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Confident Jews – are we sure?

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Dan Rickman responds to Nathan Abrams

Did Jews really start speaking out because of the Race Relations Act and Margaret Thatcher, as Nathan Abrams argues?

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher and Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers at a press conference in The Hague on 19 September 1983. Photo: Wikipedia

When I was growing up in 1960s London, Jewishness was a very private affair and monoculturalism was the order of the day. With the memory of the Holocaust hanging over them, Jewish people were acutely aware that difference was danger, and many were reluctant to show outward signs of Jewishness, in some cases to the extent of being reluctant to place mezuzot on their doorposts. The fact that there was a Jewish state was important and the JNF blue box was ubiquitous in Jewish households of the time.  Nevertheless, Jews kept a low profile as Nathan suggested. 

For me, the key event that changed all this was the 1967 Six-Day War.  In the run-up to this, there was real fear that Israel would lose catastrophically and many volunteers from the Diaspora went to help as best they could.  When Israel won, in such an unexpectedly convincing way, this had a tremendous impact not only on Israel, but also on the Diaspora, and on Jewish identification in the UK

Enoch Powell by Allan warren, in 1987. Photo: Wikipedia

In London, and elsewhere, Jewish people started to identify more publicly, and to feel more comfortable in expressing their identity.  This is all long before the events that Nathan described. The infamous ‘rivers of blood‘ speech was yet to come, and the counter-culture was still emerging (and had a long way to go to reach north London suburbia!).

1967 was still a sea-change moment for the community – Jews were no longer victims, under constant threat of extinction.  They were military conquerors, vanquishing their enemies against all the odds.  The victory, and especially the capture of Jerusalem and the Western Wall, was seen in religious terms with rabbis arguing for the miraculous status of these events and their fulfilment of Biblical prophecies.

So Jewish confidence was there and growing. And it may well be a great thing – but it begs a question, confidence in what? What type of Jewish identity is the basis? I would like to think that this confidence is not just represented by Shmuley Boteach’s Kosher Sex.

We also need to be mindful of the impacts of these historic events on Jewish self-confidence and expression, as they have had a profound impact on Jewish identity up to, and including today.

Even in 1967, alongside the euphoria and pride, there were also more sober voices who saw signs of the challenges which would be associated with the dangers of occupation.

Prominent amongst them was an orthodox Jew, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who argued that justice and occupation are incompatible:

Our real problem is not the territory but rather the population of about a million and a half Arabs who live in it and over whom we must rule. Inclusion of these Arabs (in addition to the half a million who are citizens of the state) in the area under our rule will effect the liquidation of the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and bring about a catastrophe for the Jewish people as a whole; it will undermine the social structure that we have created in the state and cause the corruption of individuals, both Jew and Arab . . . In a short time the spiritual and emotional links between it and world Jewry would be severed, as well as the cultural and sentimental ties to the historical tradition of the Jewish people and to Judaism. The only concern of the monstrosity called ‘the undivided land of Israel’ would be the maintenance of its system of rule and administration (Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State)

Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Lecturing in the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Photo: Wikpedia

Post-1967, Jewish identity and Zionism converged as Zionists increasingly argued that Judaism and Zionism are essentially the same things, and, increasingly, that Israel is the ‘Jew’ amongst the nations.  Rather than becoming better, as Nathan suggested, Jewish education became increasingly Zionist education with some Jewish texts (at least outside the Charedi world).

Consequently, Jewish identity increasingly became a Zionist/Jewish mix in which Judaism and Zionism are increasingly seen as intertwined and indistinguishable. I had a recent online discussion with someone who could not conceive that Judaism and Zionism could ever be in opposition to each other.

It should be remembered that Zionism was conceived as a project to re-define Jewish identity as a national identity and as a Spinozist project to remove Jewish particularity and make Jews ‘men in general’ and Israel a nation like any other. There is some irony when hasbara people argue that Israel is being singled out for special treatment.

An example of a Hasbara stand. Photo: Wikipedia

The goals of the Zionist project, as originally conceived, may or may not be a good ones.  This will depend on your perspective, however, they are very far from the Jewish religion and a religious, or arguably even cultural Jewish identity, which is the way that Jews identify in the Diaspora, where they are citizens of a non-Jewish state.

It is also extremely dangerous if Diaspora Jewish identity is not just bolstered by the existence of the State of Israel, but is also contingent upon it.  Further, it comes with political baggage and a responsibility to defend Israel as one would defend Judaism and a corollary that criticism of Israel is criticism of Judaism, thereby antisemitic ipso facto.

On the other hand, we have most of the diaspora Jewish world, in the USA, seeing (mostly non-Orthodox) Judaism as a religion of ‘repairing the world (tkkun olam)‘ where, as Leibowitz predicted, they want no part of a brutal occupation of the Palestinian people.

Jews in the Diaspora are also torn, currently, between an Israeli Government that sees its interests lie with evangelical Christians, and far-right movements in Europe, and which is even willing to help misrepresentation of the Holocaust to work with the far-right governments and to promote their interests.  The Diaspora communities’ interests in these, and other countries, lie with other minority and ethnic communities.  This is where the progressive legislation and multi-culturalism which Nathan referred to can work well for us all.

Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party (UK), speaking at the 2018 Local Elections Launch in Trafford, Greater Manchester. Photo: Wikipedia

Whether or not we are BAME (I think we are), most Jews would agree with David Baddiel that Jews should and must count and when we speak out, we need to consider how and why we are doing so.

In summary, it is great to be confident, however, we need to be sure of what we are confident about. The Jewish community did rally around opposition to Jeremy Corbyn, and understandably so. Yet it is not clear what else we may agree on, or even what we are against even when it comes to antisemitism.

Post-Brexit Britain is a challenging place, and the pandemic has added yet more strains to the social fabric. Let us hope we can continue to speak out confidently, but let’s also not lose sight of the underlying tensions which we have to confront.

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Dan Rickman is an alumnus of Hasmonean High School and Oxford University who currently works in the IT industry. He has an MA in Hebrew and Jewish studies from the University of London, looking at attitudes in the Talmud to non-Jew and is author of a number of articles in the Jewish Chronicle, the Guardian, Huffington Post and Ynetnews
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