Browse Topics

View all talks

From the Other Side

David Davidi-BrownFilmed at JHub 10th Anniversary

Often, those with good intentions encouraging unity imagine a world where the weird and wonderful distinctions between us disappear. This can lead to difference or diversity becoming supressed – or even suspect. For the son of an Indian immigrant who has grown up to be an involved atheist queer Jewish leader, there are many reasons why diluting difference could be appealing. Join David on a journey from ancient Iraq to East London as he discovers a different take on difference. Together we might find that Jewishness offers a more optimistic approach to otherness – if we take a look from the other side...  

David Davidi-Brown is CEO of the Union of Jewish Students [UJS] following roles in Youth Work, Informal Education, Leadership Development and Social Action at JHub, Redbridge JCC and UJIA.

David co-founded the Lead Now programme; was the European lead on Siach, a global Jewish social justice network; and edited ‘Land of Milk and Honey; Tales of Goats and Apples’ – a collection of Israeli stories and resources celebrating 60 years of Israel’s independence.

David is a Schusterman Fellow, graduate of the Adaptive Leadership Lab, and member of the ROI Community. Currently a trustee of the Jewish Youth Fund, David has previously volunteered with Limmud and Keshet UK. David lives with his husband Adam in East London, enjoys the recent highs (after suffering many lows) of being a Spurs fan, and is a proud uncle to 6 nephews and 1 niece.

Do you have a song that you love to hate and you hate to love? You love it enough that if it comes on your shuffle, you’re not going to hit skip. But something about it doesn’t sit right with you. Something about it irritates you. For me, this song is ‘Imagine’.

Now I’m British, so of course I’m going to love something by the Beatles – or one of the Beatles – and it’s got this wonderful message of peace, harmony and unity. But when I think about how Lennon tries to get us to that unity, I’m not sold:

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too.”

I’m an atheist – so you might think I’d love a world with no religion. But I wouldn’t. We need religion. We need countries. We need distinctions between human beings. For me, all the weird and wonderful ways that we create and construct our identities are what give humans our humanity.

When I was looking into this, I came across someone who I thought was quite inspiring. His name is Dr. Carter G Woodson and he founded something, a week of history events that later became what we now know as Black History Month. And when he was exploring this – and he’s someone who understands diversity very very well – he had this to say:

“If a race has no history, has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of becoming exterminated.”

All of our wonderful, distinct and unique histories, all of our people’s wonderful traditions – we need to protect them, we need to promote them. That’s what’s at the heart of real diversity. Not getting rid of difference, where difference can actually be suppressed or even suspect.

So maybe instead, we can look at difference, diversity, distinctions – what I’m going to call otherness for most of this – from the other side.

And it’s quite a Jewish idea, if we go back, way, way back many centuries ago to not long after the bible began. Now, maybe because my teachers didn’t teach Torah through musicals, I didn’t pay too much attention at Jewish school. But if they would have done, instead of this Jewish stuff being something that I didn’t quite get or at times I felt excluded from, it could have been something really powerful. So I’m going to give it a go now.

So, I wasn’t paying attention, I didn’t even know, for example, that Abraham had a surname, which we’ll get to in a bit. But what they don’t tell you and, maybe because they’re teachers they don’t want to tell you this way, is that Abraham was a real rebel, a radical, travelling all over the Middle East, questioning what power was in the world, questioning what purpose was in the world.

He even smashed holes in the unethical teachings of his parents and his community. And that’s how he gets this surname I mentioned. So I hope, well I paid enough attention to know that Abraham was the first Jew. But I didn’t know that his name before it was Abraham, was Avram ha-Ivri. And where does that come from? Well as you can see on the map, he travelled all around and he was known as the person who came ‘from the other side’ – ma’avir – of the river. That’s how he becomes Abraham Ha-Ivri.

To become the first Jew, to become the first Hebrew, Abraham had to embrace his innate otherness. Being Jewish, indeed becoming Jewish, has otherness at it’s core.

So now I am paying attention and I don’t feel excluded and I think there’s a lot that Judaism has to say to me and us, actually. And this is what I think Abraham has to say.

He teaches us to question ourselves and to question our sense of self. Who we wish to become is not necessarily determined by where we are born or how we grow up.

Like Abraham, we should go around crossing boundaries, crossing borders, some would say we should even be crossing some binaries. Because crossing over – being an “Ivri” – is how we each find our path in the world.

And if we question and we cross over, we are left with the unmistakeable realisation that the world is full of multiplicity. Humanity is not uniform. And in this mix of wonderful colours and peoples and diversity, Abraham’s model is one of “positive otherness” – being proud and passionate about who we are, without dismissing or diminishing the ways and wisdom of others.

Abraham’s life and lessons speak to me, because I’ve lived Jewishly from the other side. I’m a queer cis-man who last year married my now husband. I come from a mixed Sephardi-Ashkenazi home, where my Mum and her family immigrated to England from India.

I’m not a contrarian, but complexity and contradiction are where I find most comfort and interest. And in twenty years as a youth and community worker, the things I’ve really enjoyed have been exploring identity and challenging stereotypes; have been working with adults with additional learning needs, with them, in partnership, on a programme specifically designed with them for Limmud. And something I’m really, really proud of… delivering what we think is the first ever session on Judaism and Sexuality in a Jewish secondary school by someone who themselves is Jewish and queer.

In all of this, I have been reasonably comfortable talking about my family background. Probably a bit too comfortable for my Dad’s family because I’ll admit that some of them used to pretend that my mother’s family were Israeli, rather than acknowledge that they were Indian Jews.

And, probably less funny, I think about the times as I child when I was teased and told in the playground that my Mum just simply cannot be Indian and Jewish.

More recently, I have mixed the personal and the professional when it comes to matters of social justice and sexuality, because growing up struggling with (and enjoying!) discovering that I was queer, it’s really had quite a profound effect on how I see the world.

It’s why I want to challenge racism and sexism and homophobia and prejudice – anything that tries to reduce human expression or identity to fixed boxes and labels.

So I’m not travelling around the ancient Middle East like Abraham, but at the heart of both of our stories is a sense of otherness from the other side. And I think it’s got some really important things to say for our society and our community.

For our society – and this is probably impacted a little bit by working where I do now, in the context of student politics – I think that otherness is being done quite wrong and it’s getting done in a way that’s just far too simplistic. It can be tick-box.

Well-meaning activists – who I have a lot of sympathy with and probably see myself as part of – there’s this fight to get rid of past power structures, but replace it with a similarly rigid hierarchy of oppression.

I hope you’ll agree it could be more complex than that. Let’s take the example of gentrification.

Adam and I moved into our one bedroom flat in Tower Hamlets, which is a fairly poor part of East London, for those that know it. And this could be seen as two middle class, cis-men, university-educated, professionals, moving in on a poor part of East London and exacerbating gentrification.

But I’ll also tell you that three of our four parents grew up nearby, in Hackney, Stepney and Whitechapel. All four of them left school before getting any significant qualification at the age of 15. Two grew up in council estates and two were immigrants to London from Asia.

That very same story can also be seen as an uplifting tale of social mobility and two boys with East End roots coming home.

Now it’s probably a bit of both, and what it shows is if we’re going to combine identity politics with social change – which I think we should, I think it’s important – if we’re going to do that, then instead of competing over who’s the most othered, we can find connection and compassion in the contradictory stories that make us who we are.

Mine and Adam’s story is very similar to the Jewish story, which is also full of contradiction. Jewish people can be a faith and an ethnicity. Jews are often communities of immigrants and yet they’re also established and affluent. Sadly, Jews can also be the people who face racism from the left and the right, at the same time stereotyped as all-powerful all over the world, and also as really weak and something to be looked at with disgust.

So with all of this contradiction, with this Jewish experience, what can we say to the world about otherness?

Well I think that what we offer is this understanding of optimistic otherness instead of opportunistic othering.

Now, we can’t just look out there and we can’t just say to the world we’ve got this experience of, you know, contradictory otherness as Jews and we’re going to tell you how to do it. We’ve also got to look out here and we’ve also got to start here: because we need to look at Jewish otherness from the other side.

And I’m trying to stay optimistic about that, I really am, but you might see in some of this the impact of recent events. Because I’m struggling to be optimistic about Jewish otherness when I think about Jewish people, the Jewish state and Jewish communities.

When I think about Jewish people, I think about how we have to be much more sensitive to the otherness within. Now, I’ve shared a bit about my experience of being Jewish and queer. And there’s so much to be wonderfully proud of in the British Jewish community about how we are handling diversity within being Jewish. But there’s also a long way to go.

See, I think instead of agitating for acceptance, such as the acceptance for community centres like this one here at JW3, not to be targeted and threatened because they host LGBT parent groups or GayW3, a culture celebrating Jewish queer culture, I don’t want to go for acceptance, I don’t want to agitate for acceptance like that. What I want to say is, if we embrace the otherness within the Jewish community, we’ll see all kinds of wonderful contributions coming forward that actually advance the whole, the total, all of our Jewish culture.

Such as Torah Queeries – a collection of ways of understanding the Torah that are enlightening and hilarious for all of us to get together with. And you also see a bit of the Israeli chutzpah come in to what many of you may recognise as a famous Stonewall campaign. And it shows something different when you add that Jewish sense of otherness to it or the Israeli chutzpah. Some people will know it from the buses, they’ll know, “Some people are gay, get over it.” But the Hebrew you can see reads as, ‘yesh anashim shem homoim. Az ma?’ And for those who aren’t native Israeli speakers… Israeli speakers? For those who don’t speak Hebrew, just like I clearly can’t speak English, it translates as, “There are gay people. So what?”

If we can embrace all the wonderful otherness within, we get some humour and we also get some really important ways of understanding what it means to be Jewish, for everyone, regardless of whether you’re queer or not.

When I think about the Jewish state, I’m also struggling to be optimistic sometimes. Now, I love Israel, I spent my gap year there, it played a huge part in me connecting with what it means to be Jewish. And I love that it is the Jewish homeland. But the question is, how can it be that wonderful Jewish homeland and be a welcoming home for all?

“You know the feelings of the stranger.” “You yourself were strangers in the land of Egypt.” “When a stranger lives among you, they should be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself.”

In our sacred text, we are commanded to treat strangers well more than we are commanded to love God. Yet, too narrow a reading of our texts and our history can lead to negativity, fear, a desire – maybe an understandable desire – to be separate and away from all of that, being the things that define how we create communities of belonging or even countries.

In Israel, my concern is that we’re drifting to a narrow nationalism, motivated by that fear, shutting out hopes of peace and, in just the last few months, seeking to shut out the very people who need the kind of refuge we were so devastatingly denied.

And I’m also struggling to keep being optimistic about otherness when I think about the Jewish community. Now, in all of the things that I’ve done in the Jewish community, I’ve worked in pluralist or cross-communal settings, and I really want to believe there’s more that can bring us together than divides us, but it’s hard sometimes. And the question we’ve really got to spend some proper time asking is, how can we be unified not uniform?

Now I started with Lennon and ‘Imagine’, and I’m going to end with a different song, with a different vision, one that holds diversity within it, and is comfortable with that difference, but finds something common in not quite exactly the same language.

The song or prayer you can see on the screen is ‘Oseh Shalom’, a prayer for peace. One that many of you will know well, many of you will have sung at various simchas. And what you can see are three versions of it.

You can see the traditional call for a higher power to grant peace to all Israel. You can also see a progressive addition, calling on the same higher power to look after every single being that dwells on this earth.

And you may have noticed that I quite like the Israeli approach to things, certainly the secular Israeli approach to things. So the third version is the Israeli twist, moving away from some higher power, simply expressing a hope or an expectation that peace will come – peace, shalom and salaam – to all of us, all over the world.

Now I hope towards the end of this you can see that I’m not someone who wants to get rid of distinctions. And in these three sets of lyrics there are very big ideological differences – about particularism and universalism, about the role of God or not. And that’s all part of the wonderful diversity that exists within our community. And we shouldn’t ignore it. But we can also see something shared, in a common concern for our people and our planet.

Otherness from the other side sees nothing wrong in praying for, or advocating for, our particular people, or precious groups, anything we hold dear. Otherness from the other side also makes sure that we think about the wellbeing of all the beings on the earth.

And otherness from the other side compels us to seek peace with those we fear – or even fight – in our homes and our homelands.

Now, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m hoping that I’m no longer the only one, because in this type of otherness, I hope we can all be optimistic.

Thank you.






This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License