The following essay was written by Chas Newkey-Burden and published at The Jewish Chronicle
I never told you the one about how a Christian/Hindu cult helped me love Israel and Judaism, did I? As a non-Jew who proudly supports Zionism and is fascinated by Judaism, particularly the mystical and Hasidic traditions, I am often asked how I came to feel this way. To me, the real question is why someone would not support Israel and admire Judaism, but of course I understand the curiosity.
The short answer – which I’ve blogged about and mentioned during speeches – is that I became fascinated by the Middle East after the September 11 attacks. To my surprise, having previously had a lazy, hazy perception that Israel were the villains of the conflict, I became more and more pro-Israel the more I learned about the issue. So I started visiting Israel and quickly fell in love with the place.
However, I’ve never written or spoken publicly about a challenging childhood experience that had a part to play in this. When I was nine, I joined a new school in London. I was so excited to be leaving primary school and joining a new, ‘grown-up’ establishment. What I didn’t realise until I got there was that 99 percent of the pupils and their families were members of bizarre religious cult, as were all the staff.
The cult, which dominated the school, combined Victorian sternness with less savoury elements of Christianity and Hinduism to create a cruel concoction. I was a member of the one percent of pupils with no connection to the cult. This meant that twice a day, as my classmates meditated and chanted Sanskrit, I had to go to a dark room in the basement and sit kicking my heels with the other odd ones out of the school.
It also meant I was pressured to join the cult. The more I resisted this pressure, the more I was targeted by the staff. It was astounding how quickly the teachers could turn a maths, English or science class into a free-for-all discussion of how I came from an “impure” family.
The staff strongly discouraged pupils from befriending me and at times some of the teachers were violent with me. At one point I was even-handed a year-long detention, which meant I couldn’t leave the school until 6.30pm on weekdays and not before mid-afternoon on Saturdays.
For six years I resisted the pressure to join the cult and then at 16 I was finally able to leave the godforsaken place. Years later, in 2007, an inquiry found that “mistreatment” and “criminal assaults” had taken place when I was there. It is possible that one can never completely move on from such an experience – the question is how to create a positive legacy.
Which brings me to my love of Israel. I think that as result of what I faced at school I have developed a stronger empathy for anyone who is unfairly singled out. For instance, when Kofi Annan – then the Secretary General of the UN – was asked why the UN so disproportionately targets Israel, and replied: “Can the whole world be wrong?” he made my blood boil. As I knew from my schooling, sometimes yes, the whole world can be wrong.
Recently, while dining with a Jewish family I’m friendly with, I sensed a wider connection. I was telling them about my strange school, when the wise father of the household turned to me and said:
“You were like the Jew at school – that’s why you understand us.”
I had never thought of it that way, as I consider the story of the Jewish experience to be as much about the inspiration of your enormous achievements and inspiring example as it is the hatred you have faced.
But I can see his point – and within it is the positive legacy I sought. Perhaps if I had not been so tested as a child I would not have subsequently stood at the Kotel, nor watched the sunset in Tel Aviv, nor heard of the wondrous Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Nachman, whose teachings now enrich my life.
Whatever took me here I am glad it did. After all, supporting Israel and admiring Judaism is the only sensible way to roll.