HACKNEY, LONDON – On Tuesday morning, at 7:30 A.M. Gaza time or 5:30 A.M. in London, I awoke to a headline on the popular Israeli news site Ynet: “Britain: Corbyn attends event of group that called for Israel’s destruction.” Given that I had left that very event seven and a half hours earlier, I can say wholeheartedly that the headline should have read: “Corbyn brings the bitter herbs to alternative seder in London.”
Jeremy Corbyn grows horseradish in his garden allotment. Slivers of the pungent root he brought were added to the maror, the bitter herbs, waiting in white plastic cups on round tables in the hall below St. Peter’s Church de Beauvoir, Hackney. These bitter herbs, a glass of whiskey before (begging pardon from my Muslim friends and Jewish friends who keep kosher) and songs in my father’s tongue, Yiddish, destroyed the flu germs that had ruined part of my vacation.
I lost the chance to publish the breaking news about the Labour leader’s healing horseradish because the organizers of the event explicitly asked the 100 participants not to tweet, report in real time on social media, or take photos. Last Monday’s was a private event, and nobody wanted paparazzi to pop up. Even so, somebody was evidently taking photos surreptitiously. Since the photos reached a right-wing British blogger, of all people, who immediately uploaded them to the internet with his distorted interpretation, one would assume that the unknown photographer was a mole planted in advance with a contrarian agenda. In the coming hours, the inaccurate, selective information that the blogger disseminated drove headlines hostile to Corbyn, in social and formal media, occupying more cyberspace than had been devoted to the slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza a few days earlier.
The blog claimed that Corbyn had contributed beet roots to the seder; a simple journalistic inquiry would have shown the roots’ color to be very different. The blogger also said he had a recording of people present at the meal booing when the names of two leaders on the Board of Deputies of British Jews were mentioned (or, as the seder participants put it, “Bored of Deputies”). It is true that there were catcalls, but it’s only partially true. There was much longer booing when Ken Livingstone’s name came up – a former mayor of London and Labourite who had been suspended from the party after saying that Hitler supported Zionism.
The people behind the catcalls and the organizers of the seder define themselves as anti-Zionist Jews, or non-Zionist, or just Jews. They belong to the Jewdas Group – Radical Voices for an Alternative Diaspora, founded in 2005 by young people seeking to reflect socialist-minded Judaism in independent ways, and seeing the Bund as a model.
They seek to free themselves of the identification of Jews with Israel, without conceding their right to criticize Israel’s policy against the Palestinians. They spell the organization’s name Jewdas to remove any doubt that they are Jews, but it’s pronounced like Judas, the ultimate symbol of betrayal in Christian tradition. That symbol nourished 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism.
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The choice of a name that sounds like the most hated symbol in the eyes of the group’s non-Jewish environment suffices to grasp Jewdas’ nature – provocative, delighting in tongue-in-cheek statements and in needling history and mythology and religion. Its members, atheist and observant and all that’s in between, hang around in radical leftist and pro-Palestinian circles and flaunt their Judaism proudly, including by wearing yarmulkes and Stars of David.
In 2014, Jewdas published a guide for how to criticize Israel while also being aware that anti-Semitism exists and avoiding the trap of anti-Semitic stereotypes and prejudices. In September 2016, it published a Facebook post urging that Livingstone be sent into space “for his own good and everybody else’s, because he won’t shut up, so we are sending him to space where nobody will hear him.” This was interpreted by non-Jews as a call to oust him from the party.
Jewdas members participate in demonstrations against the extreme right and neo-Nazis, Islamophobia and economic austerity. They party a lot, because being Jewish is fun, and have taken trips to former centers of Diaspora Jewry like Andalusia and Marseilles in what they call “Birthwrong” – as a counter to the Zionist “Birthright” trips to Israel.
Most of the people at the alternative seder were young; many belonged to the LGBT community. Some wouldn’t be considered Jews under traditional Jewish law. Two – a man and a woman – are studying for the rabbinate. Some work as cantors despite not having been formally trained. One couple, who looked Indian, saw the gathering as they walked by and were invited to join, since the Haggadah says, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
The seder included a prayer for the release of prisoners and the return of refugees. Participants sang a Yiddish hymn whose author, Shmerke Kaczerginski, dedicated it to the young fighters of the Vilna Ghetto; one elderly participant reminded all that the Warsaw Ghetto revolt began on Pesach eve. The Jewdas Haggadah also included Bella Ciao, an Italian partisan song in Yiddish translation. Also included was Rachel Bloom’s poem “remember that we suffered,” and its immortal words: “have we mentioned hitler?” In addition, they sang “The Internationale” in English and Hebrew. Corbyn joined in, or at least lip-synched.
They enacted a neoliberal dialogue in English between Pharaoh and his CEO over how to increase Egypt’s profits. The answer: Stop paying the workers. Corbyn laughed with everybody else. Each table was asked to propose ways of fighting Pharaoh. One table parodied a purist, isolationist left. Corbyn laughed in open delight. Others said humor alone wouldn’t topple capitalism; the slaves had to form a union that would declare a general strike in Egypt.
There were good jokes and bad ones, including what seemed (at least to older participants) like excessive and infantile use of the word “fuck.” The price was five British pounds per person, not including wine, grape juice or matzah, which everyone was supposed to bring for themselves. The church was paid 230 pounds for use of its hall. One member worked for three days to prepare vegan food for everyone, using Persian recipes she learned at home.
Most participants, including several organizers, didn’t know that one member of the group had invited Corbyn; they were surprised when he arrived with his wife Laura. He didn’t act like the leader and they didn’t act like the led.
Corbyn said the blessing over Elijah’s Cup, as written in the Jewdas Haggadah: “Legend has it that the prophet Elijah will come at some point to announce the coming of the messiah. We fill up the cup and open the door just in case Eli is outside waiting. As radical Jews, we understand ‘the Messiah’ as ‘the messianic age’ or ‘redemption’ or ‘revolution.’ So let’s fill this cup with the hope that socialism and revolution will be upon us soon.”
The seder table also had a Miriam’s Cup, “to remind ourselves of the women whose stories are often hidden from the seder, and everyone who is oppressed in a patriarchal society.” And there was a Geoffrey’s Cup – named for the group’s imaginary spokesman “Geoffrey Cohen” – “as a symbol of our struggle with the Jewish establishment.”
Last year’s Haggadah included a “prayer against the state of Israel” by “Geoffrey,” which urged, “Please god smash the state of Israel. Smash it in the abundance of your love and judge it.” Jewdas members believe this is what led the blogger to assert that it called for Israel’s destruction, and thus to suggest that Corbyn’s participation in the seder was evidence of either anti-Semitism or blindness to it.
According to the British media, however, the blogger based himself on a December 2017 tweet which said, “Israel is a steaming pile of sewage which needs to be properly disposed of.” Of this quote, one Jewdas member said, “That was surely some nonsense that somebody tweeted in anger.”
Tuesday morning, Corbyn’s participation in this non-Zionist Jewish seder was indeed depicted as further evidence of his insensitivity to anti-Semitism. As evidence it was mentioned that this dissident Jewish group even dared to claim that the recent organized protest against anti-Semitism in Labour stemmed less from a desire to fight anti-Semitism than from a desire to oust Labour’s elected leader because he’s a socialist and supports Palestinian rights.
But later in the day, the tone changed, as people stopped relying on the blogger and instead investigated the details for themselves and studied Jewdas’ history. The organization received additional donations, and one person wrote on its Facebook page, “I had never heard of Jewdas before Monday but now I think I’ve found my people.”