“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.