NEW YORK (JTA) — The most unloved man in Zuccotti Park, the epicenter of the Occupy Wall Street protests, isn’t a Wall Street banker but a fellow who wears a baseball cap and carries signs denouncing “Jewish bankers.”
The man, who told Slate his name is David Smith, comes almost daily to broadcast what he believes are God-given messages against Jews, Zionists and President Obama, whom he calls a “Jewish puppet.” One recent placard read “Google: Zionists control Wall Street.”
Organizers and activists have tried to provide a counterpoint when Smith speaks to reporters and gawkers, holding their own signs deriding him. “A–hole” reads one. “Who’s paying this guy?” reads another. In one video, demonstrators nearby can be seen chanting “Nazis: Go home!”
“Everyone’s been trying to get rid of him,” said Dan Sieradski, a Jewish activist who organized a mass Yom Kippur service at the site of the protests, which are now entering their second month. “But the police say he has a right to stay there, and he does.”
Though the man is one of the few overtly anti-Jewish protesters at the site in New York, he is a sign of an undercurrent of anti-Semitism that runs through some of those protesting at the Occupy Wall Street gatherings across the United States.
While movement organizers and sympathizers are quick to argue that such protesters are a fringe element, they are a reminder of the small proportion of Americans that still clings to the canard that Jews control the nation’s money. According to the Anti-Defamation League, 16 percent of Americans hold anti-Semitic beliefs about Jewish control of the banking system.
"With any kind of populist movement, you’re going to have that kind of expression popping out,” said the ADL’s civil rights director, Deborah Lauter. “But this is a particularly sensitive one in the Jewish community, and we have to make sure it doesn’t take hold.”
For the Jewish activists who see great merit in the Occupy Wall Street protests and have been trying to amplify their impact, they have had to do double duty tamping down anti-Semitic and, in some cases, anti-Zionist expressions. That task has gained greater urgency as critics of the protests — within and outside the Jewish community — have pointed to the anti-Semitic ferment of a few to disparage the larger anti-Wall Street movement.
The conservative Emergency Committee for Israel released a video calling for Democratic leaders to denounce the protests. It featured both Smith at Zuccotti Park and a young New Yorker named Danny Cline who was caught on video telling a yarmulke-wearing man to “go back to Israel.” Cline later claimed to be Jewish and a descendant of Holocaust survivors.
Radio personality Rush Limbaugh said the protesters’ rants against bankers and Wall Street were coded references to Jews. Similarly, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin accused politicians and the media of hypocrisy for a lack of coverage of the anti-Semitic content compared to coverage of racism at Tea Party events.
For their part, Jewish activists involved in the protests acknowledged that an Israeli organizer of the social protests that swept Israel over the summer was booed when he came to speak at Zuccotti Park. But, they noted, the heckler was kicked out.
“Anti-Zionists come and try to make it about Israel,” Sieradski said. “We accept them into the movement, but we don’t allow them to hijack the movement.”
Overall, the Jewish protesters argued, the focus on anti-Semitism is exaggerated.
“Wherever you go to a public demonstration,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the left-wing Tikkun Magazine, “you always have a few nutcases standing on the side.”
Lerner, who is based in San Francisco, helped organize Occupy Wall Street protests in Washington state. He said the strategy should be to ignore the occasional anti-Semite.
“Unless you’re a movement that beats up outsiders, you’re going to have people on the periphery show up,” he said.
But detractors say the anti-Semitism is not just a fringe element. Among other things, they cite support for the protests by the Canadian magazine Adbusters, which was widely condemned for a 2004 story that focused on the influence of Jewish neoconservatives in drumming up support for the Iraq war and featured a list of 50 neoconservatives with asterisks next to the names of the Jews. In 2010, the magazine published a story comparing the Gaza Strip to the Warsaw Ghetto.
Protesters say that beyond promoting the protests in its magazine, Adbusters has had no influence on their actual content.
Defenders of the protests also note that some Tea Party rallies have had offensive messages, including Hitler analogies. Pressure by Jewish organizations and others have helped marginalize those voices.
After being inundated by concerned calls after anti-Semitic manifestations at the Occupy Wall Street protests, the ADL issued a statement saying it is keeping an eye on the protests but does not believe that there is significant anti-Semitism.
“While we believe that these expressions are not representative of the larger views of the OWS movement, it is still critical for organizers, participants and supporters of these rallies to condemn such bigoted statements clearly and forcefully,” ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said.
Sieradski told JTA that protesters are printing pamphlets explaining how to confront the anti-Semites. He also accused critics of crying wolf and making it harder to fight real anti-Semitism.
“The only people who yell at us are Jews calling us traitors and self-hating Jews,” Sieradski said. "We haven’t encountered many anti-Semites, but we’re still worried about it. It is in every part of our lives, and we need to be ever vigilant."