World News

What Is Jewdas? A Group’s Provocative Approach Starts With Its Name

LONDON — Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to celebrate Passover with Jewdas, a self-described radical leftist Jewish group, has been heavily criticized in Britain, where his opposition Labour Party has been accused of tolerating anti-Semitism.

Posted Updated

ILIANA MAGRA, New York Times

LONDON — Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to celebrate Passover with Jewdas, a self-described radical leftist Jewish group, has been heavily criticized in Britain, where his opposition Labour Party has been accused of tolerating anti-Semitism.

The group’s very name — a play on Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ — is a provocation, one that has angered many of those encountering the group for the first time. Some critics say that Jewdas’ name, and antics, risk stoking age-old myths and hatreds that have led to anti-Semitic violence.

Created in London more than a decade ago, Jewdas is a group of left-wing activists who are at odds with most of Britain’s mainstream Jewish organizations. Its members say they are opposed to capitalism and fascism, but the group may be best known for its vociferous criticisms of Israel and its policies toward Palestinians.

“It’s a radical diaspora Jewish group that has taken an explicitly non-Zionist stance, alongside satirizing the many absurdities of the British Jewish community and throwing excellent parties,” according to a founder of the group, Joseph Finlay.

While there is a long and rich tradition of Jewish leftist thought, as well as Jewish criticism of Zionism and of the policies of the state of Israel, some critics say that Jewdas goes too far, and chooses outrage over advocacy.

In a tweet the group posted at the end of last year, it called Israel a “steaming pile of sewage.” The group has also drawn criticism for disruptive activities, including protests in Trafalgar Square and events aimed at satirizing more established Jewish groups.

Some press accounts have taken a more charitable view of Jewdas and its use of satire and anti-establishment antics, describing the group as “Jewish hipsters” and “left-wing activists.”

The group does not seem to take itself seriously. Its website states: “Probably you’ve clicked here because you’re rather baffled by the rest of the site.” There is also a joking reference about a “Book of Jewdas,” supposedly discovered in the back of a kebab shop in the Dalston section of East London.

East London is known today as a hipster haven, a hub of public housing and a home to tech and design companies. But like the Lower East Side of Manhattan, it was also traditionally the home of numerous immigrant communities, including many Eastern European Jews who moved to Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Seder Corbyn attended was in line with Jewdas’ community events, which tend to celebrate Jewish identity with a contrarian attitude. “Everything about it is heretic,” the group says of itself on Facebook. “Nothing that the rabbis would allow.”

The Seder was held in an Anglican Church known for its ecumenical approach; the meal was vegan.

The group also sponsors numerous community events, like outdoor Torah study, an interfaith feminist brunch, swimming classes and even a “Queer Purim Cabaret.”

But the group’s use of satire has antagonized other Jewish organizations in Britain.

In 2006, four Jewdas members were arrested on charges of “handing out anti-Semitic literature at a celebration in Trafalgar Square,” The Jerusalem Post reported.

In 2009, members of Jewdas sent out spoof emails in the name of the Board of Deputies, a leading Jewish organization, telling supporters that a scheduled rally had been called off.

And in 2015, three Jewdas members were thrown out of a conference organized by We Believe in Israel, a pro-Israel grass-roots movement in Britain, for distributing anti-Israel leaflets.

Members of the group have previously taken part in protests against Israeli attacks on Gaza, but have also helped organize protests against the British government’s austerity program and in favor of migrants’ rights.

The controversy over the Seder with Corbyn comes amid growing criticism of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and a broader debate over whether Israel should face an international boycott, and even economic sanctions, because of its policies toward Palestinians and the occupied Palestinian territories.

In a blog post about the issue, Jewdas blamed the mess on several mainstream Jewish organizations and politicians.

“What has happened over the last week is anything but an attempt to address anti-Semitism. It is the work of cynical manipulations by people whose expressed loyalty is to the Conservative Party and the right wing of the Labour Party,” the group wrote. “It is a malicious ploy to remove the leader of the opposition and put a stop to the possibility of a socialist government.”

Copyright 2024 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.