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Jewish societies and the intolerance of dissent

The conflation of Jewishness with the state of Israel is causing serious problems and plays into the hands of those wishing to legitimise the new wave of anti-semitism. The Union of Jewish Students does not speak for us all.

Flickr/Davide Simonetti

Last week, the democratically elected national executive committee of the National Union of Students, representing over seven million students across the UK, voted to support the call for a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. The condemnation from the Union of Jewish Students was immediate. They decried the vote as “extremely problematic”, saying the decision will “divide student groups, undermine interfaith relations, and suffocate progressive voices for peace.” But the motion was proposed by a Jewish member of the NEC, and supported by several others.

The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) claims to represent Jewish students studying in the UK and Ireland, but its membership is self-selecting and therefore ends up reflecting a limited range of values and beliefs. Consequently the false narrative presented by UJS, that to be Jewish is to be a liberal Zionist, is claimed to be the view of all Jewish students.

This is symptomatic of the approach taken by Jewish youth movements, organisations, charities and many local communities, around the United Kingdom. But it is this approach that is alienating a new generation of young British Jews, who are, in increasing numbers, looking for alternative networks and organisations to work and debate in, ones that allow dissenting, or even questioning, voices.

This isn’t new to us; as children, growing up in Jewish households, the lines and distinctions between Judaism and Zionism were blurred. At school, Israel studies and religious education were interchangeable. Jewish summer camp included Israel advocacy, and a trip to Israel as a 16 year old was a rite of passage. The Jewish calendar today includes Yom Ha’atzmaut, the celebration of the State of Israel. To be a Zionist was painted as if it were another religious observance, like keeping kosher or observing the Sabbath; as inextricable from Jewish identity.

Over the past week, there has been widespread criticism of the Tricycle Theatre, for refusing to host the 2014 Jewish Film Festival, with Stephen Pollard, Editor of the JC, calling the Tricycle ‘officially anti-semitic’. The director of the festival asserted that this event was a “celebration of Jewish culture, which is of course intrinsically connected to the state of Israel". Yet the director of Tricycle, and other board members too, are Jewish, both by birth and self definition. It’s as if Jewish voices, when dissenting, lose their religious identity. The disjuncture is evident, and something needs to give.

The idea that Judaism needs control of a modern nation state to exist is absurd; what is needed is freedom of religion. During our lifetimes this message has been lost, but this is changing, and it seems the current massacre in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli state is forcing many to reconsider what it truly means to be Jewish. Both scripturally and historically Judaism has been a religion of acceptance. Whether it was ‘loving thy neighbour as thyself’ [Leviticus] or attempting to co-exist in non-Jewish communities all around the world, the realities of many Jew's experiences as refugees meant we cherished a culture of diversity and inclusion.

In an attempt to re-ignite these values, young Jewish people have been active at recent Gaza demonstrations, attending events and holding meetings, making it clear the actions of the Israeli state are not to be seen as in their name. The portrayal of such individuals as bad, self-hating Jews is outdated, and it’s becoming clearer by the day.

The narrative that support for Israel is inextricable from any kind of Jewish identity is the greatest weapon of both our biggest enemies and those who claim to be our greatest friends. Painting criticism of Israel as inherently anti-Semitic, as so many in the Jewish community jump to do, is worryingly similar to the idea that Jewish people everywhere are collectively responsible for the actions of the Israeli state. When aggression flares up and anti-semitism spikes, those who are first to condemn it fail to condemn Netanyahu's claim that the Israeli military is acting on behalf of all Jews. You could be forgiven for feeling like Israel, and it’s proponents, are using Jews everywhere as human shields for the occupation. But of course, it would be wrong to suggest anyone is used as a human shield without some evidence, even if Mark Regev insists on doing so.

The depiction of all Jews as Zionists by any society must change, and the Jewish community has to change with it. In America, the organisation representing Jewish students, Hillel, has recently split over the question of Israel. Campus branches calling for ‘inclusivity and open discourse’ have felt no option but to form their own organisation. If Jewish organisations in the UK, like the Union of Jewish Students, cannot move to a less dogmatic approach to Israel, that is the future they face as well.

Instead, in Britain today the only part of the Jewish community publicly portrayed as straying from the norm are the Neturei Karta, an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect who refuse to accept the legitimacy of a state of Israel without the explicit backing of the Messiah. Their opposition to Israel, and to Zionism, is purely theological and has nothing to do with social justice or human rights. The Neturei Karta don’t oppose the Israeli Government occupation, they are merely bound to the Palestinian struggle through a mutual enemy, similar to the alignment of fundamentalist right wing Christian groups to the liberal Zionist cause. This perception of dissenting Jewish voices fails to accurately reflect the diversity within the modern Jewish community. Yet small groups who share mutual goals with the Palestinian people do exist and their ability to speak out is invaluable to the cause.  

In Facebook groups and email threads, young Jewish people like us are describing the family backlash, the friends who are disappointed. But why are we perceived to be the Judas, the renegade? Because the brainwashing we received through most of our formative years is never questioned by many of our peer group. For those that do question, we’ve come to learn exactly how this 'traitor' criticism will be received and reacted to. We are traitors, an embarrassment who forget our responsibility to our heritage. And yet a community is forming, of young Jews that will no longer accept that the Israeli military act on our behalf.

Until within the established Jewish community it can be accepted that some Jews are Zionists, and some Jews are not, then we will remain a community bound together by political, rather than religious, ideals. We need to reject the siege mentality that has become our comfort zone and instead reflect upon the shared values and practises of our religion. Synagogue services must not be used for Israel advocacy. To question a Zionist politic must not be a betrayal. Organisations such as UJS must accept and support Jews regardless of their politics. All we ask is that together we be conscious that we are all the Jewish community.

Gordon Maloney is President of NUS Scotland, Michael Segalov is the Communications Officer at the University of Sussex Students’ Union and Yael Shafritz is the President at Sheffield University Students’ Union


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About the authors

Gordon Maloney was president of NUS Scotland and helped run the Living Rent Campaign.

Michael Segalov is the elected Communications Officer at Sussex Students' Union and works as a freelance journalist and legal researcher, with a focus on the politics and policing of protest. @MikeSegalov

Yael Shafritz is the President at Sheffield University Students’ Union


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