It’s a very strange time to be a Jew in Britain. With the issue of anti-Semitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party dominating the headlines for the last couple of weeks, we’ve now reached the point where arcane questions of Jewish communal politics are now of national interest.
The latest example concerns Jewdas, an irreverent collective of radically-inclined, (mostly) young Jews. The attendance of Jeremy Corbyn at their recent third night seder has become a matter of national debate. At a time in which he is under intense pressure to show he is serious about tackling anti-Semitism, Corbyn’s choice to attend an event by a radical Jewish group has been interpreted in some quarters as a snub (calculated or careless according to your point of view) to the “mainstream” Jewish community.
What’s been astonishing to witness has been non-Jewish commentators and politicians passing judgement on Jewish organizations that they are very unlikely to have heard of just minutes before. Guido Fawkes, the blog that “broke” the story, concluded:
Corbyn could have chosen to meet with the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Jewish Labour Movement or another mainstream Jewish group. Instead he went to Seder with Jewdas, a far-left group which is shunned by mainstream Jews, called for the Israel to be “disposed of” and has launched vitriolic attacks against Corbyn’s Jewish critics.
But it isn’t just non-Jews who are telling British Jews which of our organizations are kosher; British Jews themselves are colluding in the process. In a TV interview, Jonathan Arkush, President of the Board of Deputies (the mainstream community’s representative organization) stated of Jewdas, “They are not all Jewish -– but they are lifelong campaigners against the Jewish community to whom they show the upmost disregard and contempt.”
Predictably, social media has been full of praise — and contempt — for Jewdas. They are lauded as heroes by a left battered and resentful at accusations of anti-Semitism, and from other parts of the political spectrum they are damned as an insidious fringe colluding in the normalization of anti-Semitism.
Who is right then? The truth about Jewdas is less easy to summarize.
When they emerged over 10 years ago, they were, for some of us on the Jewish left, what we’d always longed for. Organizing parties, happenings and “radical Torah” events, Jewdas has always challenged the Jewish community’s sacred cows — including Israel and Zionism — in an often wry and provocative manner. And in their “exposés” of Corbyn’s “outrageous” participation in the Jewdas seder, critics have pointed to some highly incendiary language about Israel, including a prayer in their 2017 Haggadah: “Please God, smash the state of Israel.”
In truth though, the Jewdas collective contains a plurality of views on Israel, including everything from tortured ambivalence about Israel to convinced anti-Zionism. Similarly, members have veered wildly between exposing and confronting left anti-Semitism and supporting some of those (such as Corbyn) who have been accused of enabling it. Naturally, it is their more incendiary, often deliberately over-the-top statements that get the publicity.
The attendance of Corbyn at the seder poses other risks to Jewdas as well. There is a disturbing whiff here of the kind of Jewish communal politicking that we find in more mainstream Jewish organizations, where members of a Jewish organization will preen themselves as the good Jews that the non-Jewish politicians love; and, in turn, there’s the feeling of the non-Jewish politicians validating themselves by telling the world “Look! The good Jews love me!”
The irony is that Jewdas was never supposed to be a collective of good Jews. Yet that is what they are being turned into by the Corbynistas, just as Corbyn’s detractors are determined to turn them into bad Jews. It’s all depressingly familiar and very very non-radical.
These days, pretty much anyone who is accused of anti-Semitism can find a group of Jews to give them a pass. In the last couple of weeks we’ve seen the apotheosis of this process, with endless “Jewsplaining” about who the real, good Jews are, the Jews to whom one should listen to about anti-Semitism. In their attempt to perform as “woke” opponents of anti-Semitism, non-Jewish Jewsplainers on the right and left are recapitulating the worst — and most self-hating — of our traits as Jews.
If Jewdas, and anyone else who thinks of themselves as a Jewish radical, is seeking something to smash, it should be this. Non-Jews need to be told to stop picking and choosing which Jews they listen to. Engaging with Jews and fighting anti-Semitism means recognizing that there will be Jews who hold positions you disagree with.
Genuine anti-racism means fighting for the rights of people you despise.
I don’t know why Jewdas invited Corbyn to their seder (and I’ve heard whispers that some of those in attendance weren’t happy about it), but I wish one of them had had the courage to do something truly revolutionary. They should have told Corbyn to get out of his comfort zone and attend a seder held by Jews whose politics he does not agree with. And instead of hosting Corbyn, Jewdas should have invited a different kind of non-Jewish politician who claims to oppose anti-Semitism, one on the right who finds the idea of leftist Jews baffling or disgusting.
That would have been truly radical.
Dr. Keith Kahn-Harris is a London-based writer and sociologist. His book on denial will be published by Notting Hill Editions in 2018. His website is kahn-harris.org.