It started with a drunken idea a month after Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza last summer. In a London pub, at a table filled with young leftist Jews, Lev Taylor’s voice rose above the din: “What we need is Birthwrong!”
When the laughter died down, the group fell into a serious discussion. Would it be possible to present a serious alternative to the Birthright Israel trip that has sent hundreds of thousands of young diaspora Jews through the pipeline of Zionist indoctrination? Before long, Taylor’s joke had become an agenda. Organizers were setting out to southern Spain to scout out sites of Jewish history from Andalusia to the Spanish Civil War, and to make contacts within the local Jewish community. By the end of the year, the BirthWrong trip was born.
“It was drunk consensus that has been propelled forward by a strong desire to drink sangria in Spain,” Taylor joked.
He continued: “We were frustrated that there was an institutionalized theater centering around Israel, a well funded beach holiday for teens that was a secret way to get youth to care about Israel. But we were like, we can do a drunken holiday too but we can have it in Spain where the diaspora happens. Ours isn’t free but it will be fun, and there will be plenty of propagandizing and drinking too.”
Tonight, I’ll join thirty people from around the world on the first installment of BirthWrong. The trip is open to all ages and religious backgrounds, including non-believers. Among the only regulations on the tour relates to Zionism — it is not welcome here.
BirthWrong begins this May Day with a celebration of worker’s solidarity and end the following day with Kabbalat Shabbat (the ritual inauguration of the sabbath) with Beit Ram Bam, a progressive Jewish group based in Andalusia. In Cordoba, we will explore the legacy of Maimonides, the Arabic-speaking Jewish polymath who corresponded with Ibn Rushd who drew heavily on the influence of Islamic philosophers like Ibn Rushd. On our way, we plant to stop in the village of Marinaleda, a self-proclaimed “communist utopia” that is, in fact, a model of communitarian stability and an outpost of resistance to austerity. BirthWrong will conclude with by touring Spanish Civil War sites and exploring the contribution of the Jewish fighters who comprised more than a quarter of international anti-fascist volunteers.
The trip is the brainchild of a loosely knit band of left-wing British Jewish activists known as Jewdas whose history stretches back to a series of party-themed provocations and parodic demonstrations held around London in 2006. “The main obsessions of British Jews are defending the state of Israel and making Jewish babies. We aim to knock these idols down and reopen the debate on who owns Judaism, who has the right to speak for the Jewish community and who is a Jew – surely anyone committed to justice?” Jewdas member Joseph Finlay said at the time. “We’re also trying to bring in a new sense of fun, playing with tradition rather than sanctifying it. Once Judaism is sacred, it is already dead.”
During Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008-09, Jewdas sent out an email blast to thousands of contacts announcing on behalf of the Chief Rabbi of the Board of Deputies of British Jews the cancellation of a march in support of Israel’s war effort. The impostor email urged Jews to speak up for peace and justice and reject Israeli miltarism. “People believed it was great,” Finlay recalled. “They were happy to receive such a refreshing message.” In the end, the grim pro-war march proceeded as planned and though at least one member of Jewdas was arrested for wrongful impersonation, none were prosecuted.
Jewdas re-emerged during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip last summer with a raucous public protest convened under the banner, “Haskalah, not Hasbara.” As Israeli forces reduced Gaza’s border areas to ash and ruin, Jewdas members crashed a British Zionist Federation meeting. “That was one of my favorite Jewdas moments in our history,” Taylor recalled. “They were there to plan the community’s response to the attack and they only wanted to talk about our relationship to Israel. We spaced ourselves out across the room and any time a speaker rattled off some tired Zionist talking point we groaned and disrupted them. They were so used to total consensus they just lost it — they had no idea what to do with us.”
The protest was complimented by an open letter to British Jewish community leaders demanding justice and reparations for Palestinians while disavowing any connection to Israel or Zionism. It concluded: “We affirm a Jewishness not tied to state violence. A diasporic Jewishness that welcomes critique and speaks truth to power. We refuse to be complicit in our words, in our actions, or in our silence, to the massacres perpetrated in our name.”
This March, Jewdas stole the show at a conference by BICOM — the UK’s version of AIPAC — dedicated to “winning the communications battle.” Annie Cohen and two other activists were tossed from the event by Community Security Trust (CST) officers when they handed out humorous cards for a game called “jingobingo,” or Jewish nationalist bingo. As CST personnel dragged her out, Cohen belted out a stanzas from Daniel Kahn’s Yiddish anthem, “Oh you foolish Zionists”:
You want to take us to Jerusalem
So we can die as a nation
We’d rather stay in the Diaspora
And fight for our liberation
Earlier that month, Jewdas had gathered in Clapton to protest a planned march by the National British Resistance. The far-right white nationalist group had called on its supporters to battle what it called “The Jewification of Great Britain” and “the ongoing Jewish Problem” by marching on the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Stamford Hill. Despite the fact that police attempted to contain them to a designated protest zone, Jewdas succeeded in blocking the white nationalists from reaching Stamford Hill.
After the march, Jewdas’s Taylor wondered about the inaction of the Zionist-dominated Jewish establishment. “Jewdas is the probably the only UK Jewish organization that’s done anything around the far-right,” he remarked to me. “Everyone else is concerned with Islamic anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and we’ve had fascists coming to every area of London to intimidate Jews and all the mainstream [Jewish] groups tell us to just ignore them and they’ll go away.”
This April 29, Jewdas organized an event at the New London Synagogue celebrating Arabic and Hebrew muwashahaat poetry from Andalusia. It was the send-off event for BirthWrong, the group’s most ambitious endeavor to date. “This trip is about making a strong Jewishness that doesn’t have fuck all to do with Israel,” Lambeth explained. “This is a positive Jewish identity connection that I can get excited about that connects to where I live now and not this whole other place I have nothing to do with.”
“The people whose experience revolves around whether to go skiing or take a beach vacation in Eilat are the ones who have been setting the agenda for us,” Taylor commented. “What BirthWrong represents is resetting the agenda back to social justice.”
I first learned about BirthWrong during a Yom Kippur fast breaking party Jewdas held last September. The trip seemed like the perfect way to repudiate a grim Jewish nationalist vision buttressed by the dual poles of Israel’s ethnocracy and the phantasmagoria of Auschwitz. Not only did it offer a potential escape hatch from Zionism, it presented a real alternative by re-centering Jewish identity around a vibrant diaspora tradition. As Lambeth said, “The Talmud was written in the diaspora. Rashi is from the diaspora. Parts of the Torah were written in the diaspora. Maimonides was from the diaspora. There is a legitimate part of religious Judaism that has nothing to do with Eretz Israel. So it’s simply a myth that Israel is the foundation of our authenticity.”
Once I realized Jewdas was serious about making this trip happen, I started selling the idea to my friends at Mondoweiss. They must have liked what they heard because they sent me to cover it. So here I am, on a train to Seville, not knowing what to expect when I get there. Is BirthWrong a one-time stunt, or will it burgeon into a serious, long-term movement?
For now, Jewdas is setting conservative expectations. When I asked Lambeth what she hoped to achieve from the trip, she responded: “A hangover.’