I was born and raised in what was known in the 1920s and 30s as ‘Red Clydeside’. The town had a Communist administration, and many family members became members of the Communist Party. A cousin sold the Morning Star newspaper outside football matches. Even if my parents were suspicious of Communism and feared the suppression of religion that they saw in the Soviet Union, they were staunchly socialist.
Scottish Nationalism later embraced the positive, compassionate elements of socialism and that’s where my family landed, embracing our Scottish culture with a passion for just and compassionate governance. I consider myself on the left on most political issues, far to the left of my extensive American family. But we still get on.
This background brings my thoughts to recent conflict inside Israel and the clash with Hamas in Gaza. I’m not going to wade into the debate this conflict and its precedents have engendered (or re-engendered) in the public domain and within our IJC community. The war itself is heinous, but the debate is so multifaceted that I struggle, genuinely struggle, to see anything close to a big picture, and often wonder if I will ever see it. For some it is glaringly obvious, and I’m sure they would be eager to explain. I’m not there yet and the waters are still too muddy for me.
In search of a smidgen of clarity, and thanks to some sleepless nights, I’ve focussed my reflection for the time being on the use of an expression that emerges in the debate as if its significance is self-evident. The expression is ‘progressive Jew’. For some, a ‘progressive Jew’ is a Jew who has the right to think, believe, and say whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone (or they don’t think it hurts anyone). Their beliefs and opinions can range from extreme right to extreme left (tired as these terms may be): progressive = liberal = laissez-faire. I’m not that kind of ‘progressive’. For others, ‘progressive Jew’ is a trans-denominational reality that embraces progressive socio-political and geo-political values and perspectives. Here ‘progressive Jew’ might allude, for example, to the progress made in the Jewish world in aligning itself with evolving social inclusivity. In some instances, ‘progressive Jews’ have pioneered this inclusivity, and even set the standards the non-Jewish world has followed. I have no pretensions in the pioneering department, but I very often identify with that kind of ‘progressive’.
When I read Bill Echikson’s recent post in the Times of Israel (https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/equal-treatment-for-europes-jewish-denominations/) it confirmed, for me at least, that when I think about ‘progressive Jew’ I am thinking in the first instance of ‘Progressive Jew’, upper-case Progressive, a Jew deeply invested in the historical Progressive Movement, the European Union for Progressive Judaism, the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the UK Liberal and Reform Movements, US Reform (and even to some extent US Conservative), the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, the Mouvement juif libéral de France, the Union progressive Juden in Deutschland, etc., all of them very real and peopled manifestations of 19th century post-Enlightenment/Haskalah German Judaism, encompassing people who would identify across the political spectrum. This Progressive family, which counts almost two million, is where I feel at home as a Jew, where I can pray as a Jew, where my passion for compassion is best expressed, where the values I embrace are shared values, and where I stand side by side with people I don’t agree with: right, left and centre.
I am a ‘Progressive Jew’. Are you?
Brian Doyle-Du Breuil
IJC Rabbinical Intern