When did I stop being a Jew?

Mike Cushman, chair of FSOI, explains that to be Jewish is not about supporting Israel but about abiding by a moral code that stands against oppression

Those of us in Free Speech on Israel and even more our colleagues in Jewish Voice for Labour are accused every day on Twitter of not being real Jews. I, like soMike Cushmanme of our other activists, am a Jewish atheist but others of my colleagues are observant and some work for shuls. But this is not good enough for our detractors. This trolling by apologists for Israel is meant to both hurt us on a personal level and devalue our efforts to show that not all Jews rally to Israel’s crimes.

I was born of a Jewish mother, which under Jewish law is definitive even if I had not been circumcised, as I was, eight days later. I was Jewish enough to go to cheder every Sunday to learn about Jewish history and fail to learn Hebrew – but then on the other six days I also failed to learn French.

I was Jewish enough to be Bar Mitzvah and enthused enough by that to attend shul every Saturday for a time, until I stopped believing in a God who intervened in our daily lives. Despite that, I was still Jewish enough in 1967 to volunteer to go to Israel to help save it. An offer I soon came to regret and which the Israelis had the good sense to decline; I would have been useless. By about 1970 I had come to realise that the six-day war had not led to salvation but to occupation and illegality.

I did not come from a very observant family, like many others more high-holiday than every day Jews. But Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur were important days for our family and every year my parents held a seder for our extended family – one of the high spots of my year. As the youngest I enjoyed asking the four questions, I still enjoy asking awkward questions, and was fascinated by the escalating arithmetic of the plagues and the disputatious, logical to the point of nonsense, nature of Jewish argument it demonstrated.

I remained Jewish enough that when my mother could no longer live independently I made sure she was looked after in Nightingale House, the renamed Home for Aged Jews, and to arrange my parents’ funerals with the help of their synagogue (of which my uncle had been president for many years).

I have always said I am a Jew for as long as the Nazis say I’m a Jew and for as long as Israel says I have the right to ‘return’ to a country I have never lived in.

I am a Jew by birth and culture, not by religion – by choice – nor by race, since there is no Jewish race.

I am Jew who is haunted by the experience of my unknown and uncounted cousins who died in Warsaw or Treblinka and I ask myself what does that experience teach me? As explained by my parents, it means that it places an obligation on all Jews never to visit on anyone else the oppression my cousins suffered from the Nazis, or the pogroms and the Cossack raids my Grandparents fled. In my eyes you cannot be a real Jew, despite your yamulkas, your teffilin and your mezuzahs, if you have not learned that simple lesson.

Last Monday I was proud to stand with the real Jews in Parliament Square against those who profess Judaism and fail its basic moral test. If anyone doubted that on Monday, by Saturday the leaders of that assembly were excusing the pre-meditated shooting of Palestinian children and civilians.

In cheder I learned about the prophets, the truth tellers, who called out against the proud leaders of Israel and Judea and were excoriated by the Kings and their courtiers who thought their power and riches excused all. Plus ça change…

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6 thoughts on “When did I stop being a Jew?”

  1. Thank you, a good read. For many a difficult issue to deal with. Life and culture is subtle.

  2. A perceptive antidote to the claims for jewish exceptionalism we read every day in papers such as the Guardian and Observer (Howard Jacobsen today)

  3. I have tried to share this on Facebook, but each time Facebook refuses and classifies it as spam!

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