A Review of Current Trends in Jewish Identity – May 2016

As with my recent update in my analysis of the Israeli Arab conflict for the first time in seven years I wish now to turn my attention to another subject that I have not written about since, trends and models of Jewish identity reflecting on my years when I worked in Informal Jewish education in the UK.

I had entered the world of Informal Jewish education at a time when the youth movements dominated scene. I was a graduate of Hanoar Hatzioni, but then went onto work with other similar religiously pluralist organisations under the umbrella of the UJIA, including Bnei Brith, Maccabi and the Redbridge JCC (Jewish Care, Redbridge).

At this period (2007) a new player had appeared on the Jewish scene, which was having a very powerful impact on segments of the community. This was Aish HaTorah. Aish was an Orthodox Kiruv (outreach organisation) that aimed to bring non-religious Jews to Orthodox Judaism. It was a Zionist and pro Israel organisation, they have a yeshiva based in the old city of Jerusalem overlooking the wailing wall. The organisation had set up shop in London, first in Hendon and then later made inroads into Essex, the community I was working in. Its main activities involved Shabbat dinners on Friday nights and organised trips to very desirable holiday destinations, including Israel, New York, Australia, South Africa, Spain, Poland trips and more. Aish were extremely well funded and these trips were heavily subsidised. Whilst our Israel trips were increasing and cost nearly ten times what Aish were offering, this attracted lots of our young people to go on their programs and not ours. There was also a trend amongst young people at the time to go travelling to other places in the world, not just to Israel. People wanted to go to places like Thailand or Latin America. The first agenda for Aish was Judaism and Zionism second, so there was no reason it could not achieve its aims of providing Jewish religious experiences and talk about religious matters anywhere in the world. So it would organise trips to the places that young Jews were going to at unbeatable prices, on condition that they participate in the Jewish activities and talks that were part of the program. The rest of the time the groups would be free to explore and enjoy themselves and see the country as well as organised leisure activities.

They were incredibly successful in recruiting participants. Many in the community became very suspicious of their methods and tactics. There would be some instances of participants who would go on their trips, become inspired by what they learned and upon returning soon be keeping fully Kosher and not eat in their parents homes. These radical changes would lead to accusations by parents of brainwashing. Not all who participated in their events would change their beliefs or make such lifestyle changes. Some of those who participated would also claim that they try to brainwash people.

The difference was the agenda and their success at our expense. We could not compete, we did not have the resources that they had.

The prime objection we had was that our programs aimed to create future leaders for the community and volunteers who we relied on in order to run the activities and services that we provided. By people opting for the Aish programs it was creating people who would become a Baal Teshuva, who were often like born again Christians only they were Jews. They would often come to find Sinclair House not religious enough for them and become less involved in the community. The second group would be the people who went on the trip purely because it was a cheap holiday who were not very inspired by the religious programs but enjoyed the rest of their time. The result was, fewer teenagers involved in our activities.

There were other factors that were affecting our work. Like Aish and its campaign to promote Judaism and religious observance, a new project had started in North America to promote Israel and Zionism. This was Birthright. Concerned with assimilation, particularly in the United States. Some believed that this could be stemmed through creating a connection between young American Jews and the state of Israel. Unlike British Jews who are only a five hour plane ride away from Israel, most American Jews had not decided to visit Israel. It is much further away and an expensive trip. Birthright believed it was every Jewish person’s right to see Israel on an organised tour at least once. Aish were only interested in reaching out to people who were considered Jewish according to Orthodoxy. Birthright would adopt the definition of a Jew according to the Israeli Law of Return, if one had at least one Jewish grandparent, they were eligible to participate in a Birthright tour of Israel. The idea was that this trip would be free of charge. The tour lasts for ten days where they tour the major attractions throughout the country, Jerusalem, the Kotel, Yad Vashem, Masada, the Dead Sea, Eilat, the Sea of Galilee, Tzfat, the Golan Heights, Tel Aviv, Haifa and more, all crammed into a ten day trip.

 

In the UK, a deal was made with Birthright that people would only be eligible to go on Birthright who were above a certain age and who did not participate on Israel tour at age sixteen. In other countries where there was no such thing as Israel tour, Birthright participants were much younger. But were that to be the case in the UK, no one would go on Israel tour at age sixteen. It was a very easy decision, go on Israel tour with a youth movement for a month at age sixteen and pay what was now nearly £3,000 or wait a couple of years and go on Birthright for ten days for free. So this was having some impact on recruiting people for Israel tour as well.

On top of Aish and Birthright, another new initiative was launched. This time by the Israeli government by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. This was project called Masa (Hebrew for Journey). The objective was to increase Aliyah from the western world by encouraging diaspora Jews to spend an extended period of time in Israel. It created dozens of programs that the government would subsidise. Some were learning programs in yeshivas, universities, learning Hebrew on an ulpan, army programs or working on a Kibbutz. Lots of Israeli industries and businesses offered internship programs within this project, which enabled diaspora Jews to gain valuable work experience in their chosen fields. These programs were as short as three months to twelve months. This project was causing problems for those who would go on a youth movement gap year like I did. At the time, the trend of taking a gap year was dwindling, people who did preferred to spend part of their gap year in the UK working and would then go travelling for a few months. The Masa programs accommodated these changing trends. Lots of university students were able to take advantage of these shorter term programs in the summer breaks. Others chose to take part in these programs when they had completed their degree.

The entire Jewish youth work structure was changing very rapidly. Including both the Jewish youth clubs like that of Sinclair House that I was running for teenagers. The Jewish youth clubs started in the early 1900’s when there was a mass wave of Jewish immigrants from Europe and Russia arriving in Britain, many settled in the East end of London. They were very poor, spoke Yiddish, most had lived in the Pale of settlement in Russia in shtetls and had come to London looking to build new lives for themselves in the new world and to escape anti-Semitic pogroms. The pioneer of Jewish youth clubs was a man known as Basil Henriques.

Henriques and much of the belief of British Jewry at the time was the vision of being an “Englishman of the Jewish faith.” The aim behind the mission of the youth clubs was to create loyal Englishman who aspired to the values of the middle classes of British society and to help integrate the new immigrants. An important aim was that Jews should not stand out or appear to be different. The youth clubs provided young, Jewish people with support not only socially with a place to go but with helping them to learn English, to learn about British culture, to help them with their economic needs and a place for them to meet with other Jews.

Its philosophy embodied much British Patriotism, and expressed their loyalty to Britain. Similar to the ideas of the early Reform movement in Europe, it saw Judaism and the Jews as a people who are committed to a faith. The activities of a Jewish youth club were not so different to that of non-Jewish British youth clubs. There would be leisure activities planned predominantly by older volunteer leaders such as Sports, Art, Drama, Cooking, and Discos… Residential weekends away would be a prominent feature of Jewish youth clubs which would serve an additional purpose within the Jewish community of offering young Jewish people the opportunity to gain a Shabbat experience.

Weekends away are big bonding experiences and are often integrated and used for leadership training purposes. The Bradians (one of the Jewish youth clubs, Brady) bought a house in Orpington, Kent called Skeet Hill House and used it as the retreat for its weekends away. Until this day we at Sinclair House (Redbridge JCC) would take groups to the house and is still in use as a venue by many Jewish youth organisations.

The Jewish youth clubs were non-political in so far as that they did not belong to any political party, they were mostly non-denominational and accepted Jews from all sides of the Jewish community and would even allow non-Jews to attend with their Jewish friends.

Often clubs from different areas would somehow be linked to one another and compete against each other in sporting events. An organisation known as Maccabi named after the Maccabees (the Heroes in the story of Chanuka) was founded as a Jewish sports organisation. There was at the time discrimination towards Jews throughout many sporting activities. Many Golf clubs in Britain did not allow Jews to become members, therefore Jews who were interested in Golf decided to open up their own. 

Many of these independent youth clubs chose to affiliate themselves to Maccabi and their clubs became known for example as Kenton Maccabi or Brady Maccabi. This broadened the social aspect of Jewish youth work as it allowed for greater interaction with other clubs. 

Initially the Jewish Youth clubs dominated the scene but there were alternatives and a competing vision for British Jewry. There was Zionist youth movements in Britain too. The aims of the Zionist youth movements were ideologically driven. Unlike the Jewish Youth work that aimed to Anglicise the Jews and integrated them into British society as ‘Englishmen of the Jewish faith’ Zionism believed the opposite. 

Zionism believed that the Jewish problem of anti-Semitism, which Henriques sought to solve through integration, was not the answer to the ‘Jewish question.’ There were a few events that led to changes in the attitudes and aims behind Jewish youth work.

After the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed to the world. The Zionist arguments for the need for a Jewish state gained more support the world over. This did not drastically change Jewish youth work in Britain. But it slightly undermined the theory of being a Patriotic Briton. Basil Henriques in his time did not support Zionism as he felt it would lead to suspicion on behalf of the British people of the Jews having dual loyalties.

World Jewry sympathized and supported Zionism and its efforts to build the state of Israel after it was established in 1948 and made visits to and supported Israel. With the rise of identification with the state of Israel, Zionist youth movements grew dominant in the field of Informal Jewish education. Jewish youth clubs too became more pro-Israel. Jewish youth clubs had succeeded in their aims of anglicizing the Jewish immigrants and helping them to improve their economic situation.

Jews became more affluent started to leave the East end of London and move to the suburbs of Northwest London. With affluence and success came a decline in religious observance and Jewish identification as a result of successful integration into British society and brought with it a growing concern for the community’s continuity due to the threat of assimilation. Jewishness was being reduced to its religious expression alone.

Zionism in part offered an alternative, for it revived a national Hebrew Jewish culture, which gave new meaning to Jewish life and particularly secular Jewish life, which soon made its way to the Jewish Diaspora. The Jewish community sought to recreate a sense of belonging amongst the Jewish people through the reinforcement of Jewish unity and the centrality of Israel in Jewish identity. Israel was not only seen as being a place of refuge for Jews who had suffered from anti-Semitism which world Jewry would support in its efforts to free Jews from oppressive regimes elsewhere in the world but would also be a tool for solving the current assimilation problem.

The philosophy of Basil Henriques that gave birth to the Jewish youth clubs was now incredibly unpopular. The community at large had moved on. It served a purpose two generations ago, our parents generation were dependent on them more than we were. However, now a lot of these clubs were struggling to survive and were closing down. Sinclair House was one of the few still running. There were other factors that were causing this beyond Aish, Birthright and Masa.

In the past most Jewish children went to non-Jewish schools, so parents felt that sending their children to a Jewish youth club was very important so that they could make Jewish friends. Today, nearly all of the young people who came to our club attended a Jewish school, King Solomon High school. Many parents sent their children to do other extra-curricular activities after school. Jewish youth activities were beginning to move from operating within an informal environment in a youth club to within a formal environment within the school. The Jewish schools created Informal Jewish education departments that would work with the Jewish studies departments. The majority of Jewish schools are affiliated to the Orthodox United synagogue. These Informal Jewish education departments strengthened organisations like Tribe and worked with Aish. Groups with an Orthodox agenda would of course gain favour and privilege to operate within the schools, which would make it harder for the pluralist and non-Orthodox groups to recruit new members. This affected Jewish youth clubs as well as the smaller pluralist youth movements like the ones I had been a member of, who did not have a parent body or a religious movement to support them.

What seemed to be emerging was a complete change in the community structure and an ideological grab for influence on shaping the community. The pluralistic Zionist model was no longer reigning triumphantly. The Orthodox were new competitors with a different agenda that were proving to be very powerful and capable of steering the community as a whole in a different direction. They were well funded, winning the hearts of many young people and had the support of most of the Jewish schools and Orthodox synagogues behind them.

The renowned advocate for Israel, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, wrote a book titled The Vanishing American Jew, The Search for Jewish Identity for the Next Century. He discusses three popular solutions to this problem. One is the Religious solution, another the Israeli solution. These two we have discussed and can see their rise in influence. He discusses a proposed a third option, the Ethical solution. The Ethical solution places an emphasis on Jewish values. To view Judaism as an ethical value system as opposed to a religious faith centred around fulfilling commandments and religious rituals and practices. Or to be focused on nationalism and peoplehood through waving the flag, defending Israel from criticism and learning Hebrew.

The goal is to be a Mensch, a good person. Fighting for social justice and the more universal causes of mankind. Jews had done this in the past, fought for civil rights in the United States for example. Championing human rights, fighting all manifestations of racism and genocide. Fighting poverty in the third world, saving the planet from global warming. Fostering Jewish values such as giving to Tzedaka (charity), being an activist and seeing such universal causes as Jewish concerns as well.

The focus is not on God nor the state of Israel, but on values. This was something that was also beginning to take root and grow in influence particularly outside of the Orthodox world. Organisations like Tzedek were set up, which sent young Jews to African countries to volunteer in communities there. A project called Mitzvah Day started in the UK, which began in the United States. It was a project where one day every year it sought to unite all Jewish communities in encouraging their members to come together to volunteer their time to helping others. Each community would do different things, such as visit the elderly in care homes or collect things to take to charity shops for example. A very successful initiative started by Anglo Jewry was Limmud. Limmud started as a conference over Christmas time where Jews would go and learn about and discuss topics of Jewish interest. Over time this grew into much more than a conference. It has become almost like a festival of Jewish life open to all. It now has conferences that run in other countries and attendance is increasing. It is a cross communal event and topics could vary from the Arab-Israeli conflict to Kabbalah.

There are today new forces in the community with different interests to the mainstream leadership; which do not share the same visions for British Jewry. These new trends are much more worldly in their conception of Judaism and the changes are starting to emerge within the community itself.

In 2007 an organisation known as the Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) was founded as an organisation of Jews from all over the Jewish community from the Orthodox to the Liberals and unaffiliated who came together under a shared belief in the authority of International law and concern for universal human rights. The signatories include Zionist Jews and non-Zionist Jews who wished to express openly their criticisms of some of Israel’s policies and their disapproval at how the leadership of the British Jewish community were not representing their views on the matter. They felt that not criticising aspects of Israeli policy was causing harm to Israel’s interests and would also cause anti-Semitism.

The Jewish establishment in the UK did not receive the organisation very well and similarly groups of Jews in other Diaspora communities and Israel are emerging to challenge the institutions representing the Jewish communities stances on such matters. For a long time the main lobbying group in the United States was AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) until an alternative was founded called J Street. This group define themselves as Pro Israel and Pro Peace. They are against Israel’s settlement building in the West bank. They are in favour of a negotiated peace with the Palestinians and against military force as a means of eliminating the Iranian nuclear threat.

Within Israel we see other new organisations such as the New Israel Fund. An organisation that is concerned primarily with preserving the democratic principles of the state of Israel, such as religious freedoms, civil and human rights, protecting minority rights and social and economic justice.

Whilst these groups focus on Jewish values do not necessarily conflict with the Religious or the Zionist agendas. There are growing numbers of Jews who are joining anti-Zionist groups as well as some who are against the Charedi (Ultra-Orthodox) world, both amongst secular Zionist Jews and non-Zionist Jews. The unity of the Jewish people that came about after the Holocaust through identification with Israel as central to Jewish identity is beginning to crack. 

Everything I have said up until now was written in 2008. In Britain, this situation has not changed drastically. However, on the other side of the pond, American Jewish identity has been greatly affected by these new trends. On the one hand we see the success of projects like Birthright and Masa, we also see a trend of Jews from non religious backgrounds attracted to Orthodoxy from the work of the numerous Kiruv organisations. There are also regrettably large numbers of Jews who are attracted to cults and other religions such as the Messianic movement. Whilst some Jews are being lost due to the missionaries, many return and join the religious fold due to the great efforts of counter-missionary organisations like Jews for Judaism. J street too grew in influence, but born out of this is Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). Like IJV in the UK, JVP has been far more influential in American Jewish life than IJV has in the UK.

I believe JVP to be very dangerous to the Jewish community. However, how we got to this stage is something that I also wrote about after I returned to London from Israel. Having made Aliyah I lived as an Israeli, what this means is that you become a critic of the government policies of the country you live in, like people do in most other countries.

When it comes to Israel though, there is a phenomena of anti-Semitism that hides behind the guise of “legitimate criticism of Israel.” Often those criticisms are not criticisms, they are libels and therefore illegitimate criticism. But this has made it very difficult for one to voice legitimate criticism without someone on either side either calling the accusation of anti-Semitism or accusing one of using anti-Semitism as a weapon to silence criticism of Israeli government policies.

When I returned to London from Israel, I was faced with this problem, where I had plenty of things to criticise about Israel having lived there that most British Jews did not want to hear. Or felt that we should be keeping quiet about many of these subjects for the above mentioned reasons. I wrote the following in 2010.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel claims that only Jews living in Israel have a right to criticise Israel:

“All this, as you may have guessed, is the prelude to a few criticisms. I dislike having to articulate them; it is a role that does not suit me. Yet such is the price I must pay for living in the Diaspora. I never criticize Israel outside of Israel.”1

I recall having this conversation when I was a participant in my youth movement days as to whether we as diaspora Jews have a right to influence or speak out against Israel because we do not live there and are not the ones directly affected by what goes on.

Sometimes this is explained through comparing the relationship between Israel and the diaspora to that of a parent and a child. Where one may be very angry or even ashamed at something their child has done but will still love them and support them no matter what.

The view that Israel is to be defended unconditionally whenever she is criticised by outsiders, or at best to not add fuel to the fire by ‘giving bigots and anti-Semites ammunition’ to advance their cause and to just remain silent and keep ones criticisms to oneself, is also unhelpful. This however does not mean that Israel or Jews are somehow immune to any legitimate criticism of their behaviour in certain instances. It is however being used at times to advance a specific political agenda.

As many of Israel’s advocates point out, that it is a country like any other and it cannot be expected to be perfect and particularly in light of its history, the obstacles that it has had to overcome and the challenges that it still faces. But at the same time Israel cannot expect to declare itself the “state of the Jewish people” and the homeland of every Jew, call on their support and grant them not only the right to but also insist that it is a duty to some extent to defend Israel, but then not grant Jews not living in Israel the right to be critical of it too.

What will ultimately occur if enough Jews wishing to criticise or challenge Israel’s policies and actions get labeled as self-hating Jews, enemies of Israel or traitors, is that when Israel is genuinely being treated unjustly or attacked by true enemies, those Jews will not come to her aid and will remain silent.

Israel advocates go out of their way to assert that Israel wants peace, and to argue that Israel wants the Palestinians to have their own state. But outside of Israel we (Jews) do not speak up against the continued building of settlements. What the world sees are rallies in solidarity with Israel with a mostly Jewish turn out. It does not send out a message that there are many Jews who do not support settlement building and want to make peace and compromise.

Political Scientist at Tel Aviv University Yossi Shain in his article Jewish Kinship at a Crossroads: Lessons for Homelands and Diasporas asserts that:

“Throughout the 1990s, the Israeli-Diaspora relationship had been evolving in different directions. For almost a decade, many Israelis and diaspora Jews believed that a comprehensive Middle East peace would fundamentally alter both Israel’s Jewish character and relations between the sovereign Jewish state and Jewish existence in the West. Peace would have enabled Israel to achieve a level of normalization that would have loosened the bonds of involvement with and responsibility for the diaspora, while releasing the diaspora from burden- some entanglements with Israeli security issues that had overshadowed lives in their countries of domicile for over a generation. As late as summer 2000, the prevailing sense among observers of Jewish-American affairs was that “the Israel agenda” of American Jews and Jewish advocacy groups “has changed radically. Whatever the serious problems and deep pitfalls in the peace process, the issues that have come to the fore are related more to the relationship between Israel and America’s Jews than with the physical security of Israel.””2

This suggests that the relationship between the diaspora and Israel has become much less about helping Israel to make peace and have normal relations with her neighbours but that the relationship is essentially a means for creating Jewish unity. It is not uncommon a view that many in Israel hold that without the Arabs there would be little unity at all amongst Jews in Israel which could result in civil war (particularly along religious divides), and similarly in the diaspora the view that with the absence of anti-Semitism there would be a higher rate of assimilation.

Israel by becoming the central component in the post Holocaust era Jewish identity has served a purpose but it has also become the very foundation for being a Jew, which in the diaspora for the most part has been defending and fighting on Israel’s behalf as well as against anti-Semitism domestically. It is particularly evident amongst many secular Jews as it provides an alternative to religious observance as a means of connecting to one’s Jewish identity.

In Israel, however, we see a crisis in Jewish identity, precisely because Jews are not homogenous, and do not share the same views on Judaism, Zionism nor politics and addressing these issues runs the risk of disunity and conflict. 

Jews in both Israel and the diaspora may share a common pride in their Jewish heritage but what Judaism means to different Jewish groups are often not only conflicting but opposing views to one another. What then occurs is that unity is found when differences are put aside to fight anti-Semitism and to defend Israel. Today defending the Israeli governments policies has become a measure of ones Zionism. Zionism too is not a singular ideology; there are many different forms of Zionism, which also oppose one another’s beliefs, visions and also rationales for what the purpose of Zionism was. Israel is still arguing as to what kind of a state it wishes to be, what the criteria for its Jewish character should be. 

The issue of Israel’s existence being at stake has been the factor pushing this issue aside for now, but if we really do want peace we will have to face these issues head on. We have become so used to defending Israel as a means of connecting to our Jewish identity that the thought of Israel living in peace and not needing our help and solidarity has created a problem for us, for it means that we need to find a new means of Jewish expression. It will not be until we reach this realisation that Israel is not the be all and end all of Jewish identity, that we need to essentially end our dependence on having common enemies and confront the forces within the Jewish world that are creating obstacles to peace.

The rise of groups like J Street and JVP are a result of people feeling that there isn’t a forum for them to voice legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies. What has emerged instead is a growing numbers of Jews not just refusing to defend Israel unconditionally by remaining silent but who voice illegitimate criticisms of Israel that in many instances are simply regurgitated libels invented by the propaganda of the BDS movement.

The rise of such a phenomenon is not purely due to this reason, although it is a factor. It is motivated also out of a despair at the direction that American Jewish identity was heading for many years towards a path of assimilation.

It is an attempted expression of the solution that Dershowitz defined as an “Ethical solution” to Jewish identity. What we witness through his three solutions, the Religious, the Zionist and the Ethical is fragmentation of Judaism. Yes it is true that justice and human rights have strong roots in Judaism as those in the JVP camp tell us, but at the same time the Zionism that is described by its pro-Israel opponents is also part of Judaism which I wrote about in detail in my recent piece Anti-Semitism Denial.

One cannot be intellectually dishonest with Jewish tradition and insist that universally held Jewish beliefs concerning the Jewish peoples connection to the Land of Israel be ignored in order to discredit Israel so as to foster an anti-Zionist innovative diaspora Judaism. In 2015, a group who opposed Birthright, the educational trip to Israel for Jews to learn about their history in the Jewish homeland, created an alternative trip called Birthwrong, that instead goes to Spain to learn about Jewish history there. The organisers of Birthwrong were keen to point out that the key aim of the trip was to celebrate the diaspora.

In Britain, Jewish Europe tours are also common. I went on two trips during my Zionist youth movement days to Poland and to Prague. There were many people my age who the following year after they went on Israel tour went on a Jewish Europe tour which included Spain. There is nothing wrong with going to learn about our heritage and historic experiences in other countries, they can be very transformative experiences that strengthen Jewish identity.

Celebrating diaspora, however, is more of a departure from Jewish thought than its proponents claim that yearning for Zion is. In classical Jewish texts, the rabbis and sages regarded anywhere other than Israel as being exile, a temporary dwelling whilst Jews hoped for their eventual redemption and return. The notion of celebrating diaspora is not a new innovation of Birthwrong. It is still however a new innovation and departure from the tradition. Jews in the past built synagogues and called them either synagogues or shuls. With non-Orthodox Judaism and particularly in America for a few generations now, they rejected this notion of a return to Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem that traditional communities recite and pray for three times a day in the Amida prayer as they had done for 2,500 years since it was instituted by the Men of the Great Assembly. Instead, they decided to call their synagogues, Temple. Outside of North America this is very rare, even in the Reform movement in Britain.

It is therefore no wonder that there are many Jews who feel they can divorce Israel from Judaism or diminish its significance. It is true that in Israeli Jewish identity there could be in some sectors more of an emphasis on social justice but this cannot come at the expense of the fact that Zionist beliefs, putting aside the fact that the modern Zionist movement was prompted by the rise of modern nationalism, served as a vehicle for the realisation of authentic Jewish beliefs and values. Many of them have not yet been achieved.

Some forms of Zionism were more secular and less entrenched in the tradition, but other forms were. I read works by members of groups like JVP, that sometimes are rooted in Jewish texts and traditions, whilst others quote Marx, Trotsky and preach anti-Capitalist ideas that one could equally argue has nothing to do with Judaism but is Communism masquerading as Judaism.

Perhaps for the majority of world Jewry, belief in God is not a huge part of their Jewish identity. Prayer or ritual observance does not feature in their life very often. But it would be ridiculous to claim that such a fundamental belief is not an essential part of Jewish belief. The fact that the number of Jews who deem that is today are a minority is irrelevant. Any honest study of Judaism will reveal that this is a fundamental universally held belief and has been so for thousands of years.

This too is a belief that groups such as the New Atheists oppose. The demonization of God and particularly the Jewish God of the Old Testament is an idea that too has ancient roots and modern manifestations mostly prominently attributed to the Church father Marcion. But at the same time these New Atheist’s are not anti-Semites, the late Christopher Hitchen’s was not an anti-Zionist, Sam Harris believes in Zionism. Of the less academic among them, Bill Maher who made the documentary Religulous is a supporter of Israel.

Their understanding of religion may be misguided, but at least they see religiously violence motivated by Islamic extremism and the phenomena of anti-Semitism throughout the Arab world and condemn Islamist extremist organisations whether that be Al Qaeda or Hamas. They do not make political alliances with extremist groups and make excuses for terrorism and anti-Semitic incitement against Jews and westerners which groups like JVP like to ignore.

What is often described as different Judaism’s, with one being good and others being bad or not Judaism is quite misleading. There is a kernal of truth in all of them and also a fair amount of foreign import.

Rather than these groups seeking to discredit one another believing one will triumph over the other, they should serve as mirrors to each other to reflect upon the criticisms of each group. Israel is far from perfect and Zionism needs an injection of some of the traditionalism of the Orthodox world and at the same time the more openly self critical impulse that initially led to the emergence of JVP.

At the same time groups like JVP have to come to terms with the fact that Israel is central to the consciousness of a traditional Jew, that anti-Semitism is a real threat (particularly in Europe) that is not simply a right wing attempt to silence criticism of the Israeli government and partnering with groups like the BDS movement and Students for Justice in Palestine who have links to groups like Hamas seeking to destroy Israel is not the path to the social justice and human rights that lie at the heart of their Jewish values.

To the Orthodox world as well, having spent plenty of time in their communities, they have a lot to offer the non-Orthodox world, but at the same time they are also not immune from foreign influence and criticism of which there are Jewish values and traditions that they have not preserved so well which are manifested more elsewhere outside the Orthodox world.

  1.  Wiesel, E (1978) A Jew Today, Vintage Books: United States. pp.130
  2. Shain, Y (2002) Jewish Kinship at a Crossroads: Lessons for Homelands and Diasporas, Political Science Quarterly, Volume 117, Number 2 pp.282

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