A “Jews and Allies United to End Anti-Semitism” Event 

We held a “Jews and Allies United to End Anti-Semitism” event in my Region in England. I led it together with a neighbouring Regional Reference Person and allies-to-Jews leader, Dorann van Heeswijk. I am a white Ashkenazi Jew, and Dorann is a Black Gentile. We were brilliantly supported by an RC team that consisted of a white Jew, two African-heritage Gentiles, and two white Gentiles. The majority of us were raised working class.

 The event was inspired by a recent widespread controversy about anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party. It had been a classic case—an attempt to derail a progressive agenda, coupled with confusion about the nature of anti-Semitism and the Left’s denial of its existence.

I had contact with three members of the local Labour Party who were receptive to a dialogue about anti-Semitism and how it was impacting local political initiatives. We decided to hold an invitational meeting that included these people plus some of my friends and activist colleagues. Participants ranged in age from nineteen to their early seventies. They included an Irish Jew, refugees from Eritrea and Sudan, British-born African-heritage people, an Asian Muslim, and white people of Irish heritage. Most of the participants were women.

I was brought up [raised] just after the Holocaust with the message that Gentiles were dangerous and not to be trusted, that their friendship wasn’t real, that they would ultimately abandon me. One way I had dealt with that message was to defy my parents and deny that anti-Semitism existed.

In creating this event, I had to notice that RC allies are willing to stand with me. I also noticed that I have plenty to say about anti-Semitism and how it intersects with all oppressions, in both personal and political spheres. I noticed that I have Gentiles in my life who will engage with this issue and that they like me more, not less, after doing so. I noticed that RC theory and practice have a lot to contribute to the work on anti-Semitism.

In preparing for the event, I spoke to each person individually about why I wanted them there. I stressed the way that anti-Semitism “coats” our personal relationships and how the manipulation of anti-Semitism threatens to weaken the women’s liberation and anti-racism work we do together.

At the event, we played a game in which everyone mingled enthusiastically and found out about each other, including who was an artist, who was an activist, who was following a popular reality TV programme, who had come to England for reasons of economy or safety, and who had grown up around Jews. There was a prize—a copy of the pamphlet Anti-Semitism: Why Is It Everyone’s Concern? [produced by Rational Island Publishers], which gave the pamphlet some great publicity! 

The question, “Who grew up around Jews?” led to a fruitful discussion about where we had come from, how we’d gotten messages about each other, what it means to be a Jew in a country where Christianity is the state religion, and how invisible Jews can be. 

We had a mini-session on feelings that come up when we say the word “Jew.” Then each member of the RC team spoke about what ending anti-Semitism meant to them. After that participants were eager to share their thoughts and feelings. We ended by lighting Chanukah and Shabbat candles and eating challah [a bread used in Jewish rituals] and donuts.

Many of the participants contacted me after the event, eager to share highlights and what they had taken away from it. Most said that they hadn’t really wanted to come because they’d felt ignorant and been worried that they had nothing to contribute or been scared that there would be huge arguments or boring agreement. They all commented on the power and hope of seeing our unity as RCers across our differences and how we could be for each other and each other’s issues even while focusing on a specific oppression. Everyone loved how it had been safe to share personal stories and beliefs and how they could be “corrected” without being made “wrong.” The Labour Party activists commented that what was missing from Party discussions were personal reflections and feelings. All expressed an interest in meeting again to deepen the conversation and connections.

Leah Thorn

Folkestone, Kent, England

People moved from anxious wariness to comfortable openness and engagement, in the context of deep love and respect for Leah. It was clear evidence of the importance of building relationships.

Dorann van Heeswijk

London, England

Below are reflections from the team members:

  • I didn’t know what to expect. We were bringing people together for the first time around a subject that is sensitive and controversial. 
  • The people who came, their commitment to being open and cooperative, and the culture of respect for each other reflected the work Leah has done in her community to build trust—a key element.
  • Passion and commitment showed in the way Leah and Dorann worked together. Things happened organically.
  • When invited to share, nobody pontificated [spoke in a pompous and dogmatic way]. The tone was about sharing. The wonderfully diverse group could relate to each other because of their experiences of oppression. Most of the people were People of the Global Majority, and many were immigrants. The issue of oppression was familiar to them, part of a language they already had. They easily connected with the purpose and theme of the evening.
  • Several participants said things that we as RCers might have said; our theory seemed to make sense to them. 
  • The people who were used to talking about things in a theoretical way said that it was good to talk about our feelings, so we could better understand what we were trying to say.
  • I was afraid that we wouldn’t be able to listen to each other properly and that there would be arguments. The fears proved unfounded because we were talking about our personal experiences.
  • At first I was busy feeling bad about myself because I hadn’t been brought up amongst Jews. When it turned out [was revealed] that so few of us had, I realised that there aren’t many Jews in this country, so we don’t meet “naturally.” I stopped feeling bad and saw that it was a phenomenon outside myself and not about me being oppressive. 
  • It was good to have the mini-sessions—opportunities for people to speak about what was on their minds so they didn’t have to store it up. Everyone was invited to speak, which doesn’t always happen. People had things they wanted to say (and when on occasion they didn’t, they felt free to not speak). 
  • Leah and Dorann didn’t try to explain everything. They picked particular pieces of information and theory they wanted the group to have at the moment, and none of it was presented as long talks.

Reprinted from the RC e-mail
discussion list for leaders of Jews

Last modified: 2019-05-10 19:12:08+00