I am an ex-Jew
“I have no religion. I am an atheist and my worldview is Humanist.” Josh Kutchinsky puts himself in the shoes of the ‘other’ as he explores issues of identity in Britain today.
I know that my parents if asked what is their religion would have replied: ”Jewish”.
They would have felt uncomfortable entertaining the possibility that anyone born of a Jewish mother would answer the question differently. They would also have been suspicious as to why they were being asked such a question in the first place. They would have thought it suspect to even consider the possibility of denying their religion. Why should one feel the need to deny a fact? To deny one’s mother? The folk memory of forced conversions during the Inquisition, and more recently of pogroms and ghettos no doubt plays a part in this. Even more recently, in the last century, claiming to be an Ex-Jew would not have saved you from the gas chamber. Others define you as a Jew whether you like it or not.
To say “I was a Jew but am no longer one” could be seen to be imbued with a sense of running away, of self-loathing, an attempt to bleach away the colour of one’s religious identity. But religion is surely not the same as skin colour. If it were, nobody could convert to or from Judaism, and people do both.
There are some courageous people who have come together on the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. Membership is not restricted just to those who have been Muslims. On their website it states:
“We, non-believers, atheists, and ex-Muslims, are establishing or joining the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain to insist that no one be pigeonholed as Muslims with culturally relative rights nor deemed to be represented by regressive Islamic organisations and ‘Muslim community leaders’.”
Why isn’t there is a Council of Ex-Jews?
The writer and poet E.A. Markham once told me that Jews do not have much to worry about in this country so long as there are black people to be first in line for scapegoating. Today there is an additional buffer, the Muslim whipping boy.
So, why am I an Ex-Jew and why am I saying so now? Well for one thing if I were to be asked the same question that I just posed anachronistically to my late parents, I would state:
“I have no religion. I am an atheist and my worldview is Humanist.”
So, am I ashamed of my ancestry? Not at all. Am I proud of my parents and relatives? Yes! There were some particularly courageous and inventive people among them. My parents were good people. What about some of my other relatives, including those whom I don’t know anything about, but who hypothetically may have behaved badly? No! I am not automatically proud of them. My more generalised family and ancestors do not require my hubris to recognise their contributions, whether good or bad, small or great, to today’s world.
Why do I feel the need to stake out a new territory, and one that is a no-mans-land at that, as an ex-Jew? Because it is an element of my identity even if there is no particular external pressure to own it. Many who are from Jewish backgrounds are non-theists and non-participants in Jewish ritual or religious affairs but who nonetheless would feel uncomfortable proclaiming themselves as Ex-Jews. They more happily label themselves as Secular Jews and feel that that will do. This is, of course, their right. We should all have the right to self-definition.
I am English and British. English because I was born here and have lived here all my life. My father was also born in London. However any one born in England, and brought up in England would, to my mind, be English and therefore I am not sure of the relevance of the provenance of antecedents. What is Englishness but a matter of choice? It has, as far as I know, no legal definition. I am, however, legally a British Citizen. My hinterland extends far and wide and can include all the cultures and beliefs of this world, past and present…
…and then the radio, or the newspaper, or people overheard in the street say:
and speak of:
and write of:
And the question is:
Am I one of “us” or one of “them”?
“We are a very tolerant people. They came over here from the West Indies and places like that and we didn’t treat them too badly, really. Did we?”
Who is this “we”? It is the risk of conflating personal and impersonal bodies that can cause great confusion. This “we” may include the person speaking and probably includes others. If the person speaking is of a certain age then what they are saying might well be true. Maybe they didn’t treat “them” too badly. The “we” might extend to friends and family but could also extend to everyone, of various ethnicities and religious affiliations, who were here (or should one say there, back then?) at the time when those from the West Indies arrived. However the person could also be speaking for some collective grouping of people; ‘we’ the English (or British) and within that could be contained all manner of inclusions and exclusions. I won’t belabour this but ‘we’ British who are doing the welcoming might mean us whites, us Christians, etc.
“They need to integrate with us. “
“I appreciate diversity but there have to be limits.”
“They don’t think like us.”
“They only come here for what they can get.”
The others, of course, could be (and have been) Gypsies, Jews, Catholics, Blacks, a variety of asylum seekers, and of course Muslims.
And as an Ex-Jew I feel I can put myself, a little, in their shoes – the shoes of the other.
I still am not sure whether it is obvious that I was/am Jewish. Do I look Jewish? Is my name a give away? Do I betray myself in a turn of phrase? I was brought up with the answer to those questions presumed to be ‘yes’ . And then in parenthesis (if you are going to be assumed to be Jewish anyway you might as well stand tall and be proud of it). Trying to pass as “them” is sneaky and dishonourable or even faintly comic like a working class ‘h’-dropper affecting a posh accent and over emphasising the ‘h’ sound in ‘How do you do?’ We smile at the absurdity. Who now is this particular ‘we’? Is it all of ‘us’ who speak as ‘we’ speak and who know ‘our’ place? But then where is ‘our’ place? Am I, as an ex-Jew, allowed to be at home here in what some claim to be “a Christian country”? Why people do what they do is difficult to know but easy to assume.
I think I have an idea why some Muslims are making a greater display of their religious identity than was the case before 9/11 and 7/7. I think I know why some Muslims are reticent to make pronouncements about terrorists. I think I know why most people just get on with their lives and keep their heads down. I think I know why most people save their bigotry for the privacy of family gatherings. And why yet others speak more publicly to deliberately tap into an impoverished vein of ignorance .
Every person in this country is deemed to be entitled to the full protection of the law and to human rights as expressed in declarations and conventions. Of course there still exist some privileges for certain individuals, Anglican bishops and royalty, who are therefore more equal than others. We all know that entitlements won’t in themselves result in equitable treatment for all, which is to say that we all recognise a utopian dream when it is exposed to the harsh realities of daylight. But it is nonetheless, I think, a dream worth having for it inspires us to try to do better.
I am speaking of course as an older, middle class male who is an Ex-Jew (unless you are anti-Semitic – in which case I know which side of the barricade I need to be) and who considers himself at home and one of ‘us’.
Josh Kutchinsky is the treasurer of Hampstead Humanist Society, membership secretary for the Central London Humanist Group, and a trustee of the British Humanist Association. He was a director in a publishing company and co-editor of Merely A matter of Colour – The Ugandan Asian Anthology. He was also director of a laser show company and produced the first comprehensive exhibition of lasers and their applications at the Science Museum. He writes prose and poetry as well as about science and technology.