Yes I'm Jewish, but don't define me by my faith

Whatever your intentions, universalising Jews is anti-Semitic and offensive

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The Independent Online

For about two and a half years, since I was first elected as a representative to NUS’s National Executive, I’ve been considering this blog.

I’ve written it a thousand times over in my head, but never quite managed to put finger to keyboard.  My anger has passed, or I have feared accusations of overreacting. Often, I don’t have the energy to deal with the fallout. There is no better friend to procrastination than a desire to sweep the issue under the carpet and hope that it will go away. But I’ve found I can’t do that anymore.

My name is Rachel. I’m a Scouser. I’m a democratic socialist. I’m a feminist. I’m a student activist. I’m Jewish. I’m proud of every aspect of my identity, but I’m sick of being defined by that one facet. The Jewish part. 

Identity is a complicated thing. Once, when I was a newcomer to being a student representative, a friend of mine felt the need to say something that I think of to this day. He turned to some around and said, “Make sure you don’t just assume that she’s only interested in ‘Jewish issues’. She’s got far more to contribute than that.” But even after two further successful elections, I still find myself fighting to maintain a balance between proving I’m capable of leading the higher education campaign for NUS, while maintaining pride in my Judaism, my culture and my heritage. 

I know someone who only refers to me as ‘UJS’ (Union of Jewish Students). Not even just Jewish. Not anti-fascist. Not feminist. They choose to pick on my affiliation to an umbrella organisation that caters to the welfare of Jewish students around the country. UJS ensures Jewish students have access to kosher food, organises social events, and promotes social action campaigns. Yes, UJS has policy and can make political statements.  Sometimes I agree with those statements and sometimes I don’t. I’m a person: fluid, not static. I have views. As a woman I wouldn’t stand for anyone defining my opinions based on my gender. I don’t see why I should stand for it based on my religion. 

What drives this insistence on viewing my commitment to NUS through a Jewish lens?  It boils down to the fact that in the student movement there are a proportionally large number of people who feel passionately about the Israel/Palestine conflict. There is no nuance in the debate. There is no ability to recognise another side. There is dehumanisation of the other to the point that some people regard student politics as a prism of right and wrong based on their stance on the issue. When you think in absolutes there can be no deviation, no room for compromise. It is this fixation with this subject that has created the culture I find myself in, not only by those who drive it, but by those who are exposed to it and find it creeping into their subconscious. 

This is why I find myself accused, especially during election periods, of running only to undermine the Israeli boycott, divestment and sanctions policy passed by the National Executive of NUS. This is why during my election for NUS Vice President a text was sent out by a delegate warning people not to vote for the Zionists, naming myself, and another Jewish girl who was running for a different position.

When I sat on National Conference floor last year, just before my election as Vice President, a high-ranking member of the student factional hard left, an elected student representative, said to me that UJS is funded by Mossad, that as a result I naturally am too, and that is why he would never vote for me. Another member of the left witnessed this. He told him he was a disgrace. That was it. Nobody (including me) made a formal complaint. The student representative finished his term, supposedly representing the students of this country, which includes a few thousand Jewish students, believing that my presence in NUS was part of an Israeli conspiracy. 

The problem isn’t confined to the student movement either. A university Chancellor said to me over dinner only a few months ago, “I don’t know what it is about your people.  You are so creative, so innovative, but when it comes to the Palestinians, I just don’t understand.” Honestly, when it comes to the Palestinians I don’t understand either. I don’t support Israeli government policy. I don’t accept that their right to security includes maintaining an occupation that has subjugated Palestinians for over forty years. I’m not Israeli. I’m British. I’m Jewish. The Israeli Prime Minister is Jewish. Plenty of Jews agree with his politics. Plenty don’t. 

Why am I held accountable for the actions of a government thousands of miles away from my own? I am fed up of implications of ulterior motives, or split loyalties in my politics. It's offensive, and quite frankly it is making me miserable. Whatever your intentions, universalising Jews is anti-Semitic and offensive.  It feeds the historical anti-Semitic notion that Jews are untrustworthy and controlling.   

I spoke out about this a few weeks ago, after the utterly offensive remarks of David Ward on Holocaust Memorial day. He said that we Jews should have learned our lesson and stop inflicting atrocities on the Palestinians. Well, on behalf of the 13-15 million Jews who don’t form Israeli government policy, he can get lost. I’m terribly sorry that this MP doesn’t feel that we graduated from the University of Genocide with a first class honours degree in conflict resolution.  Frankly, I’m unsurprised that someone with the scruples of David Ward, who lied about opposing tuition fees and then voted to raise the fee cap to £9,000, should make such utterly irrational and completely ignorant remarks.  He is hardly a suitable candidate to be questioning my morality. 

The response I got was overwhelming, and not in a good way. I had people defend David Ward’s comments on the basis that Israel is a Jewish state and therefore it is legitimate to hold Jews accountable for the actions of the state. I had people tweet at me every hour for about two days, people search me out on Facebook, just to tell me that I was ‘Zionist scum’, defending genocide and committing murder. Why?  Because I asked not be universalised, not to be held accountable as part of a collective based on my heritage.  Because I asked for people to respect the memory of the Holocaust, pointed out the cruelty of using that memory against those who suffered.  I didn’t comment on Israel’s policies or actions, or the consequences they have on Palestinians. I talked about the effect that his words had on me. 

So why do I choose now to speak out?  It has taken me almost three years, but I choose now, because it has taken me that long to work out what I want to say. Which is this: I am not the problem. You are the problem. It is not me that can’t separate Judaism and Israel. It’s you. Who are you to define me? To assume my views? To determine the part my religion plays in my views?

Karl Marx was a Jew. Melanie Phillips is a Jew. Mila Kunis is a Jew. Albert Einstein was a Jew. Bibi Netenyahu is a Jew. I am not a communist. I am not a neo con. I am not a Hollywood actress or a physicist, and I am most certainly not the Israeli Prime Minister.