I spent much of the past weekend obsessively scrolling through Twitter, watching the depressingly predictable collapse of the Labour Party roundtable negotiations. If it weren’t so serious, it would have been comical, as the increasingly bizarre list of proposed invitees slowly emerged.
As anyone who has ever planned a wedding or barmitzvah will testify, deciding whom to invite, and then working out the table plan, is the most stressful element of making a simcha. (Do we invite all the cousins? What about 2nd cousins? Are we including children, or just grownups? And how do we factor in Uncle Stanley, who can't sit anywhere near Cousin Barbara, because they’ve not spoken to each other since 1987 after that broiges over selling Grandpa Gerry's business.)
By 6pm on Sunday, the round table was effectively dead in the water. At that point, it seemed clear that all Jewish community leaders who could reasonably claim to act as community representatives had ruled themselves out.
David Baddiel, who has eloquently tackled the issue of anti-Semitism in football, appeared to be hedging his bets. And the only people whose names were confirmed on the guest list was the anti-Zionist fringe group, Jewish Voice for Labour, and some chap called Gary, who's not actually Jewish, but is somehow an expert on all things anti-Semitic.
As the fiasco slowly unfolded, it became frighteningly apparent that those hoping to engage with the Jewish community, my community, had little or no real understanding of what it actually means to live and identify as a British Jew in the UK today.
Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that I am representative of all Jews in Britain. I’m not even sure that I’m representative of all the Jews who are living in my house.
In fact, the only positive lesson that I think can be learned from this sorry saga is that there are, of course, many ways to identify as Jewish, and many ways to express that identity.
That said, I believe that when it comes to representing the Jewish community as a whole, there are a few ‘givens’. Firstly, just because you happen to be Jewish doesn’t mean that you somehow represent Jews, or Judaism, or the Jewish community, and the suggestion that you might is, frankly, quite offensive.
I’m sure I’m not the first to have become exasperated by the tweets that begin ‘As a Jew…’ and go on to pontificate about something that is wholly unrepresentative of Jewish life, culture, or belief.
The fact that a person is Jewish doesn’t automatically make their stance on any given issue, whether it’s climate change or Brexit, a ‘Jewish view’. (I love the Beatles. I don’t love the Beatles ‘as a Jew’. And my passion for the B-side of Abbey Road is not representative of Jewish attitudes to 20th Century popular music.)
Secondly, and perhaps controversially, I believe that anyone who wishes to identify as Jewish should have the right to do so. I don’t adhere to a strict notion of matrilineal descent. If someone identifies as Jewish because their paternal grandfather was Jewish, that’s enough for me. I’m not going to check the Ketuba of everyone who claims to be Jewish.
But, and it’s a crucial but, I add this proviso. If the only way a person identifies as Jewish is in opposing the right of the State of Israel to exist, then I do begin to question the use of that Jewish identity.
I’m not saying they’re not Jewish. I’m not suggesting they can’t oppose the State of Israel. But they cannot claim to do so ‘as a Jew’, if they do absolutely nothing else, at all, ever, ‘as a Jew’.
There are many ways to identify as Jewish. Jewish identity is not homogenous. It can be religious, or cultural, or familial, and many other things besides. But it does have to be something. If the only time a person calls upon their Jewish identity is in order to use it as a means of legitimising anti-Zionist philosophy, then I call BS.
You don’t get to call your voice Jewish, if you only raise it to criticise Israel. (And yes, I am well aware that Hitler would have disagreed with my definition of Jewishness. But, unless I’ve read history wrong all these years, I’m pretty sure that disagreeing with Hitler is a good thing.)
Many hardworking and respected communal leaders were invited to the roundtable; people who work tirelessly, day in and day out, for their communities. The fact that they felt they could not attend should give the Labour leadership pause for thought. To suggest that their representation of our community is somehow on a par with groups whose sole public Jewish engagement is to delegitimise Israel is insulting to them and to those of us whom they represent.
Being a Jew is not the same as representing Jews. Being Jewish does not automatically make someone’s personal opinions ‘Jewish’. You can’t just stick the word ‘Jewish’ in front of your pet cause, and magically turn it into an authentic Jewish expression of that cause. (Even if the leader of the Labour Party agrees with you.)
And for those of us who are not community leaders, who don’t run single-issue fringe groups and who don’t have the ear of the party leadership, I can say that being Jewish isn’t easy.
These past few years, it’s felt more difficult than ever before in my memory. But as the protest organised by the JLC and the Board of Deputies at Parliament Square proved, antisemitism galvanises Jewish identity.
Support for the Board of Deputies and the JLC has been overwhelming. Ultimately, whether those planning the roundtable choose to believe it or not, they are the organisations that represent the vast majority of those of us who identify as British Jews.
Because, ultimately, Jewish identity is more than just having Jewish grandparents, and using them to give legitimacy to your anti-Zionism.
And the Jewish community won’t be bullied into inviting those who do onto the seating plan.