As a Jewdas Member – Thank You, Guido Fawkes
It's been bizarre to see our welcoming, inclusive group accused of antisemitism, but encouraging that more people than ever are defending and thanking us on social media.
Jewdas members at a Defend All Migrants march in 2016. Photo: Guy Corbishley / Alamy Stock Photo
In 2014, I felt lost.
Like many others around the world, I'd spent that summer watching in horror as Israel carried out Operation Protective Edge, the seven-week military operation in Gaza which killed over 2,000 people and wounded over 10,000, many of them civilians. I was furious to hear Jewish commentators justifying the indiscriminate bombing of civilian homes as Israel's right to defend itself, and deeply disappointed to hear Jewish people spouting racist statements about Palestinians, arguing that "we" needed to wipe out "the Arabs" in order for Jews to be safe.
It was also disappointing to be reminded that, in some parts of the British left, antisemitic conspiracy theories are alive and well. It's hard to focus on marching for peace when, on one side of you, there's a cartoon banner that could have come straight out of Der Stürmer, and on the other side a placard saying "Israelis go back to Europe". It's tiring being treated with suspicion by your comrades and feeling obliged to specify that you're a "good Jew", not a zionist, before anyone will take your activism seriously.
At the end of 2014 I was homeless, living in squats and sleeping on friends' couches. The left-wing activist spaces I thought of as my home were imploding with accusations of abusive or problematic behaviour: some righteous, some ridiculous. My loving, slightly crazy, mostly liberal-leaning, mixed faith family was grieving the recent loss of my Jewish grandfather, a deeply caring and quietly religious man who struggled to understand or respect some of the choices made by his children and grandchildren.
It wasn't surprising that I was having some sort of Jewish identity crisis.
I remember sitting on the floor of a squatted house in Ireland, trying to explain to an extremely stoned non-Jewish friend why, even though I never go to synagogue, even though I've never been to Israel, even though I'm agnostic and definitely don't conceive of God as a father figure, the words baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech haolam – an everyday Jewish blessing – felt so right, so at home, in my head and my mouth.
I wanted Judaism, or Jewishness, to be a bigger part of my life, but I had no idea how to get it.
Then, one day, a friend emailed me. They'd seen an announcement online from some group called "Jewdas", which was organising something called "Birthwrong" – a trip to Spain, to learn about diaspora Jewish history, "for anyone who's sick of Israel's stranglehold on Jewish culture".
So I went.
No one gave me awkward or judgmental sideways looks when I didn't know all the words to songs, or couldn't read Hebrew, or talked about my family's complicated mixture of Judaism, Christianity, atheism and Labour voting. People welcomed me and helped me to learn. I felt at home in this little community of activists and troublemakers, who were equally dedicated to socialism, Palestine solidarity, calling out antisemitism, trolling the Jewish establishment and recreating religious rituals. For the first time in my life, I felt completely comfortable and confident in calling myself Jewish.
This isn't an unusual story. At almost every Jewdas event – and I've attended plenty over the last three years, from intimate Friday night prayers to raucous klezmer punk parties – at least one person has spoken to me about how they also felt disconnected from the wider Jewish community. Unwelcome at family gatherings after criticising Israeli policy. Uncomfortable at synagogue after coming out as gay or trans. Unrepresented by the communal bodies who claim to speak for us.
For so many of us, finding Jewdas was life changing.
So, to come to the reason I'm writing this article now.
A couple of nights ago, we at Jewdas held a Passover seder. This is essentially a dinner party, with storytelling, songs, rituals and the religious obligation to drink at least four cups of wine. We've been hosting them for years, usually on the third or fourth night of the week-long festival, as people often have family or synagogue commitments on the more traditional first two nights.
This year we booked a church hall in Islington, and a friend invited a local Labour MP to join us. His name is Jeremy, but you can call him the next Prime Minister of the UK if you like.
Someone who was not invited to the party decided to blog about it, and over the past 30-something hours I've had the strange experience of watching my small, niche, slightly notorious community become headline news.
We've been accused of being antisemites and self-hating Jews. People – including Labour MPs – have said that Corbyn is an antisemite for eating dinner with us. The BBC invited non-Jewish journalists to argue about us on the radio. Channel 4 News sent a reporter to stand in the church hall where we held our Seder and read out some of our more controversial tweets.
Many people have responded with anger and disgust that someone would attend a religious event, secretly record it and upload a repetitive rant to a right-wing blog before the night had even ended. And I understand that reaction, but also, I gotta say: thanks, Guido Fawkes infiltrator. Seeing our Twitter followers triple overnight was pretty fun. Not to mention the donations that are pouring into our Paypal and the thousands of people from all over the political spectrum who are defending and thanking us on social media – including people in the "mainstream Jewish community", that mysterious entity we're apparently at odds with.
As yesterday's Jewdas opinion piece in the Guardian says, I'm not so sure that the "mainstream Jewish community" even exists. I think some people want to see themselves as the "mainstream", as the reasonable representative voice. The voice that gets listened to. The voice that doesn't take the piss out of itself. (I'm not sure why. I could hypothesise about generational trauma, and self-image as a model minority, and political centrism, but that's probably beyond the scope of this piece.) Other people feel more comfortable seeing themselves as rebels, iconoclasts, those on the fringes speaking truth to power. The sort of people who'd put on a punk gig on Yom Kippur or send fake emails impersonating the Chief Rabbi. But also the sort of people who dream of a better world, who refuse to tolerate oppression, who stand for liberation and justice for all.