Antifascist graffiti on the walls of Marinaleda, a communist village in Andalusia.
Every summer, young Jewish people from around the world go on a free holiday to Israel. Run by a company called 'Taglit-Birthright', the tours aim to “strengthen Jewish identity, Jewish communities and solidarity with Israel”.
The 10-day trips are funded by the Israeli government and international donors, and have been criticized for promoting a biased view of Israel, ignoring the state's complex history and ongoing human rights abuses. Several alternative tours now exist, offering trips to the West Bank and meetings with Palestinian activists.
In early 2015 another contender emerged: 'Birthwrong'. Organised by Jewdas, a bunch of radical left-wing pranksters, political commentators and party planners, Birthwrong is “a trip for anyone who's sick of Israel's stranglehold on Jewish culture… [a] fiesta of the oppressed, marginalized and ridiculously, obscenly hopeful."
Birthwrong is simultaneously a criticism, a parody, and a genuine alternative to Birthright and the many other organizations running similarly uncritical Israel tours. We aimed to celebrate life and history in the Jewish diaspora, particularly in Spain. The key principle of the trip was non-zionism, rather than anti-zionism.
We met up in Seville, Spain on the last weekend of April. 523 years earlier the entire Jewish population of Spain – some 300,000 people – were given three months to leave the country, convert to Catholicism, or die. Before 1492, Seville had boasted one of Spain's largest Jewish communities, with at least 25 synagogues. Today, the community consists of 26 families, and their temple is located in a local government building: a small rectangular room.
The 26 Birthwrong participants came from Spain, France, Israel, Brazil, Germany, the USA, and the Jewish ancestral homeland of North London. Over five days, we visited Jewish museums in Seville and Cordoba, wandered around a communist village, met local Jews, saw the sights, and consumed our fair share of tapas and sangria.
There were moments of sadness. As organizer Kerry Lambeth put it, “Often when you say ‘I'm going to go to the Jewish Museum', what that means is 'I'm going to go read about how people killed lots of Jewish people and the Jews were horribly oppressed.'” But among the inevitable stories of pogroms and forced conversions we discovered a Jewish history that was multifaceted, dynamic, and determined to survive.
We learned about the families known as “cryptojews”, who survived the Spanish Inquisition by practicing Catholicism while secretly maintaining Jewish rituals. Their tenacity and creativity was inspiring and often oddly hilarious. Jews made sure their neighbours saw them eating large amounts of pork and shellfish in public, so that they could get away with keeping kosher at home.
They invented Catholic-style saints’ days for Jewish figures, so that they could celebrate Purim and Passover under the guise of worshipping “St Esther” and “St Moses”. Houses in the old Jewish quarter of Seville were built with narrow slits for windows, to make it more difficult for nosy neighbours or Inquisition spies to spot a family lighting candles on a Friday night.
Some Spanish Jews turned to piracy and privateering, seeing an opportunity to get rich and to take revenge on the country that had oppressed them. Jewish pirates operated in the Mediterranean for hundreds of years, frequently causing trouble for the Spanish state. In 1628, much of the Spanish royal treasury was stolen by a fleet of pirate ships led by a gentleman of fortune named Moses Cohen Henriques.
We also found out about Jewish volunteers in the anti-fascist International Brigades, who travelled to Spain to fight in the Civil War of 1936-39. Around 25 percent of the International Brigades were Jews, many of them from Poland, North America and the UK.
But the trip wasn't all about Jewish history, all the time. We also shared travel stories and family dramas, told activist anecdotes, talked about philosophers Judith Butler and Maimonides, the homoerotic poetry of medieval rabbis, Shakespeare, Clapton football club, gay Jewish weddings, undercover policing, the failures of the British electoral system, ways to destroy capitalism, and the difficulty of finding vegan tapas. Someone proposed filling an entire synagogue with plastic balls in order to create a “ball shul”.
Music was a constant presence on the trip. Participants had brought a guitar, a fiddle, a ukulele, and some truly astounding singing voices. We sang English protest songs, Spanish antifascist marches, Hebrew prayers, Yiddish love songs, a song about pickled cucumbers and something called “Oy Vey, Carmela”.
The organizers of Birthwrong were keen to point out that the key aim of the trip was to celebrate the diaspora, rather than to spend our time discussing Israel and Zionism. Some argued that we should try to avoid talking about Israel at all. But the topic cropped up anyway, sometimes directly, sometimes as an unspoken subtext – for surely it’s impossible to talk about a diaspora without talking about a homeland.
We discussed the pressure within the Jewish community to toe the line on Israel, and the common assumption that Judaism equals Zionism. Kerry Lambeth “converted to Judaism for religious, feminist reasons,” and found it “baffling” that she was expected to take on Zionism as part of the package: “even aside from what [Israel is] doing as a state… why are we so involved, as a religion, with this separate nation-state that’s not where we live?”
Many Birthwrongers spoke about difficult relationships with pro-Israel family members. “When I went to Palestine,” reflected organizer Annie Cohen, “I felt really betrayed, it was a very big political explosion, and it created tension with people that I love... [I] came back wanting to say ‘oh my God, this is what’s happening there’... and no one really wanted to listen. It really put me off [Jewish life], and I went into a bit of a Jewish hiatus. So for me, Jewdas has been discovering people who feel similarly... [who identify with] anybody who is othered, anybody who is persecuted, anybody who is unsettled, doesn’t have a home, exiled... and Jewdas have embodied that.”
This is the ideal at the heart of Birthwrong’s challenge to Birthright. Birthright says we need Israel, that we are entitled to Israel, that we must support Israel. Birthwrong insists that we celebrate the diaspora, that we focus on social justice, that we show solidarity with all oppressed and dispossessed people.
Political Zionism tells us that the answer to anti-Semitism is not community self-defence, or education, or activism. We don’t need to make alliances with others oppressed by white supremacy, or build interfaith initiatives to counter the tensions between Jews and Muslims. No – when it all gets too much, we can just move to Israel.
We just need to switch sides, become the majority rather than the minority, the oppressor rather than the oppressed. The homeland is waiting for us! If we have the money to move from one country to another. If we have passports. If we are not of sub-Saharan African descent. Because, we're told, Israel is our Birthright, and Palestinian land is ours to take.
But diaspora Jewish life is not, and never has been, merely a Zionist waiting-room constantly threatened by oppression and death. In spite of anti-Semitism, in spite of violence and exile and repeatedly attempted genocide, in spite of all the many tensions within the Jewish community, we can look back on thousands of years of vibrant diaspora history and look around us to see vibrant diaspora culture in the present. The Jewish diaspora is made up of art, music, literature, food, philosophy, jokes, migration, piracy, socialism, faith, atheism, practicality, self-sacrifice, creativity, social justice. And all these things – possibly excepting piracy – could be found on Birthwrong.
The one drawback of Birthwrong was its limited size: many people on the trip already knew each other, and held very similar opinions. Political echo chambers are great for building a sense of solidarity and community, but less effective at making change in the outside world.
If Birthwrong is to present a real challenge to Birthright and Zionist tourism, it needs to grow. It needs to advertise on university campuses and be promoted in Jewish community centres. It needs funding. It needs to reach people who do not share its views, and people who are not sure what their views are yet.
But the very existence of an organization which celebrates and promotes diaspora Jewishness from a left-wing perspective - as Birthright aims to celebrate and promote Israel from a right-wing nationalist perspective - is a game changer. Through organizations like Birthwrong that we can discover and celebrate a Jewish history that isn’t only focused on oppression and genocide.
Through Birthwrong we can reject the idea that Jewish unity and survival depends on violent, racist nationalism. And then we can work together for a Jewish future that is radical, inclusive, and liberating.