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1 December 2023

This is a time to insist on Jewishness

To abandon our identity, as left-wing Jews did in the past, would be to surrender to those who allow only support for Israel.

By Steven Friedman

There was a time when being left and Jewish meant moving as far as possible from your Jewishness. Now it means fighting to hold on to it.

My own left politics centres largely on anti-racism – initially, the fight against apartheid in South Africa and its aftermath. Jews were disproportionately represented in the anti-apartheid movement. When, in 1990, the African National Congress resumed legal life after a lengthy ban, all but one of the white members of its national executive were Jewish.

But while it later transpired that some of these radicals had observed some Jewish practices, none were eager to stress their Jewish identity. This was hardly new. Earlier, in Europe, Jewish socialists conspicuously broke with their Jewishness – by, for example, holding picnics on the Day of Atonement, which is a fast day. The feeling in South Africa was mutual – the Jewish establishment wanted nothing to do with radical anti-apartheid Jews both because it feared government reprisals and because the Jewish mainstream in in the country had no problem with legalised white supremacy.

When apartheid was defeated, left-wing Jews were, for a while, assiduously welcomed back into the fold: official Jewish leadership wanted to know what the new governing elite was thinking and to signal, contrary to all the evidence, that they loved non-racialism and democracy and so honoured Jews who fought for it. This brief reconciliation did not last. It unravelled when left-wing Jews began noticing similarities between the Israeli state and the apartheid government they had rejected. But this time, with some exceptions, Jews on the left who rejected Israeli state abuses insisted on not abandoning their Jewish identity.

The Jewish establishment reacted with far greater fury than it had to anti-apartheid radicals. South African Jewish leadership is a pioneer in intolerance towards Jews who dissent on Palestine. For as long as anyone can remember, it has tolerated just about any behaviour from community members – except even the mildest criticism of the Israeli state.

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This failure to distinguish between a people and a state is now evident throughout western Europe and the US. The American rabbi and scholar of Judaism, Shaul Magid, says of those who police who is a “good Jew” and who is not: “To them, what a Jew believes, what she eats, if she [prays], or how she keeps [the Sabbath] doesn’t really matter. To be a Jew in good standing only means to support the Jewish national project.” Magid points out that people stigmatised for not supporting it are not only considered not fit to be Jewish – they are seen as anti-Jews who threaten the entire group.

So, to be a left-wing Jew now is to be an “anti-Jew”, who must fight to be Jewish. It is to be constantly accused of “anti-Semitism” and self-hatred even though it was the ideologues of the early Israeli state who hated their Jewishness and believed that a state would cure them of it. And the Israeli state and its allies, by insisting that all “real” Jews support all the state’s actions, foster anti-Semitism by identifying all Jews with the deeds of a few.

In my case, the damage is limited. Those who are threatened by my belief that Palestinians are people tried to persuade my university to fire me but were ignored. Being a left-wing Jew here does not mean a constant battle to be heard. It means, rather, insisting on my Jewishness despite the refusal of official Jewish institutions to recognise it. It means being careful about where and how I express my Jewishness not because I am worried about anti-Jewish racists but because I want to avoid fellow Jews who will hound me because of my political opinions.

I know that, in Europe and the US, being a left-wing Jew is more costly. I have experienced a little of this when I have been cut off from international academic projects and networks but my treatment is trivial compared to the experience of Jews in the West who do not live in countries able to distinguish between Jewishness and support for a state.

There is a simple solution to our problem. We can, as some Jewish left-wingers have done, abandon our Jewishness. But to do that would be to surrender the field to those who peddle the deeply anti-democratic view that there is room for only one Jewish opinion on the Israeli state.

To be a left-wing Jew today is, therefore, to insist on your Jewishness despite constant attempts, by the Western mainstream and official Jewish leadership, to strip us of our identity. It is to insist on a democracy and a diversity of opinion in the West and in Jewish communities that power-holders are determined to deny.

This article is part of the series What It Means to Be Jewish Now.

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