The social media policing of Jewish identity

The social media policing of Jewish identity
5 min read
05 Aug, 2022
Heather Mendick draws personal experiences to highlight the online policing of Jewish identity and its effects, particularly for those who are vocally left-wing and anti-zionist.
This abuse of antisemitism exists alongside a disregard for anti-black racism and Islamophobia in the Labour Party, documented recently by Martin Forde in his report on the party’s culture, writes Heather Mendick. [GETTY]

In the UK, Jewish identity and the right to speak publicly as a Jew are aggressively policed in order to silence political dissent in the community. The Jewish establishment are responsible for this via who writes for the Jewish Chronicle, who works for the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, who is represented on the Board of Deputies, and so on. It also happens in the cut and thrust of debate on social media.

I recently sent a tweet supporting Jeremy Corbyn and opposing Israeli apartheid. This provoked the following thread in response:

Tell us about your important Jewish identity prior to Corbyn. What shul? Which cemetery your plot is in? Which Jewish charities you supported? What Jewish cultural events you attended? Which Jewish authors’ lined your bookshelves? When you last said Kaddish?

How about where you advised people to buy their mezuzot? How you celebrated Pesach? Rosh Hashanah? Where you bought your challot from for Friday nights? How much you spent on Chanukah presents for any nieces or nephews? When was the last Bar/bat Mitzvah you attended?

And then why did supporting an antisemite stop you from your fulfilling Jewish life?

When I refused to answer these questions, the far-right organisation Eye on Antisemitism joined in, asking:

Surely if you were Jewish you would be proud to say so? But may be posting your parents Ketuba, would be helpful?

''This policing of Jewish identity creates a relationship of almost unconditional support between Israel and UK diaspora Jewry that sustains Israel’s Jewish supremacist regime and ongoing violence against and dispossession of Palestinians.''

I am used to abuse – ‘traitor’, ‘asajew’, Corbyn’s’ useful Jewish idiot’ or even ‘Kapo’ – but detailed interrogation of my Jewishness is new.

These tweets invoke a range of Jewish religious signifiers – the new year (Rosh Hashanah), the mourner’s prayer (Kaddish), and the marriage contract (Ketubah) – and cultural signifiers – Jewish charities, authors and events. It’s a bizarre list suggesting my Jewish identity could hang in the balance because of my brother’s failure to provide me with nephews and nieces for whom to buy presents on the Festival of Lights, Chanukah.

The key to making sense of it is in the two sentences that bookend the thread. “Tell us about your important Jewish identity prior to Corbyn. … And then why did supporting an antisemite stop you from your fulfilling Jewish life?” The accusation is that I’m choosing to speak as a Jew to provide cover for antisemites; that Jewishness means nothing to me beyond this.

Such tests are only applied to left-wing and anti-zionist Jews. If you’re claiming a Jewish identity in order to attack the left and smear us as antisemitic, nobody cares where you buy your challot bread to celebrate the Sabbath, whether you have a burial plot in a Jewish cemetery, or which shul (synagogue) you attend.

The demands on me and others to perform our Jewish identities are made of us precisely at the moment when we speak as socialists and in opposition to an ethnostate that claims to act in our name. They are designed to silence us, and failing that, to delegitimise what we say, to set it outside of acceptable debate for Jews. And it often works because having your identity questioned is painful and many will choose to shut up to avoid this.

The trolling and personal attacks are a mechanism through which, in Tony Lerman’s words, “an unrepresentative handful of reactionaries” determine what it is legitimate to say as a British Jew. The way Tony was forced out of his position as head of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in 2005 shows that there is a history of Jewish communal actors using “underhand, behind-the-scenes methods … attacking an individual using hearsay, innuendo and unsubstantiated allegations; the imputation of guilt by association”.

This policing of Jewish identity creates a relationship of almost unconditional support between Israel and UK diaspora Jewry that sustains Israel’s Jewish supremacist regime and ongoing violence against and dispossession of Palestinians.

More recently these internal communal battles over legitimacy have become imported into the Labour Party and exploited by the party’s right wing to witch hunt the left, targeting key activists including blocking socialists who want to stand in local council elections.

This abuse of antisemitism exists alongside a disregard for anti-black racism and Islamophobia in the Labour Party, documented recently by Martin Forde in his report on the party’s culture.

For those people who aren’t Jewish, who haven’t lived with the communal dynamics of control and censure, it can be difficult to understand why it is disproportionately Jewish people who are subjected to disciplinary action for antisemitism by Labour.

Martin Forde, in his report, states that local parties should be able to have education on antisemitism run by Jewish Voice for Labour. Yet, the entire executive of Jewish Voice for Labour is either in the process of being investigated or has already been sanctioned by the Labour Party. I myself am currently the subject of two seemingly-endless investigations for having the nerve to state that antisemitism is being weaponised against the left.

These relentless abusive efforts to create a unified UK Jewish community voice go against the rich Jewish tradition of argument and dissent. I, like many Jewish socialists, will continue to uphold this tradition, to expose bad faith attacks and to speak our truth.

Heather Mendick works as a freelance researcher. She is the author of a number of books including 'Masculinities in Mathematics', and an activist in Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Morning Lane People's Space.

Follow her on Twitter: @helensclegel

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.