Jewish establishment, diversity, and rebellion

Keith Kahn Harris writes about the diversity in Britain’s Jewish community in Prospect, as flagged up by Bob From Brockley. The crux:

“While figures from the Community Security Trust show there has been a rise in attacks on Jews in Britain in recent years, there are deep divisions within the Jewish community about the causes—and indeed the gravity—of this. Critics of Israel within the Jewish community—from organisations like Independent Jewish Voices and Jews for Justice for Palestinians—say that accusations of anti-semitism are used to stifle debate about Israel. In turn, many Jewish leaders accuse such critics of legitimatising anti-semitism and some shriller Jewish voices—Melanie Philips being the best example—argue that the very survival of the Jewish community in the UK is imperilled.

This argument is a fierce and often circular one. But in the midst of it, the reality somehow gets lost: Jews become victims or perpetrators, the focus of debate but not living, breathing, individuals.”

I found this piece curious – I wasn’t sure for whom KKH was writing. The teeming diversity of British Jewish expression has long been evident, I thought. In my circumstances (left, atheist, university worker, East Anglian, and only contingently Jewish out of a sense of duty when confronted with antisemitism) the Jewish establishment has always seemed remote. On the contrary, my sense of Jewish life in Britain is dominated by the strident far left and ‘independents‘ contemplating their own navels, chasing their tails, feeling sorry for themselves, going on (and on, and on) about the various origins of their social embarrassment – the Jewish Board of Deputies, the Community Security Trust, the Chief Rabbi, the Jewish Chronicle – responding to Palestinian oppression as if it were an opportunity for group self-definition and bonding, helping to bring campaigns to boycott Israel into workplaces and social spaces and then failing to stand up for Jews against the attendant antisemitism. They remind me of Kevin.

I should say here that this is a phenomenon across different social groups. Socialist Worker Party members and sympathisers bonded over the series of Student Occupations they organised with Gaza at the centre. However, the article which triggered this post is about Jews, which is why Jews are at the centre of this post.

I wish there were expressions of diversity which did not simultaneously involve contriving identities of plucky ‘truth-to-power’ speakers and self-indulgent orgies of rebellion. The Jewish establishment, such as it is, is open and tolerant – although surely not to the extent that it will put up with infinite amounts of invective from members whose sole identity seems to be built round an attraction to, or fetishisation of, dissent for its own sake.

Here is the experience of an Israeli peace activist at a Jewish Socialist Group event. He must have talked for, oh, 5 minutes – his co-panellists made longer presentations. And then to the floor for questions:

“Then the floodgates where opened. In true Jewish socialist tradition, everyone was entitiled to an equal voice, and indeed several people in the audience pulled note sheets from their pockets and read speeches longer than mine. Most of them seemed to focus on the marginalisation of Jewish radicals. I found that confusing, first as Leila told me later, I thought we were here to talk about Gaza. Second, in my dictionary radical means way-off-centre. If you don’t want to be in the margins, why define yourself as radical?

Anyway, on and on it went. I felt that most of the comments where essentially historical reviews and ethical manifestos, but the chair, Julia Bard, thought there were many fresh ideas for action. Maybe. Sometimes sitting on the stage focuses your hearing on certain things. On the other hand, I might have a different idea on what constitutes action, a more Newtonian view.”

So what the hell is there to celebrate about? KKH writes:

“On the one hand, the Jewish community has never been so dynamic; on the other, many Jews feel under threat and divisions over Israel within the Jewish community can create a deeply poisonous atmosphere. Yet both of these things indicate something positive: that the Jewish community that has finally adapted to British multiculturalism. Whereas once British Jews kept their heads down, their leaders exhorting them to be good citizens first and foremost (“Englishmen of the Mosaic faith”), since the early 1990s there has been less reticence about being publicly, proudly Jewish. This confidence had lead to many things; including great cultural vitality, but also to a greater willingness to openly articulate feelings of persecution. It has also meant an increasing refusal to toe the line by those who dissent from the communal leadership. Surely this is healthy at least.”

Yeah, I think so.

So when he ends with the advice:

“What the Jewish community now needs is to internalise the principle of British multiculturalism; to accommodate—indeed, celebrate—the differences that have opened up in this new more self-confident era. Jews and non-Jews alike must recognise the diversity of today’s Anglo-Jewry.”

perhaps what KKH is urging here is not only my first reading – a request to Jewish leadership for a form of resistance to antisemitism which avoids assuming agreement and support of other Jews as an entitlement. Perhaps he is also requesting an acknowledgement from Jewish dissenters that in British society they can have equal standing to – or more prominent standing than – the Jewish community leadership. Think of Independent Jewish Voices’ Steven Rose (leading neuroscientist, formerly on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze, Israel boycott leader), Stephen Fry (ubiquitous sleb), Miriam Margolis (recently Desert Island Discked). Whereas most British people would be lucky to have heard of anybody from the Jewish Board of Deputies or the Community Security Trust.

However, unfortunately a tone of skepticism against the Jewish leadership is set in the strap to the piece in Prospect First Drafts:

“Jews in Britain have never been more culturally confident or politically diverse. Why, then, are so many of their leaders scared?”

Read the piece and read the comments, including an understandably defencive one from Mark Gardner, at the Prospect Blog.

But I know a little of KKH’s writing, and sufficient to understand that although the point may not have come across in this particular piece, he is more concerned about the state of the relationships between people with different political views than he is about taking pot-shots at the Jewish leadership.

“Blessed are the peacemakers…”

Update: this piece was flagged by David Hirsh on Engage and he is joined by Keith Kahn-Harris in the comments.


13 thoughts on “Jewish establishment, diversity, and rebellion

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I understand – from Mark Gardener’s comments on the piece – that a quick reading of the article might make it look like I was ‘taking on’ the jewish establishment. It wasn’t my intention to do this, at least not in a straightforward way. I was writing the piece for a primarily non-Jewish readership and I wanted to explore (in an admittedly very small space) the odd conjunction of the UK jewish community’s vitality with the strength of Jewish leaders’ complaints about anti-semitism. I’m not saying that the former invalidates the latter. I do think though that the communal leadership does have to work on the way it represents the community on Israel and anti-semitism matters.

    Sorry – no time to write more.

  2. Pingback: Jewish establishment, diversity, and rebellion - Flesh is Grass « Engage - the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism

  3. Thank you Keith (I will include the hyphen next time).

    I just realised that Prospect ‘First Draft’ does not mean that a piece is a first draft. I guess that makes me a hasty reader.

    On the way the mainstream community represents Jews – I went to the BoD site a while back looking for a blog, or notes, terms of membership or minutes. I too would like to know how the secular and unaffiliated fare – could somebody like me apply for one of a number of places for unaffiliated people, for example? I know that currently I’m uncounted as a ‘community’ member but I don’t know if I’m factored in and spoken about or for (as a group). I really think – as with any organisation – transparency measures would help the BoD’s image immensely. Of course, the risk is that they’ll then need 5 full-time people to deal with controversy, manufactured constroversy, dissent, and sadly, hatred. Still, they should say what they are doing day to day. Elementary transparency.



    Please see the Annual Report of the Board of Deputies. It is buried in their website and I have told them this is crazy. You will be amazed at the breadth and depth of things they do. It is truly the crown in the Jewish Community and very good value for money. The way it works is by constituency elections, withe the constituencies being the synagogues and Jewish communal bodies (they need to pay a fee per member). It is completely democratic and is held up to other communities by the government. No, you cannot join as an individual. If there is a problem it is that of ‘new blood’ – people stay for years and younger people seem reluctant to stand against incumbents.

  5. Kahn-Harris’ central thesis – that there is a debate about the extent and causes of antisemitism – is really nonsense. Bear in mind he was an original member of IJV but quit when he saw who else was on it. There is no debate among 95% of the Jewish population. Antisemitism is at record levels and the cause is the SWP/Islamist/StephenSizer-type Christian ‘unholy alliance’.

  6. Great post.

    The “strident far-left…responding to Palestinian oppression as if it were an opportunity for group self-definition and bonding…[and]…whose sole identity seems to be built round an attraction to, or fetishisation of, dissent for its own sake” is something I have noticed for a long time.


    “Critics of Israel within the Jewish community—from organisations like Independent Jewish Voices and Jews for Justice for Palestinians—say that accusations of anti-semitism are used to stifle debate about Israel.”

    The notion that there is some sort of muzzling of debate on the Middle East is puzzling. What I find strange is the anti-Zionists who claim they are being censored never seem to have a problem getting their perspective presented as fact in university courses, no difficulty getting their material published or getting invited to speaking engagements, etc.etc.etc.

    Not to criticize KKH, just to point out the ludicrousness of the anti-Zionist claim of censorship.

  7. Mandrake thanks. So, this notorious debate is actually a debate amongst the debating tiny minority – the chatterers like me, and maybe you.

    New Centrist I agree. In the case of one particular group, I was prepared to believe that they were excluded and outcast – and then somebody fairly reliable told me that they had refused to submit a list to the BoD. Not excluded. Turning their nose up at the elected representatives of Jewish communities, as far as I can see.

    I like what KKH wrote at juicy:

    “In the end, we are left with a lacuna that bedevils both Jewish and other attempts to ensure that the voice of difference is heard in British communal deliberations and representation: it is much easier to be a critic than to envision forms of ethnic or religious representation that are truly diverse and representative. The Chief Rabbinate and the Board of Deputies and other such bodies may not truly represent all those whom they say they represent, but at the moment they have a clearer sense of purpose than many of their critics.”

    But I’m more alarmed by the arguments about Israel than KKH is (or perhaps more than he can say – he is trying to study the community, after all, and if he writes publicly, he needs to maintain a professional neutrality on the various arguments of the 5% Mandrake refers to or risk losing access to the people he wants to study). The resurgence of the Jewish Power myth in a new guise of the Israel lobby has led to a credibility deficit in anybody with a Jewish name trying to make Israel’s case. You have to be a more skilled and better-informed debater to argue Israel’s case if you’re Jewish. I fear the effects will be an erosion of trust, a sense of isolation, and a new Jewish understanding of Israel as a place of refuge and self-defence.

  8. “You have to be a more skilled and better-informed debater to argue Israel’s case if you’re Jewish.” Yup. And it’s near impossible if you have dual nationality.

    The accusation that some are falsely crying anti-semitism at critics of Israel’s policies is ubiquitous. The fact that it is used by members of the asajew groups is not important in the context of the article, it seems to me, since it says little about the Jewish community. It is a surely a defacto condition of membership to believe that anyone who disagrees with their position does so from the wrong motives. I think that’s a typical move from a certain type of political entity and wouldn’t represent an innovation within any community that allows free speech.

  9. “The accusation that some are falsely crying anti-semitism at critics of Israel’s policies is ubiquitous… I think that’s a typical move from a certain type of political entity” Sounds a little as if you think this is inevitable, Bialik. But I think there’s a world of difference between believing that “anyone who disagrees with their position does so from the wrong motives” and believing that anyone who disagrees with their position does so from cynical, vexatious and manipulative motives.

    They could be better – there’s no reason why they can’t be. As somebody with feet of clay I get a lot out of trying to look at the world through the perspective of, say, the Jewish Socialist Group, or the followers of Rudolph Rocker in the East End.

  10. No, not inevitable, just typical of a certain type of movement. The kind that Bernard Crick calls ‘student politics’. Everybody has choices, even within groups, but you know what you’re joining and you accept the rules in general until you can no longer stomach them and then you leave.

    I can’t remember what I was trying to say about the groups’ counter-arguments. It was something like, if you don’t agree with their position or tactics it is because of bad faith/the all-powerful Jewish lobby/cowardice/the establishment/zionist propagandists etc. It is never enough, in solidarity groups, to say that nation X is persecuted without adding that this persecution is deliberately hidden or assisted. Otherwise, what’s the point of solidarity?

    Does that help?

  11. Pingback: Wednesday Miscellany: Mom in Town, Lou Donaldson, Spring on the Way? « The New Centrist

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