A great treasure of British Jewry is the Reform movement’s youth wing, RSY-Netzer. In spite of being a United Synagogue family, two of my three offspring trooped off to RSY summer camps every year. They learned leadership and self-preservation skills, spent time in Israel and gained a love of the country. My daughter, who worked as a professional at RSY after university,
met her husband (now chairman of a major community charity) through RSY. Personally, I could not be anything but a great fan.
One of Shabbat’s treasures is coming home from shul and settling down with Saturday’s Life & Arts section of the Financial Times.
The cover story of last weekend’s section by Ben Judah was headlined ‘Momentum: inside the revolution.’ It was described as an exploration of a new force in radical activism in which the author explored ‘Corbyn, anti-Semitism and Labour’s future’.
Judah took the train to Edinburgh to meet up with Momentum’s star Scottish member on Labour’s National Executive Committee, Rhea Wolfson, a 27-year-old ex-member of the Reform Judaism youth movement. The writer and the activist had something in common. They were both raised in the Progressive Jewish world and ‘made to feel like the opposition by the Orthodox and by Israel’. It was a discomforting observation.
One is fully aware of the undeserved disdain felt in some traditional circles for Reform Judaism and the problems of acceptance from the religious right in Israel. But the idea that the movement somehow alienates young people from Israel, when it encourages travel there and immersion in language, culture, history and tradition, jarred badly.
When Corbyn began running for the Labour leadership, Wolfson was taking time out from normal life to provide care to an ailing parent. She says of his leadership bid that it wasn’t a case of there being a Jewish anti-occupation movement and non-Jewish Palestinian solidarity movement and ‘never the twain shall meet’.
Wolfson later threw herself into the Labour movement. When she rang Jon Lansman, the brains and chair of Momentum, he warned her it would be hard to be Jewish and part of the movement. Lansman told her how he was constantly challenged around the Shabbat dinner table for his politics. He asked her if she could feel comfortable with this. Now she says the funny thing about Momentum ‘is it’s just so Jewish’. She points out that two London organisers, James Schneider and Adam Klug, are Jewish too.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. Jewish beliefs in social and economic justice have for decades drawn Jews towards the left.
Until the Thatcher era, the natural home for British Jews in politics was the Labour Party. So in this the Momentum supporters have much in common with forbears.
Wolfson is not happy with Corbyn’s response to anti-Semitism. ‘It’s not good enough. This is a problem of the left,’ she observes. But she equally gets ‘fed up’ with old men yelling at her on Twitter about what to think about anti-Semitism. An easy solution might be for her to turn off her Twitter feed and fight the good fight from within Momentum.
There does seem to be something deeper involved in the views of Wolfson and other Jews in Momentum. The ‘Israel right and wrong’ attitude of large sections of British Jewry can be alienating. The failure of the traditional communities to properly embrace the progressive movements and understand and respect their views risks radicalisation with all its dangers.
Our community needs, in these stressful times, to be more embracing and collaborative.