. So did democracy.

Instead, the calls for social change compelled President Franklin Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress to pass sweeping reforms, while the Supreme Court provided the new laws with a constitutional seal of approval. Today, the reforms of the New Deal remain vital to America's compact with its citizens: part safety net, part ladder of opportunity.

Since 2008, economic conditions have sparked new movements for change. Organizers behind the Tea Party conservatives, the Ron Paul libertarians and isolationists, and Occupy Wall Street's anti-corporatists all believe another world is possible. The messages are simple and clear. "End the Fed" the libertarians proclaim. "Tax the Rich" the occupiers chant. "Seal the border" the tea partiers insist.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews were attracted to revolutionary, utopian movements like socialism and communism. Anti-Semitism made life hard for Jews, and the idea that we could create a more just society in which Jews and other embattled communities would be accepted as equals was very appealing.

Eventually, though, utopianism lost its luster for most American Jews. The revolutions of the 20th century often turned out to be more dangerous than the flawed societies they replaced. Both Stalin and Hitler inspired followers with their visions of utopia. Reform, not revolution, became the norm for American Jews.

Today, in economic and social conditions reminiscent of the 1930s, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is generating considerable excitement and some nervousness among American Jews. On the one hand, its critique of economic inequality and of a political system that excludes most voices from civic discourse resonates with the community's liberal majority. On the other hand, Jews have often been scapegoated during economic crises, accused of being puppet masters behind the scenes.

So, what's a Jew to do?

We can take a lesson from the 1930s, and advance an aggressive reform agenda that addresses the critique of structural inequality put forward by Occupy Wall Street.

Here's how the New York Times described it.

[I]ncome inequality is grinding down [the] middle class, increasing the ranks of the poor, and threatening to create a permanent underclass of able, willing but jobless people... [T]he financial sector, with regulators and elected officials in collusion, inflated and profited from a credit bubble that burst, costing millions of Americans their jobs, incomes, savings and home equity. ... [E]lected officials' hunger for campaign cash from Wall Street... has reaffirmed the economic and political power of banks and bankers, while ordinary Americans suffer... [The] dysfunctional economy [is] dominated by a financial sector that is driven as much by speculation, gouging and government backing as by productive investment.

If we agree with this assessment, we should be sympathetic to the voices of Occupy Wall Street. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to create a more just society. The potential strategies are limitless. In Boston, for example, the Stabilizing Urban Neighborhoods (SUN) initiative has prevented more than 125 homeowners from being evicted by helping them repurchase their homes with affordable fixed-rate mortgages.

Occupy Wall Street is many things. It is an opportunity for regular people to share their frustrations with an economic system that no longer works for them. It is a mechanism for mobilizing individuals to collectively confront powerful interests. And Occupy Wall Street is a new town square where democracy is practiced and the First Amendment comes alive.

There is a reason why a majority of Americans have a favorable opinion of Occupy Wall Street. You don't have to be an occupier to share their frustration. Finally, a populist movement even a reformer can love.

Originally posted on

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