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When four people were arrested for handing out anti-Semitic literature at a "Simcha on the Square" celebration in London's Trafalgar Square last month, the biggest surprise was that they were Jews. But the detention of the four members of the Jewdas group was only one in a series of headlines made by the self-styled "radical" new British Jewish organization.
The flyers, distributed at the September 17 event marking 350 years of Jewish life in Britain, advertised a party to be held at Hackney Synagogue in east London, entitled "Protocols of The Elders of Hackney" and mimicking an old anti-Semitic icon. The police made the arrests under Section 4A and 19 of the Public Order Act of 1936, which forbids the distribution of racially inflammatory material with intent to incite racial hatred. The four suspects were released on bail and told to return in late October.
Jewdas, which organized the party, is composed of creative, eccentric Jews who describe themselves as "radical voices for the alternative Diaspora." They say they want to show that Jewish life exists outside of the "ghettos of northwest London" and to challenge to the Jewish establishment.
They feel they're not represented by communal organizations and want fellow Jews to "stand tall and feel proud in their yiddishkeit," says Jewdas's main man, who goes by the alias Geoffrey Cohen.
Jewdas's activities have upset many in the Jewish community, including organizations such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Communal Security Trust (CST).
A CST spokesman was quoted in the Jewish Chronicle as saying, "There is a risk involved in satire and the flyer obviously fell foul of that. Given the scale of current anti-Semitic incidents, rhetoric and terrorist threat, this is a distraction nobody needs."
Cohen told The Jerusalem Post, "The reclamation of racist imagery has a long intellectual history, most relevant to the contemporary Jewish spectrum in Heeb magazine's choice of name. Furthermore, Sacha Baron-Cohen's character Borat fulfills a similar purpose - by ridiculing anti-Semitism, you defuse it. We want to confront the madness of anti-Semitism, not run from it as we are encouraged to do by Jewish security groups."
"This is especially relevant as we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the battle of Cable Street. We throw the anti-Semites' images back at them. [In October 1936, police securing a march in east London by Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists clashed with anti-fascists, including Jewish, socialist, Irish and communist groups, leading to the passage of the Public Order Act of 1936].
"The specific images we chose for the event are grotesque caricatures of Jewish people, and we abhor them. Yet they are also self-evidently farcical and it is to this insanity that we draw peoples' attention. Try doing an image-Google for the word 'Jew.' There are real anti-Semites out there. They are not us, and we want to fight them by diffusing their poison," he said.
In March, Jewdas hosted a "Punk Purim" party. Held in a derelict warehouse in east London, it attracted 600 people, with many more being turned away at the door.
"Punk Purim brought together people of all faiths, races and backgrounds. Perhaps it is this that most threatens those who instructed the police to detain us? That when we reject the shackles of establishment Jewish organizations who claim to protect us and represent us, anything is possible. Three hundred and fifty years of radical diasporic Jewish identity continues," Cohen said.
Speaking to the Post, Cohen added, "Our reaction to the arrests was one of absolute incredulity. We aim to reinvigorate young Jewishness and attract the masses to our events, a large proportion of whom are young Jews who rarely go to any Jewish event or celebrate their Jewishness, and who were delighted and amazed at this rebirth of radical and modern Jewish identity. Many of them - shock horror! - live outside of northwest London."
Discussing the "essence of Jewdas," he said, "We take our inspiration from diasporic Jewish philosophers, and the anarchist and socialist heritage of the Jewish East End. We want our fellow Jews to stand tall and feel proud in their yiddishkeit. Our reward for this from unidentifiable establishment Jewish figures is scorn and arrest.
"We don't ask to be accepted, but we do ask to be allowed to carry on inspiring young Jews to take pride in who they are. And we'd prefer not to be arrested, thank you very much."
During the recent war in Lebanon, Jewdas adopted the slogan, "Yes to Hummos, no Hamas." The organization's Web site offers "a crash course on the meaning of irony and the positive reclamation of taboo images."
They say the arrests have aided their cause. "Perhaps this was a canny attempt by the Police, CST and the venerable organizers at the Jewish Music Institute [organizers of the Trafalgar Square event] to give us some extra publicity," Cohen said sarcastically.
Even though the Jewdas party was relocated from Hackney Synagogue to Corsica Studios in south London's Elephant and Castle area, the renegade group was the talk of the Jewish community in the weeks following the arrests. The Jewish Chronicle covered the story and published a sympathetic editorial.
The party's name was changed to "The Protocols of the Elephants of Zion" and the new flyer advertised "a radical visual installation, anarchic cabaret, live music, DJs, borscht, Jewish burlesque, and the Jewdas Beth Din in session, ready to make rulings and deliver on the spot conversions."
The party, which had "confirmed speakers" who included London Mayor "Ken Livingstone, President Ahmadinejad and the Baal Shem Tov," was a huge success with more than 800 people attending.
Performing were klezmer acts; Emunah, an eight-piece hip-hop act described by the Guardian newspaper as "the UK's hot new Jewish hip-hop act;" and Dam, a Palestinian rap group.
Dam's music is a fusion of East and West that combines Arabic percussion, Middle Eastern melodies and urban hip-hop. The group's Web site describes their lyrics as "taking influence from the conflict, the Palestinian struggle for freedom and equality, as well as controversial issues such as terrorism, drugs and women's rights."
Also appearing was Jewish comedian Aaron Barshak, known as the "comedy terrorist." Barshak shot to fame in 2003 when he gate crashed Prince William's 21st birthday party dressed as Osama bin Laden.
The Guardian wrote, "The group seems to have struck a chord across the country with Jews disillusioned with the 'dull' establishment and hoping to rejuvenate Jewish traditions of social justice."
Since the Elephant party, Jewdas has issued an international appeal for assistance: "Dayan Moshe of the Jewdas Beth Din is disappointed to announce that one of the Jewdas converts made off with his tallit. To avoid a stoning outside of the city, please contact Jewdas. A blessing for its safe return."
The Board of Deputies and CST declined to comment for this article.
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