Welcome to Spiel, the JC’s blog.

  • Why the Purim story is one for the ages

    Simon Rocker
    Mar 23, 2016

    Purim is the joker in the pack of Jewish festivals. It is the closest we get to carnival, with the fancy dress, the mayhem of the megillah reading, the alcohol – it’s a mitzvah to get tipsy if not paralytic – and the Purim spiels.

    But there is a darker current beneath the merriment. It is the commemoration of thwarted genocide of a diaspora community. And though written more than 2,000 years ago, Haman’s words as he justifies his lethal plot retain their chilling ring. “There is a certain people,” he tells the king, “scattered and separate from the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom, and their rules are different from every people’s….”

    The Jews are the irredeemable Other, a people apart, a law unto themselves, good only for extinction. For some, Purim represents the archetypal story of the situation of the Jews, ever threatened by an enduring enmity that travels through history in different guises. We can never rest in comfort for even when we feel as if we have never had it so good, the danger remains.

  • The top ten Jewish women in history? The list is endless...

    Today is International Woman’s Day. The theme for this year is gender parity, but as in previous years, IWD celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements and contributions of women around the world and throughout history.

    When I think of great, inspirational Jewish women, my list is varied. A quick straw poll of my female editorial colleagues resulted in this list, including a prime minister, an author, a singer and cook.

    Who would you add to our list of the top ten Jewish women in history?

  • There is antisemitism and anti-Zionism on campus - but we need to ensure we make the distinction

    Recent events at Oxford have brought to light tensions between left-leaning political movements and the Jewish community. These all revolve around one issue: Israel. On the one hand, many Jews, especially strongly pro-Israel Jews, take any criticism of Israel as antisemitism. On the other, it is convenient for antisemites to dress up their prejudice as anti-Zionism. This is, for example, similar to the Islamophobic discourse that hijacks otherwise justified criticism of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. There are elements of both of these taking place - and the combination is dangerous.

    Antisemitism is indeed present in parts of the anti-Israel movement, as evidenced by the defacing of Holocaust Memorial Day posters in London. However, a knee-jerk reaction to criticism of Israel makes it harder to call this hateful prejudice out. It is unproductive for victims of violence in the Middle East, and for victims of antisemitism worldwide, not to acknowledge that much criticism of Israel is legitimate and not grounded in antisemitism. But clearly not all claims of antisemitism in these contexts are illegitimate.

    Problems arise when left-leaning groups close their ears to Jewish members who say that anti-Israel discussion is starting to sound antisemitic. Dismissing these concerns as uncritical defence of Israel aimed at shutting down debate damages accountable discourse. It encourages an environment where antisemitism can develop and thrive unchecked, even if it wasn't truly present to begin with. It also alienates Jewish members. The exclusion, from university or other groups, of Jews who want to participate in the criticism of Israeli policies means that such groups lose access to some of the most relevant voices on the topic.

  • Why all Jews can sit under the rainbow flag

    Surat-Shaan Knan
    Feb 29, 2016

    February has been busy but brilliant. In fact, February is my favourite month of the year. There are no significant Jewish festivals, I know, but there is a lot to celebrate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, amongst them of course quite a few Jews.

    LGBT History Month is a month-long annual observance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history. It originated in the United States and was first celebrated in 1994. In the UK, it first took place in February 2005, and has been celebrated annually each February ever since. The event came in the wake of the abolition of Section 28 in 2003 (Clause 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 said that a local authority "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality").It aims to challenge homophobia, biphobia and transphobia and promote equality and diversity.

    This year’s LGBT HM theme was Religion, Belief and Philosophy, and of course this was particularly great news for us LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer/questioning) Jews.

  • How we turned Israel Apartheid Week into a celebration on London campuses

    Devora Khafi
    Feb 26, 2016

    It all started one night in Slice, a group of four strong-willed Zionists digging in to a pizza and discussing the fates of Jewish students across campuses the following week. The much anticipated Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) was around the corner and this strangling feeling of doom was growing inside of me. Sam Alfassy, Saul Yardley, Joseph Stoll and I just came back from a Stand With Us conference in Glasgow, and within seconds of this reunion, we decided something needed to be done to combat the lies and hatred IAW is known for.

    The pizza tray was pushed to the side and we cracked down on planning our own week: Israel Party Week. Charmingly coined by Saul, our aim was to focus on Israel’s positive qualities; the aspects of her that the general public rarely gets exposed to. We promoted peace, coexistence, and dialogue. We stood up for what the country stands for, and what it stands up to.

    On Sunday we gathered a big group of Jewish students to come to Hillel house so that a consensus was built up. Everyone was on board and we could not have been more proud.

  • Schools lottery

    Simon Rocker
    Feb 25, 2016

    Spare a thought for the parents waiting to know next week whether their child will have won a place at a Jewish secondary school this autumn. The chances are that many will have to wait a little longer until a satisfactory offer comes up as the places merry-go-round spins again.

    No one wants a repetition of last year when a number of Jewish children in north-west London – estimates are around 20 to 30 – were unable to find a place at one of the state-aided Jewish secondary schools in the area.
    But the fear remains that the squeeze on places will start to get worse when more children graduate from Jewish primary schools in two years.

    We are also going to have to wait to see if the sponsors of the proposed new Kedem high school put in their application to the government next week or postpone it at least another six months until after Partnerships for Jewish Schools (Pajes) has finished its number-crunching and produced its assessment of future demand.

  • Are pop-up minyans the answer to prayers?

    Simon Rocker
    Feb 16, 2016

    A friend of mine who is shomeret Shabbat recently confided that she has stopped going to shul on Shabbat morning because she finds the service boring. I suspect there are other people who think the same way but continue to drag themselves out of the house from a sense of duty.

    The traditional liturgy has remained fixed, frozen, for hundreds of years. The music may change, but the words are the same. There is little room for improvisation. Two or three hours of antique Hebrew, even if interspersed with a sing-song and a few apercus from the rabbi, are for too many people a chore rather than a captivating spiritual experience.

    One response to shulphobia is simply to shrug it off. Organised worship, you can argue, is not the be-all and end-all of Judaism. Judaism is a 24/7 religion you can practise anytime, anywhere, whether making a berachah or dropping a coin into a charity box. In biblical times, Temple attendance was only seasonally required.

  • Schools, places and politics

    Simon Rocker
    Feb 4, 2016

    We have devoted a fair amount of space this week to the announcement of plans for a new state-aided Orthodox Jewish secondary school in Barnet.

    The Kedem High School proposal seems to fit perfectly with the government’s free school scheme.

    Free schools have enabled groups of parents, for example, to bypass local council bureaucracy and set up a school from scratch with state backing.

  • We cannot stand by and ignore prejudices

    Greg Clark
    Jan 27, 2016

    A few Sundays ago I was leafing through the newspapers, when I came across an interview with Marceline Loridan-Ivens, a survivor of Birkenau.

    The occasion of the interview was the English publication of her memoir, “But You Did Not Come Back.” Her memories are as harrowing as you’d expect, but it wasn’t her description of the camp which pulled me up short; at least, not only her memories are disturbing.

    The interview describes how Marceline was listening to the radio news recently, as it covered a demonstration in Paris. And that she heard voices shouting “Mort aux Juifs.” Death to Jews.

  • Ofsted and a question of stoning

    Simon Rocker
    Jan 21, 2016

    The government’s attempt to nip extremism in the bud is having an increasing knock-on effect on strictly Orthodox Jewish schools.

    Its “British values” agenda is intended to promote respect and tolerance for other cultures and faiths among children – in contrast to sectarian ideologies seen as a stepping-stone to militancy.

    But how school inspectors interpret “British values” has become a source of friction between Jewish schools on the religious right and the educational authorities. In particular, Charedi schools have been left bristling at inspection reports which seem to suggest they ought to be teaching their children about same-sex relationships.