Friday, 7 October 2011

I don’t believe in God, I’m ashamed of successive Israeli governments, so why am I proud to be Jewish?

The answer’s in the question: I’m ashamed of how Israeli governments have behaved. I wasn’t ashamed of the abomination of South Africa’s apartheid régime: I just loathed it.

Not one part of my being seeks to be allied with the brutality that’s going on in Israel and the Occupied Territories, but still, for a reason that neither this colyoom nor any other piece of writing can fully explain, despite being an atheist, I feel it personally.

When I call myself Jewish in Ireland people assume I am some kind of Zionist fascist racist anti-Palestinian bastard. In London, I am seen by some members of my family and the wider Jewish community as an embarrassing Arab-loving Palestinian hugging Hezbollah kissing terrorist.

Why does everyone seek black and white solutions to problems? Why search for absolutes, where none exist?

A old friend of mine insists that I have no right to call myself Jewish. He tells me that he could convert to Judaism, just as easily as I could become a Catholic, and that would make him Jewish. He says that as I don’t believe in God, it makes no sense to claim membership of a religion.

I try time and time again to explain to him that my Jewishness is not a preference. I don’t call myself Jewish in the same way that I call myself a Chelsea fan. It’s not a lifestyle choice.

Why on earth would I seek membership of a club that has been attacked for thousands of years? Why would I align myself with a group of people that every conspiracy theorist blames for all the banking ills of the world? Why would I choose to belong to a people that has survived despite its history, rather than because of it?

If Judaism was about believing in God then I’d be stuck. But it’s not, and I’m one of the thousands of living proofs. I feel my Jewishness in my bones; in my heart; in my head and on this evening of Kol Nidrei, the holiest night of the Jewish calendar, my thoughts will be with my family in London and my late Father, for whom a candle will be lit in my living room.

Being Jewish means a lot to me. Judaism is so wrapped up in the fabric of family life that I cannot see my mother, brother or sister, or myself in the mirror, without knowing, feeling, living my Jewishness.

Judaism starts, ends and lives in the home. Every Friday night throughout my life, the family gathers at the dinner table to break bread and drink wine and welcome in the Sabbath  Prayers are read and blessings made, but the occasion is infinitely more about the family being together than giving thanks to an ill-tempered God.

Every Jewish festival starts in the home, usually around the dinner table, and such is the importance of food within Jewish culture that each festival brings different food traditions in different families.

For New Year we used to eat roast lamb, and at Pesach or Passover we eat matzos and small yeast-free cakes like cinnamon balls, almond cake and coconut pyramids. At hannukah we eat doughnuts and latkes. Tonight my family will take the Yom Kippur fast together and then 26.75 hours later, they’ll break that fast with a selection of deli items, like rollmop herring, chopped liver, smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels, and cold fried fish (delicious, despite how vile it sounds!).

Possibly as a result of Jews being excluded from society for so many centuries, my Jewishness gives me a sense of inclusion. I’m part of something ancient and vast, even though it operates best at a tiny domestic level. For me, it’s neither a religion nor a way of life. There’s nothing I do every day that makes me know I’m Jewish.

Hmmm, well, I call my mother every day. Good Jewish boy. And when I see Jewish comics on the TV I feel I can relate to their humour better than a non-Jewish person might. I feel a part of Larry David and Woody Allen running through me. Their angst is mine.

I feel proud of Einstein’s genius, proud of Menuhin and Chomsky and Roth and all the great Jewish thinkers, scientists and artists, musicians and inventors (although the atom bomb was less than a good idea); proud that Jews have survived long enough to allow someone like me, an atheist living in a Catholic country, surrounded by millions of non-Jewish people, to be part of the Tribe, but cannot tell you why or how it feels.

As I say to my friend after I’ve become exasperated: “If I’m not Jewish what am I? You can philosophise all you like about whether being Jewish is a religious or racial matter, but I can tell you from the inside, that’s what I am: God or no God!”

So as we enter this Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, when Jews remember their dead and ask for forgiveness from sin, I’ll think of my family, of their Fast and how long the day feels when it has no meals to mark its progress.

I’ll remember long Yom Kippurim spent in our family living room, with the TV off and all of us forced to make conversation, no choice but to to discuss matters of life and meaning. Weighty and philosophical discussions were not commonplace in our lounge, so it always made a welcome change to hear how crazy we all were; how different were our outlooks on life, and yet there we all were, bonded together by ... by what?

A culture? A race? A people? A religion? A nation?
Being Jewish can be all and none of the above. It’s an identity that you know you have, from which there is no hiding. And why would you want to hide?

Well, history has shown us why, and now with the crimes of Israeli governments lighting the fires of hatred all over the internet, a subtext of anti-Semitism is showing through the cracks. The word ‘Zionist’ has been hijacked by those who would do us damage. It fuels all the conspiracy theories and will eventually fire up hatred against people like me once again.

So am I Jewish because I’ll be persecuted as a Jew, atheist or believer?
No. That’s far too negative an assumption. In the words of the Jewish God (or was it Popeye?):

“I am who I am!”

To be Jewish, you need to have Jewish humour. So as a way of saying ‘Yes I’m Jewish, no I don’t know why, but strangely, I’m proud of it!’, and as an antidote to the hatred, here’s a wee Jewish joke.

So two Israelis, Avi and Motti, are wandering around the Amazon Jungle, trying to hunt down Nazis. They stumble upon a clearing in the trees, where there sits a beautiful marble mansion, with towering pillars and vast formal gardens.

Nodding silently they slip inside unseen, and climb the huge white staircase, higher and higher, passing an unparalleled collection of rare and stolen art.

Finally they reach a gallery, and looking down they see below a long table, around which sits twenty young men and twenty old men. The young men look strangely like the old men, as if they might be their sons, and all the old men look suspiciously like notorious Nazi leaders.

The young man at the end of the table stands up to speak. Avi points out to Motti that this bloke looks a lot like a young Hitler, and then they listen to his fierce speech.

“Ziss time ve vill make no MISTAKES! Ziss time ve vill not be so SOFT! Ziss time ve vill kill ALL za JEWS and ALL za HEDGEHOGS!”

The men sitting around the table sit back in shock, and then start shouting back:
“Why kill the hedgehogs?”
“What’s that about hedgehogs?”
“Hedgehogs? Why hedgehogs?”

Looking down from above, Motti turns to Avi and whispers:
“You see. I told you. Nobody gives a shit about the Jews!”

I wish you all Well over the Fast, and please, don't not only pray for peace: believe it might happen.


Jeanne said...

Thanks for your blog post, Charlie. Fantastic!

Charlie Adley said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Jeanne - thanks for the feedback!

johnbendel said...

Good Yomtov and Well over the Fast. Oh and Come on England! Our allegiances are many , our inner thoughts are few

Charlie Adley said...

So deep so true JB, up at dawn to watch the Irish-Welsh celtic encounter, part of me hoping for an England Ireland semi final, part of me dreading it...

PolitBlox said...

I am going to be quite tough.

Most people understand, (including all the people that I mix with), that Judaism is certainly not just about a faith or a creed or a God. It is a nation, a heritage, a culture and a way of life.

However, I am not Israeli, and nor are you. We don't suffer from the same threats that they do. We don't live within range of the Ketushas or the Iranian nuclear bombs. We don't pay high taxes, or watch our sons go in the army. We don't do regular air raid warnings and we aren't asked to sort out the mess that is the Middle East.

I just came back from Israel and this is how I feel: neither you nor I have the RIGHT to feel ashamed of Israel. Without it, Jews would again feel the threatened, belittled, persecuted refugee race that Moses Mendelsshohn took out of the Ghettoes. With it, we have something to be PROUD of, to aspire to. We have the right to criticise Israel, as do other Israelis, it being the ONLY democracy in the Middle East. Yom Kippur, the day that so many Holocaust vicitims would have liked to have fasted on, on the day Israel nearly lost its nationhood altogether in 1973, is NOT a day, that many of us want to hear about a Jew who is Ashamed of Israel. Certainly, I don't, and I'm not.
James Adley

Charlie Adley said...

Fair enough, PolitBlox, I respect your opinion and feel your anger, but I think you've missed my point.

A feeling is not something that you choose to have. A feeling, an emotion, such as shame, is not a ratonal reacton.

If you search the archive of this colyoom or the Tribune you will find much scribbling which stands up for Israel's plight and its right to exist. Here's an excerpt from one I wrote in January 2009, at a time when Israel was being universally condemned for attacking Gaza:

" To be Israeli is to live in constant fear of your life, your home and your children’s future; to live surrounded by nations sworn to your own nation’s destruction.
Since its inception in 1948, Israel has been invaded three times, and involved in five separate territorial wars, as well as the ongoing Intifada."

I have nothing to prove and nothing to apologise for. I feel much sympathy for the plight of all those who live in fear of attack and destructon. I have no mixed feelings about it at all. I chose my words very carefully, that is: 'Israeli governments', not Israel as an entitiy or the Israeli people. In fact, for what it's worth an Israeli friend of mine in Tel Aviv just 'liked' the piece on facebook!

Of course I'm aware of both sides of the argumewnt, but equally I'm not going to ignore what i feel to be wrong. Apartheid South Africa sickened me, but (and this is the point of the piece) with Israel it's personal.

I certainly do not need reminding of the horrors of the Yom Kippur War. The moment my brother came downstairs yeling at us to put on the TV, just as we were breaking the Fast, that dread and horror will never leave me.

Forgiove me PolitBox, but I'm going to quote that January 2009 colyoom again, because it says it all for me:

" It is crass to see Israel as baddies and Hamas as goodies. There are no goodies or baddies. There is only dreadful human tragedy, on all sides.
There is no moral high ground in this conflict, only terrible crimes of scale. All loss of innocent life is a crime against humanity.

I cry for each terrorised Palestinian.
I cry for each terrorised Israeli.

Think only of the people on all sides and humanity might have a chance.
No single human life is lesser or greater than another.

This Atheist prays for a free Israel, a free Palestine and lasting peace.
Amen. "

Thanks for your comment though. Good debate never hurt anyone!

Charlie Adley said...

I left my last comment late last night, (hence all the typos and errors!) and ever since I've been thinking through the irony of it all.

PolitBlox started his comment with:

"Most people understand, (including all the people that I mix with), that Judaism is certainly not just about a faith or a creed or a God. It is a nation, a heritage, a culture and a way of life."

If that was the case for me, I wouldn't have felt the urge to write the piece! As someone who has lived in predominantly Muslim Bradford and then the Catholic West of Ireland, I hardly ever meet anyone who knows a Jew or feels that is the case.

As soon as I encounter people out of Galway City (and in it sometimes!)I know that it's very likely that I am the first Jewish person they've ever met. To them a Jew looks like a Hassidic and sounds like is that crazy West bank Settler that they saw shouting at them from their RTE TV News, about how he will kill anybody who comes on his land, (which others feel is not his land anyway). They have no experience of secular Judaism, no experience of there being anything to modern Judaism other than Israel's expansionist and aggressive policies, and so I have to stand up and speak out and say there's a whole lot of us here with different viewpoints.

If you live in North West London and mix in Jewish society, there's very little necessity to explain how many different things being Jewish can mean, or how many different opinions we might have, but living here, and many other places around the world where people don't understand what being Jewish means, such explanations are vital. I encounter all manner of anti-semitism on a regular basis, mostly born out of the perception of what Israel does to the Palestinians, so I am caught in an unenviable sandwich, as I explained in both pieces I quoted from in this colyoom:

" When I call myself Jewish in Ireland people assume I am some kind of Zionist fascist racist anti-Palestinian bastard. In London, I am seen by some members of my family and the wider Jewish community as an embarrassing Arab-loving Palestinian hugging Hezbollah kissing terrorist.

Why does everyone seek black and white solutions to problems? Why search for absolutes, where none exist? "

And then, ironically, I find myself defending my opinions to my mother on the phone and my brother here, while out there, in my daily life, I defend Israel and its right to exist all the time.

The point of this colyoom was to try to explain why I feel proud to be Jewish. I definitely failed with that, but at least I have shown my colyoomistas how hard it is to be a accepted as a pro-2 State Solution Jew.

I know it’s very unlikely to happen, and I know that atrocities are performed by each side, but I live in hope, and will not let my roots inhibit me from hoping for justice.

Paz said...

Sort of ironic when you think that a lot of Irish people do not realise how much their RC upbringing has clouded their views and shaped their prejudices and fears. Luckily most of the kids today are getting a better education and see that there are many shades of grey and have a wider view of the world than their parents

Charlie Adley said...

Absolutely Paz - I know I'm influenced by my socialisation, just as we all are, so I'm as biased as the next person. But as you say, it's about looking at a situation from all perpectives, with empathy.