‘The police can’t tell satire from seriousness’

A member of Jewdas, the tongue-in-cheek Jewish community group, slams the arrest of Jewdas members for handing out 'offensive' leaflets.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Topics Politics

‘Police officers obviously don’t understand the difference between seriousness and satire…they need a crash course in the meaning of irony and the positive reclamation of taboo images.’ So says ‘Geoffrey Cohen’ (I’ll explain the quote marks around his name in a minute) of the satirical Jewish community group Jewdas, four of whose members were recently arrested in Trafalgar Square, and then stuck in a cell in Charing Cross, for the crime of handing out a ‘pisstake’ leaflet.

It happened at the end of September, during a festival of Jewish celebration in Trafalgar Square. The four were distributing flyers advertising a party due to take place in Hackney this month. The party was called ‘The protocols of the elders of Hackney’, a pun on that old fraudulent anti-Semitic document, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Even though their leaflet was clearly satirical, the four pranksters were arrested on suspicion of spreading anti-Semitic material. Following complaints from a handful of members of the public, the police arrested and detained the four leafleters under section 19 of the Public Order Act, which covers suspicion of distributing racially inflammatory material with intent to incite racial hatred.

Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officers confiscated the ‘inflammable leaflets’, as Jewdas now refers to them. The fact that the leaflet was produced by Jewish members of Jewdas – the self-appointed ‘radical voice for the alternative Jewish Diaspora’ that wants to ‘celebrate being Jewish’ – seemed to make not a blind bit of difference to those who complained of anti-Semitism or to the police who acted on those complaints. When a group of young Jews who exist in order to celebrate Jewish culture can be arrested for inciting hatred towards their own community, it shows up the ridiculous nature of today’s anti-hate speech legislation and the politics of inoffensiveness. These days you can’t even make a joke without having your collar felt by the cops.

Getting an interview with Jewdas is not straightforward. After sending an email to a generic address I found on their website (www.Jewdas.org), I receive a reply from a ‘Geoffrey Cohen’, who lives in Brighton. He tells me that Jewdas is not keen on giving interviews, but they might make an exception for spiked. He promises to make some calls, but warns me that his friends in London might not be able to meet up as it’s a Saturday, the Sabbath, and the next evening would be the start of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. It seems that Jewdas’ subversive instincts have their limits.

He managed to persuade a friend and fellow Jewdas founder to meet me in London on Sunday afternoon. Braving an early autumn hailstorm, I make my way from south London to West Hampstead, home to large parts of what Jewdas refers to as the ‘Jewish establishment’. Cohen’s friend turns out to be a musical composer in his twenties who also goes by the name ‘Geoffrey Cohen’. Apparently, all Jewdas leaders go under the same name because it ‘creates a mystery element’, says Geoffrey Cohen No.2, and because ‘there are a lot of people who hate Jewdas’. The real Geoffrey Cohen is an orthodox rabbi, who I assume is not a fan, much less a member, of Jewdas.

Jewdas was founded by a group of friends who felt that the British Jewish community was becoming too conservative. Their satirical website includes slogans such as ‘UJS: Undermining Jewish Students’, ‘Yes to hummus, no to Hamas’ and ‘United Synagogue: promoting moronic Judaism since 1870’. Their ‘Make Melanie Smile’ campaign urges supporters and readers to send emails to the conservative Daily Mail columnist, Melanie Phillips, which might help to cheer her up. ‘Perhaps you know of gay couples splitting up? Or single mothers having their children taken into care? Or an increase in carbon dioxide emissions? Send them all to Melanie’, the site says. Why give Phillips such a hard time? ‘Because she’s awful!’ exclaims Cohen. ‘You really couldn’t make her up. She’s like a new Jew of her own.’ He does give her credit, though, for at least being outspoken at a time when ‘most people in the Jewish community think it’s better to just keep to themselves’.

Jewdas was inspired by Heeb, the satirical New York magazine and growing movement of Jewish hipsters, and it is gathering quite a following both in and beyond London. Its debut event, Punk Purim, was a packed-out party in a run-down squat adorned with posters of a joint-smoking rabbi and Che Guevara as a Chassidic Jew. It featured Jewish hip-hop, Palestinian poetry, Kabbalistic graffiti and a peepshow with Jewish girls. According to Cohen, Punk Purim ‘is already legendary’ – and, he proudly tells me, it was condemned in the Jewish Chronicle, the mainstream newspaper of Britain’s Jewish community.

Jewdas is run by a bunch of pranksters who want to wind up the older and more miserabilist members of Britain’s Jewry. They also claim that there is a more serious purpose to their pranks and parties: to ‘bring out the message that Judaism is not a fixed thing’ and to ‘reopen the debate on who owns Judaism and who has the right to speak for the Jewish community’. These young synagogue-goers are hardly a threat to the continuity of Jewish life in Britain – and there is certainly no call for sending the police to investigate them. So why was there such a strong reaction against Jewdas in Trafalgar Square, culminating in arrests for handing out leaflets?

‘Most people in the Jewish community have a very fixed view of what identity is and they feel threatened by us’, says Cohen. ‘Any criticism of Israel, for instance, sends them into a frenzy. We have received quite a lot of hate mail, but you know, it’s all quite funny. The accusation that we are self-haters is just ridiculous. The Jewish community needs to be woken up. It is largely affluent, comfortable and unthinking – and that goes for all denominations. In relation to Israel, it takes a very right-wing stance. The community is materialistic; it has swallowed the middle-class dream.’

Listening to Cohen, I realise that Jewdas is not that different from today’s environmentalist and anti-consumerist movements: their criticisms of the ‘establishment’ – in this case the Jewish establishment – are motivated by anti-materialism and a call for more meekness, it seems, rather than by anything truly radical or earth-shattering. Cohen was reluctant to be interviewed over a latte in Starbucks, because Starbucks is ‘an evil chain’. Jewdas’ satirical website and unconventional parties are an attempt to reconcile these fairly mainstream anti-consumerist sentiments with Jewish culture; so Jewdas is also an expression of today’s politics of identity, which is equally pervasive among young Londoners, many of whom seem to seek out a particularist national, religious or cultural identity through which they might define who they are and what they want.

Cohen says Jewdas is inspired by the dynamism of Central and Eastern European Yiddish culture during the interwar years. ‘We’re talking about radicals here, who took on the rabbinate – the Jewish establishment.’ He admits, though, that Jewdas is ‘definitely also coming out of multicultural politics’ and hopes that ‘those two worlds’ – of earlier radical Judaism and contemporary me-centred multiculturalism – ‘can be bridged’. It seems unlikely to me; the former was based on taking action and changing things, while the latter is more about the politics of complaint and victimhood.

Cohen says he adheres to Derrida’s idea of a radical tradition. ‘It’s not about the polarities of either abandoning the past or returning to it. This is about choosing elements of the past and we want to challenge nationalism and materialism.’ In other words, it’s all a bit of a postmodern mess, but, admittedly, a very funny postmodern mess.

The ‘radical Jewish tradition’, as Jewdas sees it, includes the work of such diverse figures as Emma Goldman, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Martin Buber and Amos Oz. ‘Political activism was not separate from their Jewishness, whatever they claim’, says Cohen. Jewdas feels that British Jews have forgotten about their ‘radical past’. Their Punk Purim party was held in London’s East End because it used to be home to Jewish immigrants, mainly from Eastern Europe, who came from that ‘radical tradition’ that Cohen so admires. I can’t help thinking it’s deeply ironic that Jewdas wants to reclaim a past which their grandparents’ generation worked so hard to move away from. When Jews moved from the East End and went north to the nice suburbs, they were trying to rise above slum conditions and leave poverty behind. It seems that ‘celebrating tradition’ can cross the line into glorifying the poverty and hardship of yesteryear. Cohen himself lives in West Hampstead. ‘Yeah, I’m the black sheep of Jewdas’, he admits. According to the website, a ‘true Jewdas’ lives in Hackney, prefers bicycles over SUVs, and is a post-Zionist vegan with a Jew-fro.

Whether you would wish to aspire to such a Jewdas lifestyle (it’s not for me), Cohen is surely right when he says ‘closing down debate is not the way to build a tolerant society’. He says it is important to be able to criticise religions and cultures. The right to ridicule religions and their adherents is a hard-won liberty of any secular society worth its name, and we should not sacrifice it at the altar of ‘protecting minorities from being offended’. Under the cover of stamping out offensiveness, the New Labour government has seriously restricted free speech, and has set about outlawing anti-religious ‘hate speech’, the justification or glorification of terrorism, or any other words it deems to be inappropriate or distasteful. The sentiment behind such stringent restrictions is that speech is a dangerous thing, and that the public must be protected from it by the caring and gracious censor. No thanks.

So, for Cohen, would it be different if non-Jews were to satirise or ridicule the Jewish community? ‘Non-Jews couldn’t do it the way we have’, he says. ‘We deliberately make very specific references which demonstrate that we know the culture very well. The use of humour is also a good way of waking up the Jewish community. If we had just set up a website with serious articles, it would have been ignored.’

It is nonsensical that Jewdas should have to ask for permission from their own community to make fun of them. Those who feel uncomfortable with Jewdas’ irreverence should show a bit more chutzpah, rather than running for cover under the government’s absurd attempts to legislate offensiveness out of existence.

Nathalie Rothschild works on spiked’s editorial team. Visit the Jewdas website here.

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Topics Politics