British Labour and Queer Jews: An Estranged Relationship

Anya is a third year Human, Social, and Political Sciences (HSPS) student at the University of Cambridge. In the midst of an anti-semitism crisis brought to the fore of public debate during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party, the UK’s largest leftist party, Anya explores the intersectional experience of Queer Jews.

I always wondered what it was about me that prompted people in the UK to ask ‘where I was from’. Was it my curly hair or my eyes, was I rolling my ‘r’s’ too strongly, the way my Grandparents did?


Jews feeling somehow separated from the general British public is pervasive in the community. From eyebrow raises received in response to apparently fallacious claims to Britishness, to being labelled a Jew as a result of our forthright manner – a manner that does not sit well with the British gentile – I have never been read as just British, nor have I ever felt this way. British Jews exist in a very bounded way, always slightly removed in our Golders Greens or Stamford Hills.


I spent this summer doing dissertation research about what it means to be Queer and Jewish in the UK today. The Queer Jewish identity provokes a multifaceted rejection. Many of the participants in my research on this intersection expressed a feeling of both social and political ‘homelessness’.

The Queer Jewish identity provokes a multifaceted rejection.

One of my favourite anecdotes comes from a lesbian Jewish filmmaker I interviewed who tells me that in part of her own explorations of British Jewry in the 80s she stood outside a chip shop, filming people going in and out, asking them ‘What does a Jew look like?’

A response which stuck with her to this day was a young man who turned around and said ‘I don’t know…dark and eats curry?’

Whilst Jews can be seen to exist on the margins of British public life to varying degrees throughout the last century, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party have brought this question to the fore once more. Jeremy Corbyn’s pernicious separation of Jews from the British repeatedly falls under the guise of anti-Zionism and is beautifully captured [1] at his speech in a Palestinian return centre where he says ‘some of these Zionists no matter how long they’ve lived here, even if they’re born here, they don’t understand English irony’.


This sentiment speaks volumes. Through Corbyn’s use of the term ‘Zionists’ as almost synonymous to ‘Jewishness’, he claims that even if you’re born here, even if you grew up here, there is going to be something in you that will prevent you from understanding and partaking in the essence of British culture, irony. What on earth could that thing be?

The Labour Party’s institutionalisation of anti-Semitism under Corbyn came most viciously, albeit ironically, through its own denial of said antisemitism. This culture of denialism contributes to a cognitive dissonance amongst young Jewish people who see this self-proclaimed anti-racist, pro-equality figure emphatically denying these claims of antisemitism.

In 2019, I voted in my first general election. I voted Labour; I was excited by its newfound radicalism. Despite this, I was aware of the creeping trepidation I felt. Reports of anti-Semitism had grown beyond mere murmurs and casting this vote felt like a pathetic vindication of these claims. The setup of organisations like ‘Labour Against the Witchhunt’ [2] and ‘Jewish Voice for Labour’ [3] add to the rejection of these claims and continue to challenge the EHRC’s report on the investigation into Anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. [4] With denial becoming increasingly tenacious, the idea that the Jewish community is exaggerating, doing it for its own sort of insidious reasons such as their affiliation with the State of Israel or simply because they’re scrupulous individuals frightened of a socialist government creates an antisemitic environment that has now become too obvious to overlook. Left-wing Jews have been estranged from the political left – but where does this leave Queer Jews in Britain who might seek support from their left-wing compatriots when not fully accepted into the Jewish community?

The Jewish community in the UK is in a lot of cases incredibly accommodating and flexible. Nevertheless, to say it is entirely accepting of a queer identity would be a misguided sentiment. Whilst a lot of Queer Jews that I spoke to over summer were still very much in contact with their immediate families, many felt on the fringes of the Jewish community. One of my interviewees says that ‘My parents love me, but they’re losing interest in me, my time’s running out and they wanted grandkids yesterday’.

The desire to pass down ‘Jewish blood’ in Jewish communities pervades even the most liberal of spaces and is the foundation of a lot of homophobia. Coming out feels very intertwined with the loss of the ability to naturally fulfil the duty of procreation. A particularly prevalent example of this loss associated with the perceived inability to matrilineally pass down Jewishness can be seen in my conversation with a non-binary, bisexual Reform community development worker called Elektra. Elektra and I speak on the phone at about 8 pm on an evening in late August - they immediately plunge into a conversation about their family, telling me that they grew up in a not very religious household. Elektra went to a secular school for most of their life and only kept Shabbat [5]growing up when the kids begged their parents to light the candles. Coming out for Elektra has been a multi-step process, to multiple family members alongside six siblings, five of whom identify as queer. Elektra came out to their Mum as bi-sexual on the day of their Batmitvah which they felt was an unwittingly ‘queer’ interpretation of what this Jewish coming of age ritual meant to them. Coming out as bisexual felt a lot easier to Elektra than coming out as non-binary as their Mother was incredibly worried about the fact that their being non-binary meant that they wouldn’t want to have children anymore, even upon insistence that this wasn’t the case. Their family are now all attempting to grapple with Elektra’s they/them pronouns, however, Elektra notices that they feel the ‘loss of my femininity’. Elektra notes that now they are not a woman anymore, their ability to pass down Jewishness ‘properly’ via the Mother is perceived to be tainted. Elektra is an example of how even in more secular practises of Judaism, a pressure to pass down Jewishness still pervades.

With queer Jews experiencing an attack from all fronts – the first charge being queerness and the second being a Jew – who can they turn to?

Throughout my study, I was surprised to find that time and time again the answer was ‘each other’. A space that I worked very closely with was called ‘Laviot’ - a female and non-binary queer Jewish space based in London. Laviot is incredible in its diversity of events – some of which are based around delving further into Judaism such as Queer readings of the Torah or Chanukah concerts yet others are simply board game nights allowing people of all ages to connect.


Many people I spoke to talked of a queer Jewish club night called “Butt-Mitzvah”. In many ways, however, Butt-Mitzvah deviates from the ‘standard’ club night experience including a Kiddish buffet spread and features such as ‘Mum’s over 50 come free’. Butt-Mitzvah is hosted by a fictional family called ‘the Rimmers’ embodying a ‘semi-religious, frumpy North-West London Jewish family’. It aims to satirise the performative and ‘over the top’ nature of Bar/Bat Mitzvahs that is so familiar to Jews attending. However, to this it wants to add an element of subversion that dissolves structures that make queer people feel uncomfortable in these family centred spaces. Reimagining the family space is almost healing: a space of previous rejection has now been converted into a space of unquestioning acceptance.

Josh Cole, the founders of Butt-mitzvah says in a recent interview[1], ‘I feel like I don’t belong in Jewish spaces or gay spaces, Butt-mitzvah is an attempt to dismantle that feeling’. The importance of reconciling these identities that are actually interlinked for many people can be seen through an interview of one of the performers who says ‘there’s no difference between walking home from a synagogue with your yarmulke on to leaving a gay club wearing your heels and a wig.... just as I would often take off my yarmulke, because I don’t feel safe, I might also take off my heels and wig.’

Out of a continual rejection on multiple accounts arises a beautiful unification which boldly defies expected fragmentation.

The Queer Jewish subculture in the UK is an unexplored domain of groups and relationships that ‘queer’ age-old rituals. They encourage intergenerational conversation, promote a critical attitude to religion yet, most importantly, historically separated identities have been brought together. Out of a continual rejection on multiple accounts arises a beautiful unification which boldly defies expected fragmentation.


Politically, however, there is a lot of work to be done to create accommodation. It is difficult not to feel disaffected whilst straddling these multiple ideologies. Voting Labour as a Jew has become increasingly counterintuitive, yet their support for progressive social reforms disinclined many from voting elsewhere.


My own dilemma leads me to ask whether it is good enough to have parties which fragment people’s most fundamental beliefs. This is an examination which I believe is of relevance outside the queer Jewish question. The discussion of this subculture can posit an explanation of increasing levels of apathy amongst young people in the UK. With staunch commitments to multiple social issues, how are young people being expected to compromise and sieve through their own beliefs on ballot days and what can we do to mitigate this?


 

References:

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/video/2018/aug/24/jeremy-corbyns-2013-remarks-on-some-zionists-not-understanding-english-irony-video

[2] https://twitter.com/law_witchhunt/media

[3] https://www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/statement/15-reasons/

[4]https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/investigation-into-antisemitism-in-the-labour-party.pdf

[5] a day of religious observance and abstinence from work, kept by Jewish people from Friday evening to Saturday evening.

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