I’ve seen the Jewish future in Britain and it looks good. The next generation of Jewish leadership showed up in Parliament Square on 16th May and gave their elders a lesson in Jewish ethics and how to avoid compromise, timidity and hypocrisy when faced with a clear case of atrocity. They also began the long haul to rescue Judaism, and the Jewish community in Britain, from the dead hand of Zionism.
At least I hope that’s what happened.
There’s a couple of more steps that need to be taken before today’s rebels become tomorrow’s leaders; and some big questions they need to face into before we can be confident about the potential for real change.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First you need the details of what took place on a patch of grass opposite the Houses of Parliament.
‘Not my Judaism’
Two days after the massacre of 62 men, women and children on the Gaza border by Israeli snipers, the group of about 50 mostly young people calling themselves ‘Jews against the killing in Gaza’ stood in a circle to protest at what had just taken place in the name of Israeli security. They sang songs of peace and justice learnt in their synagogues and youth movements; they took turns to say why they felt the need to protest; and they held a banner which said: ‘Occupation is not my Judaism’.
Then they did something that outraged some sections of the Jewish community and turned the event into a media ‘cause celebre’ partly thanks to a video of the proceedings made by a group in opposition to the protesters called ‘Israel Advocacy Movement’.
Two of the young Jews, Rob Abrams and Rachel Diamond Hunter, took turns to read out the names of the Palestinian dead and then the whole group recited the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning, led by Rabbi Leah Jordan.
The outrage factor was multiplied by the claim made a few hours earlier by a Hamas official that 50 of those killed on Monday 14th had been members of Hamas. For once, Israel and its advocates were happy to amplify the Hamas propaganda as it played perfectly with the terror narrative they’ve used for weeks to brand the ‘Great March of Return’ as a Hamas organised plot to invade Israel and murder Jews in their beds.
After the event ‘Jews against the killing in Gaza’ issued a statement via their facebook page explaining why they had said the Kaddish and what they were angry about:
“Angry at the Jewish establishment’s latest reaction to the violence. Angry at their blind support for Israel. Angry at them blaming Palestinians for their own deaths. Angry at their continued silencing of Palestinian voices. And angry at their continued moral, financial and political support for the Occupation and siege of Gaza, which deprive so many of their freedom.
“As community members of all ages, including Rabbis, community leaders, and elected members of the Board of Deputies, we wanted to say loud and clear that this did not represent us. Occupation is not our Judaism.”
It didn’t take long for backlash to begin.
David Collier, a prominent right wing Zionist blogger published a ‘name and shame’ post which listed the main participants in the event, identified through the video, and their connections to the Jewish community. Several of those ‘outed’ by Collier work for Jewish organisations, in particular the youth movement RSY Netzer. Collier made it sound like those that said Kaddish were paedophiles rather than concerned Jews:
“Some of these people are involved in summer camps that work with children. I wouldn’t want my children near anyone who is connected with this, nor the organisations that allow them to act as ‘influencers’.”
Blog posts from those who took part in the Kaddish, such as Jake Cohen, Rabbi Leah Jordan, and Nina Morris-Evans defending their actions, were most notable for the vitriol to be found in the comments being left by their detractors. The comment threads have now been deleted and closed. That’s how bad they got.
Not the usual suspects
What’s interesting about this group is that they are not the ‘usual suspects’ when it comes to UK Jewish opposition to Israel. They described themselves as “British Jews holding a variety of beliefs”. This was not the secular Jewish left, aligned to Jeremy Corbyn, and now organised as Jewish Voice for Labour. Nor were they the Jewish academics and actors/musicians that formed Independent Jewish Voices more than a decade ago or the signatories to Jews for Justice for Palestinians. Neither was this an event by Jewdas, the radical socialist Jews now getting a welcome higher profile thanks to Corbyn’s attendance at their communal Passover meal. No, this was something different although I suspect many of them may also be on the mailing lists and facebook pages of those other organisations.
This was far more like what we’ve seen in the United States for some time now. Young Jews expressing their Judaism and their Jewish identity through opposition, rather than support, for the Jewish State of Israel. The whole style of the event in Parliament Square looked just like the actions favoured by Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow in the States.
There are good reasons why it’s taken time to see this Jewish generational divide on Israel begin to open up on this side of the Atlantic. It’s a question of the critical mass needed to create organisational capability. We are a small Jewish community in the United Kingdom, only around 350,000 individuals or 0.5% of the total population. So although there’s always been Jewish dissent on Israel in this country it’s struggled to build structures that could even begin to challenge the dominant view that says Israel is broadly blameless for the plight of the Palestinians.
The Holy Trinity of Jewish identity
So where to next for the Jewish rebels of Parliament Square?
The first thing they should recognise is that they are at the forefront of some hugely significant changes in attitude towards Israel emerging from young Jews living outside of the Jewish State. What started in America has finally made its way here.
Before the Second World War the main elements of Jewish identity could be summed up as: ‘God, Torah and the Jewish People’. Over the last 70 years a different ‘Jewish Holy Trinity’ has become dominant: ‘Holocaust remembrance, Antisemitism, and the State of Israel’. The new elements of the Trinity are closely interrelated historically, and at times completely interdependent politically.
For most Jews the Trinity has operated in perfect harmony. The Holocaust was caused by antisemitism and Israel was the noble endeavour that would guarantee that it would never happened again.
The problem for a new generation of Jews is that the Trinity has broken apart. Israel no longer looks like a just response to 2,000 years of Jewish oppression. Rather it looks like an Occupier and an Oppressor. While an older generation still hold tight to the mind-set that Jews remain powerless victims of an eternal hatred, a younger generation has become aware that we are now deeply empowered and must be held accountable.
Most of the young Jews who recited the Kaddish for those killed by Israeli snipers in Gaza have been raised within the Reform and Liberal end of the Jewish denominational spectrum. That’s not surprising since the tepid criticism of Israel that does occasionally break through from the Jewish establishment (when the Palestinian body count gets high enough) tends to come from that direction.
But for this new generation, all the emphasis on Jewish universal values of equality and justice which they learnt at home and synagogue and at the RSY Netzer youth movement, are clashing violently with how they see Israel behaving. So much so, that if they want to avoid the contradictions of their Jewish identity exploding within them, something has to give (or be given up). And it looks like Jewish ethics is winning out over Jewish nationalism.
The next stage of the journey
This is a journey I’ve been on myself and I know what has to happen next.
In the end you hit a moral brick wall if you try to hold on to the idea that the Jewish State of Israel, and the Zionist ideology that created it, is fundamentally a ‘good thing’ that’s temporarily lost its way but can be redeemed if enough right minded people act together.
This framing of the situation starts to crumble once the Jewish ethics of compassion, justice and equality, inspired by the Hebrew prophets, makes a full on encounter with the Palestinian experience of violent dispossession and national ethnic cleansing.
Saying Kaddish for Zionism
Today’s Jewish rebels could become the nucleus of a future Jewish leadership that understands that to move on we must let go of some old ideas that have not turned out as well as some had first hoped.
Whether they choose to call themselves ‘post Zionist’ or ‘non Zionist’ or ‘anti Zionist’ doesn’t much matter. What’s important is to articulate a Jewish future that’s not full of moral compromise and hypocrisy created by the need to defend a Jewish State built on a colonial enterprise disguised as Jewish continuity.
That means saying Kaddish for Zionism.
The further question to be asked is whether this potential new generation of Jewish leadership can take their place within established bodies that are so wedded to Zionism, including Liberal and Reform Judaism and their youth movement?
I have a favourite Leonard Cohen lyric that sums up my thinking on this:
They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin
In the States it’s starting to look like new, alternative community organisations are emerging including non Zionist synagogues such as Tzedek Chicago. This looks like a more fruitful strategy than attempting a coup at the Board of Deputies.
What one American writer has termed ‘Trouble in the Tribe’ has come to Britain and the much needed fracturing of the immoral Jewish consensus on Israel has begun.
So warm regards and best wishes to the next generation of Jewish leaders. Yasher Koach! May you have strength!