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How social media is transforming British Jewish identity

The concept of Jewishness is being radically reconfigured through the Twittersphere, write HEATHER MENDICK and ABBY HOFFMANN

THE row about anti-semitism in the Labour Party started soon after Jeremy Corbyn was elected and intensified in the run-up to the 2016 and 2018 local elections. 

There have been so many words written about it, we’ve been reluctant to add to them. The weaponisation of anti-semitism against the left and how it is used to silence criticism of Israel are well-rehearsed. 

However, very little has been written about how it is used to police British Jewish identity and, in particular, how social media is becoming a battleground for Jews with different political positions.

As Corbyn-supporting Jewish women active on Twitter, we’ve experienced that first hand, including the pile-ons that follow whenever we share views that don’t fit the dominant narrative of British Jews seeing the Labour Party as riven with anti-semitism and a threat to our existence. 

In recent weeks, this message has been amplified with broadsheet publications such as The Times picking up on heated exchanges involving celebrities, notably Countdown presenter Rachel Riley who tweeted that Jewish activist and academic Noam Chomsky supports anti-semites. 

There has been little or no space in the press given to a rebuttal of these accusations. Currently a motion giving Corbyn a week to act on cases of anti-semitism is making headlines.

The phrase “two Jews, three opinions” simultaneously celebrates and pokes fun at the diversity of views among Jewish people. 

Yet in the debate around allegations of anti-semitism in the Labour Party only a single view is allowed, it seems. 

Last year, for the first time ever, the three UK Jewish newspapers printed the same editorial on their front pages under the headline “United We Stand” — a Corbyn-led government poses an “existential threat to Jewish life in this country,” they claimed. 

It takes a lot of work to create a unified “Jewish community” that speaks with a single voice. To do so, Jewish groups and individuals who take different positions must be aggressively challenged, excluded and silenced.

Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) is an organisation of left-wing Jewish Labour Party members set up to provide an alternative to the Jewish Labour Movement for those who cannot align with the latter’s goal to “promote Labour or socialist zionism.” 

It has spawned a Twitter account dedicated to “keeping an eye on” JVL, “with its unorthodox ‘Jewish’ membership.” 

The use of scare quotes is designed to cast doubts on the Jewishness of JVL members, so denying our right to articulate a different position as Jews. 

The group was no-platformed by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which refused to engage in talks with the Labour Party if JVL was present. 

Corbyn’s working with JVL — just as when he celebrated a Passover seder ritual with Jewdas, another dissident group of British Jews — becomes proof of his anti-semitism. 

In a perverse logic, engaging with Jews becomes evidence of your failure to engage with Jews, when it is read through an opposition between “good Jews” and “bad Jews.”

As “the wrong kind of Jews,” we are attacked on Twitter as self-hating, ugly, stupid and more. We have — in words directed at Abby recently — anti-semitism “oozing out” of us. 

These attacks are such a regular occurrence that Heather has pinned a response to her profile: “To those calling me anti-semitic, I reply with the words of @SamSeder: “I’m not an anti-semite. I think what you’re looking for is a self-hating Jew … Maybe there’s a little bit of self-hate, but it’s not the Jewish part of me that I have an issue with.” 

A particularly violent insult is “Kapo,” the title given to those Jews who co-operated with nazis in the concentration camps. 

However, this at least is premised on the Jewishness of the person being attacked. Even more violent is the denial of Jewishness to those who refuse the dominant narrative. 

Secular Jews like Riley, who has discussed finding a Jewish identity by speaking out against Labour anti-semitism, are welcomed into the community. 

Secular Jews like JVL’s Jenny Manson, who has discussed beginning to identify as Jewish in order to argue against the actions of Israel, are rejected. 

The role of social media in reporting, communicating and provoking discourse around anti-semitism and, more recently, who qualifies as a Jew, should not be underestimated. 

The scale of the attacks is indicative of what is at stake in this struggle: the possibility of a socialist prime minister whose government will undo the damage of decades of neoliberalism and recognise a Palestinian state. 

So this is not just a negative story for where there is power, there is resistance. Jewishness, like so many other things, is being reconfigured through the Twittersphere. 

Jewish identity is not fixed but like all identities, shifting and contextual. In other times and other places, being Jewish has and does mean different things. 

For example, in pre-second world war Europe and the present day US, being a left secular Jew is a more familiar identity than in Britain.

Ironically the Labour anti-semitism row is creating new possibilities for progressive Jewish identities — the very things it is attempting to disappear. 

Jewish people on the left like us who had previously felt excluded by the British Jewish community now have a way of identifying as Jewish in line with our politics. 

As Abby put it: “My Jewish values are of inclusivity, of tolerance, respect and standing with the underdog. Of caring for others. Who are my other fellow Jews who feel this way? Whose natural home is in @UKLabour Don’t let recent reports say otherwise.”  

Heather Mendick works as a freelance researcher specialising in education, equity and science. She is also secretary of Hackney South Labour Party. You can follow her on Twitter @helensclegel.

Abby Hoffmann works as a researcher, educational consultant and lecturer in performing arts. She is also secretary of Nelson Branch in Norwich South. You can follow her on Twitter @abbyhoffmann.

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