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April 23, 2018 by

Meet the Feminist Rabbi Confronting Portland’s “Alt-Right” in the Streets

Rabbi Ariel Stone sounds the shofar at a gathering of the Interfaith Clergy Resistance last August.

Rabbi Ariel Stone sounds the shofar at a gathering of the Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance last August.

Despite its reputation as an environmentally conscious, progressive Mecca, in actual fact, the Pacific Northwest has a sordid racial history.

For example, from 1857 to 1927, there was a prohibition on African Americans entering Oregon, and while the policy was reportedly inconsistently enforced, the fact that it was included in the state Bill of Rights sent a clear message to would-be settlers of color. Not surprisingly, Portland remains the whitest big city in the U.S. of A.

For some Oregonians, this is exactly as it should be, and they are mobilizing supporters of a racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic worldview. The goal? To build all-white ethno-settlements in Idaho, Oregon, Washington state, and western Montana.

Their groups include True Cascadia, which bills itself as “white, proud, and unapologetic.” Supporters have postered numerous areas of the “beaver state,” and declared their intention of “securing the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

And they’re not all talk. In May 2017, 35-year-old white supremacist Jeremy Christian fatally stabbed two men who were defending a pair of girls against racist and anti-Muslim taunts aboard a Portland MAX train.

This is, of course, horrifying. But as you’d expect, many people on Oregon and throughout the Pacific Northwest oppose the alt-right and numerous anti-racist groups which have formed, among them, The Cascadian Coalition Against Hate, Cascadian Anti-White Supremacy, and the Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance.

Rabbi Ariel Stone of Portland’s Congregation Shir Tikvah is the convener of the Clergy Resistance. She recently spoke to Eleanor J. Bader about the political climate in Oregon, the work of the Clergy Resistance, and the challenges of organizing in Trumpian times.

Eleanor J. Bader: When did the Clergy Interfaith Resistance come together?

Rabbi Ariel Stone: The day after Donald Trump was elected, a group of about 60 clergy got together. We were in shock. Our first act was to open our synagogues and churches so that people could come together, manifest a presence, mourn, and then talk about organizing a resistance.

Since then some of us have met, as an interfaith clergy group, once a month to support each other and to seek ways to resist.

Our interest is in bringing the moral authority of the church, the synagogue, the goddess—all the powers of justice—to gatherings that are organized by groups like Portland Resistance, Black Lives Matter and Don’t Shoot Portland, the organizations that are doing the most important and bravest resistance work in our city.

Unlike the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, people today are not necessarily mobilizing behind clergy. But we feel that it is important for clergy to be present, in the streets, with the oppressed and disenfranchised. We keep a close eye on what the activists in Don’t Shoot Portland and Black Lives Matter are doing. We don’t want to duplicate their work, but instead intend to be a non-hypocritical religious voice, a strong moral voice, where a call for justice can be publicly articulated.

EJB: Can you say more about the need to begin this work by mourning our losses?

AS: The idea that first you mourn comes directly out of my experience as a rabbi. It is a sensitivity that comes from working with people across the spectrum of their entire lives. I’ve learned that you have to respect your feelings. If you try to be superhuman and deny your grief, you’re denying your humanity.

The Black community has a right to be angry and mourn their losses. Likewise, people who opposed Trump had a right to grieve in the aftermath of the election. We had to respect the loss and take a moment, give ourselves a chance to breathe and collect our resources before going out and responding. It’s the only way to regroup, strengthen, and fortify ourselves.

EJB: What has the Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance done to date?

AS: People in the Resistance work on many different levels. One Portland pastor is extremely open in challenging Immigration and Customs Enforcement and in helping anyone who is about to be deported. Other Resistance members are quieter about their efforts, doing work that we may never hear about, or will hear about 10 years from now. We supported the efforts of a coalition called Portland Stands United Against Hate at several rallies, and we ourselves organized a local march in sync with the national March for Justice last summer. 

On a quieter but important level, one thing we’ve all agreed to do is never let anyone make a racist or dehumanizing comment or ‘joke’ in our presence. This micro-resistance is one way we can challenge racist, sexist, homophobic or anti-immigrant sentiments.

We’ve also taken a page from the American Civil Liberties Union whose staff people attend demonstrations wearing blue vests that are clearly marked with the words Legal Observer. When we attend protests or demonstrations, we wear purple vests that say Clergy Witness.

We started doing this after a protest organized by Don’t Shoot Portland that took place in March 2017. It was a response to the police killing of a 17-year-old Black teenager named Quantice Hayes. Protesters blocked a street and the city sent out riot cops out wearing uniforms that looked like something out of Star Wars. They arrested people who were lying in the street, holding daffodils. We saw the ACLU in their vests, witnessing what was happening, and adopted the idea of making sure we were visible. Since then, we’ve been a visible, identifiable clergy presence at events and protests.

We wore these vests in June 2017 at a protest against an alt-right person who is well-known in Oregon for preaching hate, Joey Gibson, founder of Patriot Prayer. He came to Portland with a group of sympathizers and held a rally where he laid out his racist agenda. A bunch of groups—the ACLU, Antifa, Black Bloc, Democratic Socialists of America, Don’t Shoot Portland, and us—the Interfaith Clergy Resistance—showed up to tell these folks that they are not welcome in Portland.

We were also present after the Islamophobic murders on our light rail last year, and more recently on Martin Luther King Day when protesters shut down MLK Boulevard. A few weeks ago, we were witness at events commemorating the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, and we will be in the streets again if President Trump fires Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller. Additionally, we’re looking into how we can be supportive of the Poor People’s Campaign that will begin next month.

It’s gratifying to be able to act, and I have to tell you, each time we go out the response has been incredible. People express so much appreciation to us just for showing up.

EJB: Have you experienced any negativity or push-back from your congregation or other sectors of the Jewish community since becoming convener of the Resistance?

AS: No one has objected to me directly; however it is clear that there are clergy who prefer other approaches and other tactics.

Out of the original group of 60 who met in November of 2016, only ten or so of us meet regularly, and only about 25 of our purple Clergy Witness vests have been distributed.

EJB: Is there a particularly Jewish ethos that you inject into Resistance efforts?

AS: Whenever I speak to my congregation or other Jews I share the concept of the Rodef, and explain that Jewish tradition teaches that if someone is coming after you, you have the right to defend yourself, even if it unfortunately causes harm to them. We’re Jews; Halakhic guidance is important.

EJB: What motivated you, personally, to get involved in this work?

AS: I wanted to be with other clergy after the election out of a sense of revulsion over what had happened. In Portland, people marched through the streets on January 20, 2017, inauguration day, and shouted “Not My President.” The police surrounded them and many of the people who were marching were shot with rubber bullets or tear-gassed. Those are my people, and I had to do something.

Being an activist has always been energizing for me. It felt good to be out in front of City Hall and in front of the Police headquarters, blowing a shofar—something we did right before the High Holidays last fall—and express the need for justice. There has to be a way to publicly proclaim this imperative, and for me right now, it’s done by participating in the Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance. As the convener, I make sure we get together regularly and work to create a space on the radical left for people of faith to be represented. I believe the most powerful resistance is local. As a member of the progressive Portland clergy community, I’m proud to join colleagues of all faiths in staying vigilant, responsive, and supportive of efforts to oppose the alt-right and oppose all forms of hate, no matter how it is expressed or by whom.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.