Beyond the pale in British Jewry
Aspects of Jewish life in Britain are discussed in 1) BoD concern about impact of peace talks’ failure, exclusive Jewish News report; 2) critique of Kahn-Harris in Jewish Quarterly; 3) Extract from Uncivil Wars, reposted from Times of Israel. Plus Notes and links.
Limmud, 2013. All photos of Limmud 2013 from Jewish News.
By Justin Cohen, Jewish News
May 08, 2014
Confidential documents have shed new light on concerns of the Board of Deputies ahead of the suspension of Middle East peace talks and their fears of over the potential for growing polarisation within the community over Israel.
A draft document seen by the Jewish News looks to set out the possible consequences whether the nine-month process ends in failure or with an agreement, as well as to examine how community leaders should respond. It is believed to have been written around six weeks ago.
While the Board document focuses on what would happen if the talks broke down with Israel taking the brunt of blame – which has not been the case – a spokesperson for the organisation said this week that “the diversity of opinion in the community remains clear”.
The report warns that, if the Jewish state is blamed, Anglo-Jewry is “likely to become more polarised, with an increasingly vocal and mainstream bloc of opposition to Israeli Government policy at the same time as a committed pro-Israel activist corp”.
Pointing out that communal surveys have pointed to overwhelming support for the two state solution and opposition to settlement construction, it warns: “If the Israeli Government appears to be acting against those convictions, some Jews will respond by openly or privately opposing Israel, including boycotts. Caught between instinctive support but an opposition to Israel’s policies, many Jews could feel turned off entirely, neither criticising publicly nor being prepared to express support.”
The report also warns of the potential fallout in the political sphere and among civil society, with trade unions and churches “likely to toughen existing stances and upgrade sanctions”. While it says the community broadly understands the challenges faced by Israel in terms of the Palestinian Authority and moreover with Hamas and that the PA’s refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state “rankles”, it says that the majority of UK society believe settlement expansion does greater damage to peace prospects.
It warns: “The risk of arguing for the fault of failure lying squarely with the Palestinians while many will at least partially blame Israel, is that supporters of Israel will become increasingly discredited, irrelevant and marginal.”
Rather, whatever the outcome of the talks, it urges a “positive and proactive” four-pronged strategy expressing a desire for peace, security, prosperity and equality. This could include efforts to promote further trade with Israel and working on joint projects with civil society organisations, it suggested.
The document however also warns of the potential fallout if talks such the desired the outcome. Reflecting on the fact Israeli Embassy was attacked in London the day after an agreement was signed with Jordan, it says: “If talks are successful Israel and the UK Jewish community may face a heightened terror threat from those seeking to thwart the process.”
The draft document was produced by the Board before being passed to others communal organisations and pro-Israel group for their feedback. However it’s understood some of those organisations were angered by a lack of prior consultation and felt the report had been produced too early at a time when there were still hopes of an extension in peace talks beyond the April deadline.
But a Board spokesperson said: “Clearly the working draft could not foresee all scenarios. But concerns about the levels of hostility from anti-Israel activists were a factor even before the current round of talks. Similarly, the diversity of opinion in the community remains clear. Through its democratic structure and culture of open debate, the Board is well-placed to accommodate the range of constructive voices and to advocate consensus positions. Meanwhile, the need to be positive and proactive, rather than negative and reactive, still rings very true.”
By Joseph Finlay, Jewish Quarterly
The launch event for sociologist (and editor of the forthcoming JQ spring issue) Keith Kahn Harris’ new book was a sell-out. Cynically one might suggest this was due to the free tickets and delicious free food on offer, but it was clear there was also genuine interest in how to make dialogue around Israel in the Jewish community more civil and more inclusive of diverse views. There was a particularly interesting discussion on red lines; the panellists were asked to discuss their boundaries – who, in relation to views on Israel, and in terms of the Jewish community, was beyond the pale. The panellists worked hard to sound liberal and tolerant – all declaring that they would sit on a panel with pretty much anyone.
But sitting on a panel is a relative easy issue – the more interesting one is: are there some views that should not receive a platform in Jewish institutions like JW3 and Limmud? And are there some Jewish groups that should not receive funding from communal bodies due to their supposedly controversial views? Despite UJIA chief Michael Weiger’s open minded words, Jewish youth movements are funded on the basis of their being Zionist – were one to declare itself no longer Zionist it would lose its UJIA funding. And whilst trying to sound tolerant, Jonathan Sacerdoti, heavily involved with the Zionist Federation, didn’t discuss the ZF’s decision to refuse membership to the pro two-state group Yachad.
Sunday afternoon at Limmud, 2013
A particularly interesting inclusion test-case occurred last December, when Marcus Weston of the London Kabbalah Centre applied (as anyone can, without being an invited presenter) to give a session at Limmud Conference. Having been initially accepted as part of the programme, the session was removed after protests from a range of communal figures and a splash on the front page of the JC. This was particularly uncomfortable given that the main orthodox argument in favour of Limmud is that it is a free market – anyone can present so simply being on the programme does not constitute an endorsement. The Kabbalah centre ban suggests the opposite – that accepted sessions have been given some kind of communal hechsher.
When advocating for greater tolerance and inclusion it is always politically helpful to state that you have some red lines. Kahn Harris does precisely this, laying out a series of positions that he considers beyond the pale in the Jewish community. They are pretty reasonable and would exclude few people, those:
Who seek the dissolution of any kind of Jewishness (call this the Gilad Atzmon clause)
Who explicitly and actively embrace the discourses and practices of open anti-Semites who explicitly seek to destroy the Jewish people in its entirety (Israel Shamir perhaps)
Whose Anti-Zionism explicitly calls for the mass expulsion of all Jews from Israel
Who embrace Holocaust denial
Christian evangelicals, too far out
This is all pretty uncontroversial. But he goes to further exclude ‘Messianic Jews’ as ‘their proselytising for another religion, even with Jewish trappings, ultimately means they seek the dissolution of Jewishness in most of its forms’. I find this position surprising and hard to defend. While some groups, like Jews for Jesus, are simply missionaries who use their ethnic Jewishness to better attract Jewish converts to Christianity, other are genuinely creating a fusion of Judaism and Christianity. Their focus is not necessarily on proselytising, they are more interested in worshipping as they see fit. I’m not even certain we can say with any certainty that Messianic Judaism is not Judaism – we collectively do not have any agreement on what Judaism is – from fervent atheists on the one side to people who believe that a dead rebbe is the messiah on the other. Historically, the position is even less clear – readers of Daniel Boyarin’s works will be aware that it took hundreds of years from Judaism and Christianity to fully separate. During that period it was perfectly possible, and indeed common, to be a Jewish-Christian.
I applaud Keith Kahn Harris’ project – Uncivil War is well worth reading – and the cause of trying to build a more civil community is an excellent one. I just hope that as part of that project attention is paid to the very real exclusions that occur within the British Jewish community and that we don’t end up creating false red lines in the process. Be it the Kabbalah centre, Neturei Karta or Messianic Jews; if people want to be part of the Jewish community they should have a place there.
Joseph Finlay is a signatory of JfJfP.
Extract from Uncivil War, by Keith Kahn-Harris
Times of Israel
March 18, 2014
In Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict on the Jewish Community, Keith Kahn-Harris argues that, since 2000s, Diaspora Jewish communities have become increasingly divided over how to relate to Israel. The author explores the causes of division and describes his own innovative efforts at conflict resolution. Analyzing the various groupings – left, right, secular and religious, pro and anti-Zionist – in the UK and USA, Kahn-Harris studies the different methods used by international organizations and groups involved in developing dialogue within Jewish communities. Using these techniques along with expert help, he concludes that dialogue and civility is possible, but change is a must in order to deter serious consequences for the Jewish communities of the world.
The Roots of the Conflict – The Hope and Despair of Israel
The establishment of the state of Israel was, in some respects, a very mundane event. The achievement of Jewish sovereignty was a matter of building sewage systems, post offices and town halls. This version of Zionism, as a mundane process of state-building, is reflected in the Hebrew poet Bialik’s famous quote that ‘We will be a normal state when we have the first Hebrew prostitute, the first Hebrew thief and the first Hebrew policeman.’ But, of course, Zionism has always had another strain which is much more idealistic and is encapsulated in this paragraph in the declaration of independence:
The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
This idealism is also evident in the common use of the term aliyah (ascent) for Jewish immigration to Israel and in the use of terms such as ‘redemption of the land’ to describe Jewish settlement. For religious Zionists, this idealism takes on a mystical dimension, as the Jewish return to Israel, the in-gathering of exiles (Kibbutz Galuyot), is frequently seen as a precursor to the messianic age.
The hopes placed in Zionism and Israel are profound. They touch on Jews’ deepest desires, identities, traumas and fears. Scholars have shown how, particularly in the pre-state period, the condition of Diaspora was associated with physical and metaphysical weakness, in a largely unconscious internalisation of anti-Semitic accusations that Jewish men were somehow feminised and somehow not fully human. The proud, strong, suntanned sabra, a soldier, farmer and man of action, presented an irresistible image of strength to a Jewish people recovering from the disaster of the Shoah. Even if Diaspora Jews did not plan to move to Israel, they could still take pride and hope from the development of Israel and the new Zionist man. The huge popularity in the Diaspora of Leon Uris’s 1958 book Exodus and the subsequent film version, together with other fictional images of resilient Zionists, exemplified the dreams and fantasies invested in Israel. Daring Israeli actions, such as the abduction of Adolf Eichmann and the raid on Entebbe, thrilled much of the Diaspora.
Pride in Israeli strength has often gone hand in hand with fears over Israel’s weakness. Its small size and location in what is sometimes described as a ‘bad neighbourhood’ make Israel seem vulnerable. Its military victories, particularly the Six Day War, have sometimes been understood as ‘miracles’, rather than as the result of the superiority of its armed forces.
The centrality of Israel in Jewish emotional life has been reflected in the organisation of Jewish communal life. Post-1948 and, particularly, post-1967, support for Israel became a consensual rallying point for Jewish communities which were ever more divided religiously. Diaspora communities invested in Israel emotionally, financially and institutionally, through fundraising, education and, particularly, through tours of the country. Israel is a place of ‘peak experiences’, of intense teenage and young adult tours, in which growth and sexual exploration take place in an emotionally heightened atmosphere.
The possibility of greater numbers of Jews turning against Israel, therefore, stimulates concerns, not just that this development may weaken Israel, but also that it may weaken Jewish communal infrastructure. The erosion of consensus on Israel can feel like the erosion of Jewish community itself. The centrality of Israel in the Jewish community has, to some extent, left it hostage to fortune. At times, the intense investment in Israel can backfire. Some of those who were most passionately Zionist in their youth and attended organised Israel programmes become disillusioned when they find that the reality of Israel cannot match their expectations. The corollary of pro-Israel hope can be anti-Israel disappointment – both involve the same level of emotional investment, with polar opposite results.
As the Oslo process began to come apart in the 2000s, so supporters of Israel had to adjust to a return to a situation in which Israel faced continual conflict. This process was traumatic for many, particularly those who had invested heavily in the idea of the two-state solution. Although for much of the country’s history, support for Israel meant living with constant warfare, in the pre-Oslo days there was a certain phlegmatic acceptance of hostility to Israel. Post-Oslo, it has been difficult to accept a return to that hostility. Those who blame Palestinian intransigence or Israeli naïveté for the failure of Oslo are frequently more bitter and angry at their opponents than they would have been pre-Oslo.
For most of Israel’s history and pre-history, support for Israel meant accepting that significant sections of the world (mostly in the Middle East, Africa and the Soviet bloc) were strongly opposed to either the actions or the very existence of the Jewish state. Post-2000, the perceived return to this pariah status is hard for many to accept. The situation is compounded by the perception that countries previously supportive of Israel, such as the UK, are becoming increasingly critical. Again, there can be no return to earlier generations’ acceptance of Israel’s lonely status in the world. ‘Delegitimization’ is thus felt as an unprecedented threat, even if that is not the case historically speaking. The fact that Israel was formed in much less supportive circumstances than those prevailing today provides no comfort.
If Israel faced opposition from other nation states for much of its history, in recent years, Israel and Zionism face criticism from a much more broad-based movement than ever before. Israel now faces a global movement that is similar to, though perhaps not yet as big as, the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s. The Palestinians, largely invisible and ignored pre-1967, now have passionate supporters around the globe. Israel also faces intensive scrutiny from globalised media outlets and internet-based campaigners. Leaving aside the question of whether Israel’s actions in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza between December 2008 and January 2009 were proportional or justified, it is certainly true that Israel has conducted similar operations at other points in its history with much less comment.
In his book, Israel Versus Utopia, author Joel Schalit argues that ‘the Middle East has become a metaphor for the world.’50 Middle Eastern politics is so thoroughly enmeshed in the politics of the US, the UK and many other countries that the region has become a kind of cypher for peoples’ hopes and fears. The complaint is sometimes made that those who criticise Israel, particularly those who advocate boycotts, divestment and sanctions, are singling out Israel in ways that are disproportionate, particularly when compared to the lack of attention they may pay to states guilty of far worse crimes. While this complaint may sometimes be accurate, it is once again the corollary of the kind of support for Israel that treats the defence of the country as of paramount importance. In this respect, all sides in the conflict have much in common.
Dr. Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and writer. He is co-author of ‘Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today’, the author of ‘Judaism: All That Matters’. He has edited the Jewish Journal of Sociology and the Jewish Quarterly. He is a signatory of JfJfP
Uncivil war: the Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community is published by, and available from, David Paul Books
Notes and links
Board of Deputies, Manifesto for 2014 EU elections
From their Wikipedia entry, which appears to be written by a Limmud advocate.
Relationships with Orthodoxy in Britain
The former London United Synagogue Beth Din’s Head Dayan (rabbinic judge), Chanoch Ehrentreu, advised Orthodox rabbis not to attend Limmud Conference.However, in the UK many United Synagogue pulpit rabbis have attended Limmud. In December 2010 Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet of Mill Hill United Synagogue, who had been seen as a notable absentee and critic of Limmud, attended, took part in and taught at Limmud’s 30th annual Conference. Following this he wrote on the synagogue’s website: “upon return all I could ask myself was, ‘where was I until now?'”
Controversy erupted again in 2013 when newly elected Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis announced his decision to attend [Jonathan Sacks had not whilst Chief Rabbi]. Subsequently, a public notice signed by seven leading Orthodox rabbis including Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu and Rabbi Avrohom Gurwicz and published in the Jewish Tribune, attacked pluralism and urged “God-fearing Jews” not to participate in Limmud. This sparked condemnation by non-Charedi communal leaders, with Jewish Leadership Council chairman Mick Davis, Board of Deputies president Vivian Wineman and United Synagogue president Stephen Pack, writing to The Jewish Chronicle saying that the statement showed “a shocking failure of leadership.” The Jewish Chronicle itself described the statement as “crass, ill-judged and ultimately self-defeating.” Mirvis’s attendance at the 2013 Limmud Conference was well received by fellow participants.
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