The poster for a recent Jewdas event. Image: Jewdas.org
By now, it is very possible you have heard of Jewdas. In the last 48 hours, this community of mostly left-wing, non and anti Zionist Jews based in the UK has gone from being a medium-sized network of friends to the talk of the hour. Previously celebrated for its use of humour and playful feather-ruffling by some while being dismissed as a minor inconvenience at best by others, everything changed when Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn joined the group for a Passover Seder on Monday evening.
Against the backdrop of a vicious debate about anti-semitism in the Labour party, news publications including the BBC, Sky News, the Daily Mail, the New York Times and the Israeli Haaretz have all clamoured to define Jewdas. It’s hard to express in words just how surreal it was to write this sentence.
I first began to attend Jewdas events at a time when I was desperately in need of a spiritual home. Growing up in an intensely Zionist community as a descendent of early founders of now flourishing cities in Israel, I had found it very hard to reconcile my Jewish identity with my profound discomfort with the nationalist rallying around Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-09. At this time, I did not want anything to do with my community. It was simply too much for me to handle.
It was a comfort to learn that I was not alone. I was part of a not insignificant portion of my generation of British Jews who walked the same painful steps. The first steps led us away from our community, but the next ones brought many of us back to it in a way none could have predicted.
I was a thoroughly convinced, unflinching participant in the secular anti-war movement as a secular British citizen who just happened to be from a Jewish background until one day in 2009-10. It was a protest outside the Israeli embassy in London. I had been mixing with the crowd, minding my own business when I heard a group of young men chanting “1-2-kill a Jew, 3-4-kill some more!” Attempting to confront them, I was left feeling demoralised by the lack of support from people I had presupposed would take a stronger stance on anti-semitism in their midst.
Discovering the Jewdas community thus felt liberating. A place in which I and others like me could mutually explore the complexities of our identities safe from judgment. After many nights spent in books and online archives piecing together amazing facets of lesser-known Jewish history that had just barely survived the physical destructions of European and Middle Eastern Jewry, here was a community of people that celebrated these histories.
It went further than mere celebration. Jewdas is a movement that actively lives our diaspora heritage. Be it through the organising of Jewish and Arab musicians performing Andalusian Muwashahat music, performances of Yiddish poetry and music to help fund the restoration of an old synagogue in Whitechapel, celebrating the victory over the Blackshirt fascists at Cable Street or even setting up a language school teaching diaspora languages to help fund education for refugees.
Yet, when the attacks against Jewdas started in the wake of Corbyn’s attendance of the community’s Passover Seder, none of this was taken into account. Jewdas members were dismissed as uncaring of concerns about anti-semitism. Even worse, the president of the Board of Deputies Jonathan Arkush went as far as to claim that Jewdas ‘is a source of virulent anti-semitism’.
To believe this, you have to ignore so much. You have to ignore guides and workshops produced by Jewdas challenging anti-semitism on the left, opposition to Ken Livingstone and others on the left dismissing the issue of anti-semitism. More drastically, you have to ignore moments in which Jewdas members have put themselves in the line of harm to oppose violent organised neo-nazis, such as Eddie Stampton’s attempted ‘anti-Judification’ march.
As shocked as I am by Arkush, I’m not surprised. It goes without saying that the head of a communal body who have already done so much to alienate young, progressive-thinking Jews is hardly going to be supportive, even for the sake of maintaining plurality within the wider community.
I am surprised however by the response of many self-ascribed ‘moderate’ progressives from both inside and outside the community. A common theme has been to applaud Jewdas for its use of comedy and satire and then go on to question the wisdom of Corbyn attending the group’s Seder. Such individuals are questioning whether this was the right time, and whether or not this move was antagonistic.
Such concerns only hold up if you have already first internalised the idea that Jewdas is a little more than a group of court jesters without any actual legitimacy. Behind the humour and chain-yanking of Jewdas, there is a serious guiding point about alienation and the very real experiences of many people, young and old alike in our community. Without this guiding point, Jewdas would neither be relevant nor funny. I welcome the idea that Corbyn should meet other members of our diverse community, something that would be greatly helped if he were in fact invited to other Seder events in the first place. That must not detract from the fact that Jewdas is, whether you like it or not, a legitimate part of this community with a legitimate Jewish lived experience however alternative it may be.
It’s clear what the attack on Jewdas is really motivated by. When those of us who have been deemed unacceptable for so long finally get a platform to be heard from, that is disturbing for those who maintain power in our community, whether they were elected or otherwise.
The author writes in a personal capacity, not as a representative of Jewdas.