Top image: A Jewdas political action in London. All photos courtesy of the author.
Editor’s note, Tuesday 3rd of April 2018: Today Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised for attending a Passover event with the Jewish group Jewdas. In 2016 VICE published this article which involved Jewdas. As a Jewdas Seder is now the source of political controversy, we’re re-publishing the piece so that you can read about the group.
Growing up with the knowledge that you have a homeland, a country that was fought for in your name, to be a place of safety should you ever face persecution for your culture and your faith, is a comforting thought. This is what that the state of Israel promises the eight million Jews living in diaspora communities around the world.
The Israeli Government is mounting the pressure for us to make the move there, with Prime Minister Netanyahu calling on Jews to relocate to the state: "I would like to tell all European Jews, and all Jews wherever they are: 'Israel is the home of every Jew... Israel is waiting for you with open arms," he said last year.
The problem is, for many young Jews right now, the modern state of Israel feels far from a home. A recent poll found that 47 percent of the UK's Jewish population believe that the Israeli government is "constantly creating obstacles to avoid engaging in the peace process". Three quarters said that the expansion of settlements on the West Bank is a "major obstacle to peace." Just under a third even said they wouldn't demand that Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state.
Annie Cohen is a London-based student and member of Jewdas, a new non-Zionist Jewish organisation based in London, which uses the strapline "radical voices for the alternative diaspora". The group's aim – according to its website – is to harness the "great radicalism of Jewish tradition, a tradition of dreamers, subversives, cosmopolitans and counter-culturalists" by "putting loyalty to ideas of international justice over tribalism and parochialism". The group is populated mostly by under-30s, and meets regularly, hosting cultural events and organising political campaigns such as refugee fundraiser "Beigels not Borders".
Organised communities in the diaspora seem unwilling to reflect this change in attitudes. The list of active, major Jewish youth movements in the UK are Zionist in their entirety, offering "unparalleled opportunities to meet other young Jewish people and to have fun whilst exploring personal connections to both Judaism and Israel."
Attempting to avoid these political fractures by by sticking to synagogue is no more fruitful. Festivals such as Yom Ha'atzmaut (Independence Day), the celebration of Israel's creation, are now inescapable dates in the religious calendar. The Prayer for the State of Israel read in services week on week. Israel has been weaved into the very fabric of modern orthodox Jewish practice.
So in the summer of 2015, Annie went to a week-long summit in Morocco, along with representatives from 10 other countries, to launch an alternative, international Jewish organisation. "The outcome of these meetings feels really important, we're just getting started, but we're growing, and will start campaigning together soon," she says. "It was an emotional experience to be sat for six days with people who care so much about ending the occupation. It felt so empowering, transforming our own communities, with people who had travelled across the world to be together."
Organisations like Jewdas have been growing in number and popularity worldwide. In America, the organisation representing Jewish students, Hillel, split over Israel. Campus branches calling for "inclusivity and open discourse" have felt no option but to form their own organisation to challenge these politics. Australia, South Africa, and Canada have new local groups too.
"What grew from trying to create spaces for Jews who shared anti-Zionist politics turned into something bigger, into somewhere you can be Jewish and not feel excluded for your views, where in fact they're the norm," says Annie. "We can support each other, especially those of us in countries where organisations are already vocal in their support for the Palestinian struggle, we can help members in other countries who are trying to get stuff off the ground."
It can be lonely and isolating; the comfort and familiarity of the world you grew up in feeling like a place in which you don't belong. The "self-hating Jew" stereotype becomes difficult to shake when your beliefs amount to betrayal in your wider community. But these networks have the capacity to change things, to be a vocal advocate for a different type of Judaism, and put an end to the political isolation that those rejecting a Zionist narrative often face.
You could put these new feelings of detachment from the Israeli state down to a shift in government policy; Netanyahu's Likud party was re-elected into power in 2015, veering further rightwards with its pledge to end talk of further withdrawals from occupied land. "If I'm elected, there will be no Palestinian State", Netanyahu boasted on the final day of the campaign.
But maybe it's less the policies, more the YouTube footage of Israel's actions – such as the July 2014 video of young Gazan children being shelled on a beach. This kind of harrowing, real-time footage that makes the Israeli Defence Force's response that "The reported civilian casualties from this strike are a tragic outcome", impossible to swallow, or put down to anti-Israeli Western media bias.
Moriel Rothman-Zecher was born in Jerusalem, but spent his formative years in Ohio, USA. Like many young Jews growing up in the diaspora, he hoped one day to make aliyah, literally "going up" in Hebrew, the phrase that describes Jews relocating to Israel.
"When I was as a kid, my idea was to move to Israel, join the army, and live what it represented," he says. Moriel returned to live in Jerusalem, but aged 22, his draft notice arrived, and made the decision to refuse military service. "I spent a few weeks in jail. I maintained a connection to the Jewish people, but the Government and military state? Not so much."
Today Moriel lives in Jerusalem, and is part of a network of Jewish activists called All That's Left, a politically diverse campaign group, united by disdain for the occupation.
When Moriel was 19, he lived in a Palestinian village inside Israel for a few months. For the first time, he saw Palestinians as people, which went against everything he'd been taught as a child. "There are a lot of concepts to grapple with in this conflict, and I didn't know any Palestinians personally. I suppose growing up I learned to view this whole group of people as a political concept, so it was easy to paint this nation as a threat."
From attempting to halt the evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, to supporting families facing their community's destruction in the West Bank village of Susiya, Moriel's Judaism is now inherently connected to this political struggle.
But for the majority of young Jews, who aren't able to go and live with Palestinians and redefine their disaporic identity, social media has been key in changing attitudes.
"At school I'd never heard the word Palestinian", says Jordy Silverstien, a Melbourne-based Jewish academic who has abandoned her Zionist views. "For me, spaces like Facebook have been indispensable, I've met so many diaspora anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Jews around the world that without the internet I'd never have met."
Before social media united them, many Jews struggling to confront the politics of the modern religion were forced to walk away from it. For years, groups such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians had operated on the fringes of Jewish society; political organisations, but with no broader community of Jewish practice taking shape.
But the community is changing, a new Jewish identity is being formed, one that's distinct from a Zionist politics. It comes at a time when dissenting voices, and places of comfort, have never been more in demand.
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