What is it to be Jew-ish?

Jo Bird (in blue skirt) became co-founder of Jewish Voice for Just Peace - Ireland

Are you mixed heritage Jew-ish? You’re welcome in the diverse movement for Palestinian solidarity

Jo Bird, October 2017 [first posted at 19.38. Updated at 20.24]


The Institute for Jewish Policy Research reported that the intermarriage rate in Britain has been 23-26% since the 1980s. In the USA, more than half of Jewish people marry out. Jewish people have intermingled for centuries, so there will be millions of people with Jewish heritage on one side of their family.

What about the children and their children? Many are not considered Jewish by religious and Israeli institutions. Yet their lived experience and family history are an integral part of our rich Jewish spectrum. One of my parents is Jewish, the other is not. For many years, I didn’t feel Jewish enough, or pro-Israel enough, to name and claim my experiences as Jewish. This is my story.

I grew up assimilated in the north of England. I knew 7 Jewish people and they were all in my close family. Our parents raised me and my sibling with love, humour and politics. We heard family stories of fleeing pograms in Prussia, a great uncle who fought fascism in the International Brigade – and our granddad fought Nazis and could speak many languages including Yiddish. We were raised with socialism not God, solidarity not superiority, trade union stickers not mezuzahs, Woodcraft Folk not Hebrew school, Christmas presents not Chanukah gilt, local not Jewish festivals, internationalism not Zionism, and no circumcision.

It was a great childhood in many ways. But I missed learning more good Jewish culture and had no strategies for dealing with everyday antisemitism. My teachers treated everyone as Christian, but I wasn’t. Many people said my mum’s name wrong. Girls called beautiful were mostly blond. I heard the Jews killed Christ, the Jews this, the Jews that. I had no friends who were Jewish. Why did I always feel different and sometimes lonely?

I looked forward to meeting other Jewish people when I went to Manchester University. At Jewish students society events I met people from many countries who were relaxed about their Jewish identity, looked Jewish, had Jewish sounding names, told jokes, asked familiar questions without pausing and had anxiety attacks. “Wow!” I thought, “It’s not only my family that does that!”

They told me I was Jewish because my mother is, which was not convincing. My mixed race friends were black and targets of racism, no matter which parent provided their genes. Still, I was ‘reassured’ that I was Jewish enough for Hitler to have sent me to the gas chambers – which was terrifying. Within student union politics, the Jewish society was right-wing, so their group was no place for me. I didn’t know then that the state of Israel provides funding for many Jewish organisations, including the Union of Jewish Students.

I discovered Jewish identity can be self-defined and learned rather than inherited. I visited Jewish museums and synagogues, talked with extended family, made friends who were Jewish, listened and read a lot. However, the key turning point was visiting Palestine~Israel in 2001. After going through military checkpoints into Bethlehem in the West Bank, I met Jewish people from many countries, including Israel, who said the occupation is wrong. I was welcomed as a Jewish person, by Jews – and by Palestinian people who had every reason to be hostile to Jews and the Jewish state.

Almost everything I had seen on BBC TV was replaced by my first hand experience. Palestinian strangers invited us into their homes. Then Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, welcomed us to his Ramallah compound – and ordered pizza! In Israel, I met relatives, brave refuseniks, Jews who spoke Arabic, survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants. In 2003, I started a co-op to take people on study tours to see the situation for themselves – in partnership with the Alternative Tourism Group. A new Palestinian friend designed the Olive Co-op’s logo for free and asked me to take Jews to the West Bank. Over the next three years, over 200 people came on Olive Co-op tours, of which a third were Jewish.

These days, I am relaxed about my Jewish identity. I call myself a Jaetheist, and joke that I’m not a very good Jew because I don’t practice [the religion]. I do practice solidarity though.

The Jewish pro-Palestinian movement includes Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods, the new Jewish Voice for Labour and many more groups. We say Israel does not speak in our name. We stand for justice and human rights for all. We identify and combat antisemitism. I’ve learned more about rich Jewish traditions of dissent and justice. Many of us feel solidarity with Palestinians because of, not in spite of, our Jewish heritage.

I love the diversity of our Jewish pro-Palestinian movement – we have so many different histories and experiences. We are communities of people who show solidarity with Palestinian people and who had a Jewish grandparent, step-parent, or are exploring their own Jew-ish identity. If this is part of your experience too, you are very welcome.

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Comments (17)

  • David Rosenberg says:

    Wonderful article. Thanks.

  • Marie Corcoran-Tindill says:

    Powerful, beautiful and heartful article, Jo. Thank you for the writing if it. Marie

  • DAVID WHITAKER says:

    Amazing article and thoroughly good read!!!

  • Rachel Lever says:

    This would make a great regular feature: “how I got to where I am now”. Would be happy to contribute my own story.

  • Tony Booth says:

    You left out the “bringing of a tear to my eye” which this did. Was this just in my family?

  • Brian Lovett-White says:

    Very touching and I am in complete sympathy with the writer. We all have to live the exclusivity our ancestors imposed upon the Diaspora. I do not agree with them that the Jew is superior to the non-Jew and I notice that even JVL separates Jew from non-Jew as an entry requirement to the group which is why I have not joined.

    • Tony Booth says:

      Dear Brian Lovett-White, is there a possibility that you would reconsider your membership of JVL? I came to a different conclusion when I thought about joining; that having a core Jewish membership is both strategically and ethically correct at the present time. It is important to create a counter force for the Labour Party and the media against those who are using the view of some Jewish Labour Party memebers to try to exclude critical voices on Israel from the Party and to destabilise Jeremy Corbyn and the rest of the Labour Leadership. Desperate times. With best wishes, Tony Booth

  • Nick Greenberg says:

    I thought this was great. I’m sending it on to my part- Jewish kids (I’ll leave them to decide the exact percentage)

  • John says:

    Very well and elegantly put! It takes courage to be who you are and proves to the world that not all Jews are Zionists and not all Zionist haters are antisemitic.

  • Philip says:

    However, 100% of Zionist haters are Zionist haters. And what is it about Zionism which makes hatred a seemingly acceptable response?

    • Mike Cushman says:

      No, 100% of opponents to Zionism are opposed to Zionism. It’s about campaigning against a regime of oppression not hatred of people, we leave that to the racists we organise against.

  • Martin says:

    Fantastic read.

  • Marie says:

    Excellent, thank you so much

  • Graham Freer says:

    Lovely to be reminded of all you have, and continue, to achieve Jo. I am very proud of you. Graham

  • John says:

    This is lovely, many thanks for writing it

  • Alan Maddison says:

    Very informative and authentic article. Thank you.

    We need more of this out in the public arena to demolish the “stereotype” fantasies that are so damaging.

  • Robert Gordon Mooney says:

    Your perceptions with regard to the Israel/Palestine, Jew/Muslim, British Protectorate initiated solution to a human problem is a breath of fresh air.

    You however neglect the main beneficiary of Lord Balfour’s solution: the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, now Jordan.

    Palestinians are now in the invidious position, after some three generations, of being refugees in their own country.

    As a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party I look forward to meeting you this Saturday (21st July) at our local branch in Bangor

    Yours Aye!

    Bob

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