Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Jewdas and the Good Jews

Shortly after issuing a statement committing to more vigorous opposition to antisemitism within the ranks of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn ruffled yet more feathers by attending a seder hosted by the far-left Jewish group Jewdas.

Here's the thing: I don't have an intrinsic problem with Jewdas. I've even written a nice(-ish) post about them! So I totally agree that some descriptions of them (including by some Jews) have been overwrought.

But I'm in full agreement with Keith Kahn-Harris that this was nonetheless a misstep (at best) by Corbyn, because it looks like he once again is picking-and-choosing his "good Jews" who won't challenge him and will soothe him that everything is okay. David Hirsh suggested that the seder with Jewdas functions as a sort of "reverse dog whistle" -- to people who don't know much about the Jewish community, it seems like a nice gesture; whereas the vast majority of the Jewish community in the UK experiences it as a thumb in the eye -- a very conscious decision to circumvent the Jewish mainstream to hang out with a fringe minority which already thinks he's a-okay.

But not all of the blame can be laid at Corbyn's feet. Jewdas should come in for critique too -- not because its views are in any context unacceptable, but because of what function it is serving in this context. Writes Kahn-Harris:
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.
As one journalist noted, it's especially telling how resistant Corbyn is to doing this when it comes to Jews because this instinct is his primary defense for why he was willing to meet with his "friends" in Hamas and Hezbollah. There might be some MPs for whom an evening with Jewdas might expand their horizons in a salutary fashion, but Jeremy Corbyn is almost certainly not one of them.

I can accept that Jewdas' brand of -- let's call it "irreverent" -- humor has its place in Jewish life (its infamous "Please God, smash the state of Israel" line in its Haggadah serving as a sort of exaggerated self-parody). But that doesn't mean it is an appropriate venue for a non-Jew, facing criticism for being unable to recognize antisemitism and being allegedly cold towards the Jewish community writ large, to begin his outreach. And Jewdas has an obligation here too that I don't think it fulfilled -- the sort of moves and jokes and commentaries it likes to make may well be inbounds among fellow community members, but that doesn't mean it should be inviting random outsiders to take part -- at least not without significant proof of trustworthiness and engagement with Jews that suggests their genuine allies. Insofar as Jewdas including Corbyn in this seder indicates their attempt to hechsher Corbyn along that criteria, that's a very valid thing to critique.

Someone gave the analogy to former Orthodox Jews who walk around in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods holding flyers with scantily-clad women on them, as a mocking commentary on retrograde Orthodox gender norms. I wouldn't do that myself, though I see the value in taking down a peg the obsession with regulating women's bodies in the Orthodox communities. But while I can see the case for former Orthodox Jews engaging in that sort of parodic (arguably trollish) act, I'd be infuriated if a non-Jew (particularly one in Corbyn's position) took part.

As Kahn-Harris observes, there's irony here in Jewdas taking on the role of the "good Jews". But that all relates back to the difference between how one speaks inside the community versus outside of it. When interacting with the British Jewish mainstream, Jewdas is an important outsider perspective -- giving voice to viewpoints sometimes not heard and puncturing community shibboleths. But when it steps outside of the intra-Jewish debate and wades into the broader debate Labour is having on these issues, the same statements and jokes and performances are less critical than confirmatory, less challenging than soothing, less outsider and more insider. It takes a certain intellectual and organizational adroitness to deftly switch between those two modes, and I don't think Jewdas did itself proud in the navigation.

No comments: