AIDS Working Group

Is this a Jewish Issue?

In March 1986, Andy (now Avi) Rose – a gay man and former national co-chair of NJA – addressed AIDS in his Co-Chair’s Letter in the NJA Newsletter. He reported on a New York Times poll from December 18th 1985, that showed public attitudes about AIDS and reported high numbers in favor of quarantine (more than half supported this), mandatory ID cards, AIDS screening tests for job applicants, closing Gay bars, and tattoos for people with AIDS. Rose writes, “Quarantining people? In camps? With tattoos? Is this a ‘Jewish issue?’ As Jews and progressive activists, we value compassion, and we value education. If ever there was a need for compassionate, informed response to a crisis, it is now.” By this time, Rose was a counselor at the AIDS Project in Los Angeles and in this article he offered reflections on the state of the movement. He wrote,

Jewish community response has been slow, but it is increasing. Statements have come out from several organizations, and NJA recently participated in a founding meeting of the National Jewish AIDS Project. The community is heading in the right direction, but as usual, needs an extra push. And, as usual, that is a major aspect of Agenda’s role.

NJA’s AIDS Activism in the Jewish community

Though NJA did not work in coalition with major Left-organizing around AIDS (such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis or ACT UP), AIDS was on Agenda’s agenda, especially as an issue to promote within Jewish communities.

  • The April 1986 NYC conference on Lesbian and Gay Jews included a workshop on “Dealing with AIDS in the Jewish Community,” and the “Statement of Purpose and Goals” for the conference included the short-term goal “To sensitize Jewish agencies, synagogues and secular Jewish organizations about the needs of persons with AIDS and their families” and the long-term goal “To develop a concerted Jewish community response to the treatment of persons with AIDS and the provision of services to their families.”
  • NJA’s AIDS Working Group (AIDS WG) was founded in July 1986 as a program of the Feminist Taskforce. An announcement about this in the Oct 1986 Gesher (newsletter of the NJA FTF) states that the working group wrote and presented a paper at the National Council meeting about what AIDS is, the human rights repercussions, and what Jews can do about it. The announcement continues, noting that the AIDS WG contacted Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) task force on AIDS and Jewish Family and Children’s Service agencies nationally. Finally, the October 1986 Gesher announcement reminded readers of the upcoming November 4 California vote on the LaRouche AIDS initiative, a homophobic measure.
  • The January 1987 issue of Gesher announces an AIDS WG update — the National Council passed the group’s AIDS policy statement which features three sections: Facts, Human Rights Implications, and A Jewish Response. The announcement also reports that the AIDS WG continued to work with the Reform Jewish community’s AIDS activism.
  • At the 1987 National Convention at UCLA, the AIDS WG presented a workshop on “AIDS in the Jewish community.” At that convention, notes on the presentation for the AIDS WG are brief, stating that the National Jewish AIDS Project was already defunct, and that Jewish agencies were treating AIDS, but not doing any outreach. The working group presenter noted that there was a need to push for both services and visibility. However, in a telling sign of the lack of direction that would face the AIDS WG, their statement ended with an acknowledgment that the working group had no strategy at the time, and no financial support was requested.

1987 March on Washington

The October 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which NJA attended, featured the AIDS Quilt and the march itself was led by a frontline of people with AIDS (PWAs) in wheelchairs. The day after that historic march, many took part in a civil disobedience action at the Supreme Court regarding the Hardwick decision (which ruled no legal privacy for gay sex) and for civil rights for PWAs. Avi Rose wrote about his experiences as a gay Jewish man at that civil disobedience (CD) protest at the Supreme Court in the January 1988 issue of Gesher. I quote at length from Rose’s powerful reflection:

I came there with my affinity group, the Forget-me-nots, which included several of my friends whose lovers have died in the past few years. We had made T-shirts with the likenesses of our lovers and friends, each with his name, and the dates of his birth and death. We had decided to bring their memory and their strength with us onto the Supreme Court steps and into the jails, as part of the largest act of civil disobedience in Washington since Mayday 1971, the largest ever at the Supreme Court, and the largest act of Lesbian/Gay CD in history.

And so we did, with a surge of power and vitality that made a permanent difference for everyone present. We saw ourselves, in the midst of a plague that decimates us and an Administration which would be glad to see us dead, asserting our courage, our wit, and our life/liveliness. (I muse as I list these traits, am I writing now as a Gay man or as a Jew?)

As over 800 of us got arrested in the course of the day, many of us participated in yet another ritual of remembrance. People were arrested under the names of Oscar Wilde, Joan of Arc, Harvey Milk (a modern Jewish hero), and Sharon Kowalski, a Lesbian severely disabled in an accident and now locked away in a rural rehabilitation center, barred from communication with her lover and community. I was arrested under the name of Magnus Hirschfeld, a German Jewish doctor referred to as “Gay Liberation’s Zeyde” by Allen Young due to his pioneering work in Europe in the first third of this century. I wanted him there with us, too.

In the same article, Rose likens the opportunity to view the AIDS quilt to a ritual, “an opportunity for remembrance and healing” and notes that for many this may be their first time to really recognize the gravity of the epidemic or to mourn a love one whose funeral was off-limits to the gay community. Rose also writes that a friend of his, a Jewish man with AIDS, had come to DC for the march and had to be hospitalized because of a health crisis. The ICU where the man spent a week was unaccustomed to treating PWAs and the healthcare professionals wore ridiculous amounts of protective clothing. Rose reports that the patient proclaimed that no one would be allowed into his room with all that gear on, and insisted on being treated with respect. This was the day before the CD, and Rose took courage from his friend’s resistance.

Chapter Level action on AIDS issues

By October of 1987, NJA Chapters reported AIDS activism at the local level. In Gesher 2:1, the Kadima/Seattle chapter’s feminist taskforce reports (among other items) “education/awareness around AIDS.” In that same listing of chapter reports, the Louisville, KY chapter — less than a year old — reports that they joined with other groups in endorsing a March for Justice sponsored by the Greater Louisville Human Rights Coalition. The March for Justice demands included civil rights regardless of sexual orientation, anti-homophobia education for University of Louisville students, and that “local government units provide funds for a full time AIDS educator.” Louisville’s NJA had an information table at the pre-march rally and distributed copies of “Coming Out, Coming Home,” Agenda’s pamphlet on homophobia in the Jewish community.

Why Lack of Organizing around AIDS?

Despite the work of a few committed activists within New Jewish Agenda’s Feminist Taskforce, the organization did little to really connect with the growing AIDS activist movement. This is especially ironic because organizations like Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP were based, like NJA, in New York City and had highly visible Jewish leadership. Gay and Lesbian Jewish AIDS activists of the mid to late 1980’s like Larry Kramer, Sarah Schulman, Maxine Wolfe and so many others may have been politically similar to the Lesbian and Gay activists of New Jewish Agenda, but there is little to suggest that the organizations collaborated or cross-pollinated in any way. Why wasn’t NJA connected to effective organizing around AIDS, activism as political as their work around Israel/Palestine or Central America?

Homophobia?In May 1988, Jewish writer and AIDS activist Sarah Schulman wrote, “The progressive community’s response to the AIDS crisis has revealed how incapable it is of addressing any issue in which homosexuality is central.” Later in the same paper she goes on to explain, “Every week, here in Manhattan, 300-400 people show up at the ACT UP meeting… The room is filled primarily with gay men, then women both straight and lesbian, many of whom work in AIDS-related fields. There are virtually no straight men in ACT UP. I think the overwhelming explanation of their absence is homophobia.” But was this the reason that NJA wasn’t more involved in AIDS activism? Though homophobia was an issue in NJA, it may not explain NJA’s lack of involvement in AIDS activism. NJA’s lesbian community was very active from 1985 to at least the end of 1987. In December of 1985, Sarah Schulman published an article titled “Becoming An Angry Mob In The Best Sense: Lesbians Respond To AIDS Hysteria,” demonstrating that AIDS was definitely on the political agenda of lesbian activists.

Organizational Decline? It is possible that NJA neglected to take meaningful action on AIDS activism because the organization was already losing power and moving towards shutting down. Though NJA officially “closed shop” in 1992, my research suggests that the organization was much less active and effective by 1988. ACT UP was founded in March of 1987, by which point there had been over 20,000 deaths due to AIDS. It is possible that by the time grassroots activism about AIDS was really taking off, NJA was distracted and disoriented by multiple factors leading to less effective movement building.

AIDS Can’t Wait. In a 2006 interview with Avi Rose, he remembered that AIDS activism consumed his political life by 1985, that it was urgent and couldn’t wait for Agenda’s ultra-democratic process. “AIDS activism was a singular entity,” says Rose, “it wasn’t about coalitions and alliances, we were just doing it.” Rose was the first full time staff-person working on AIDS in any Jewish community, and is now Executive Director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay (Oakland, CA). In our conversation, he reflected that the Jewish community’s lack of formal involvement in early AIDS activism (though many queer Jews were AIDS activists), was not for lack of caring but for lack of making the connections. In his early AIDS activist work, Rose tried to battle the invisibility of AIDS in the Jewish community by working with family members of AIDS patients, speaking at synagogues with HIV Positive Jews, and personalizing the issue for Jewish communities.