Jews untied by Israel

February 5, 2015
Sarah Benton

Most Jews, in and outside Israel, agree there must by a ‘two state solution’ -in principle. In practice, that unity fragments, particularly over the Jordan Valley (above).

Papering Over the Cracks 

Review of Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community
by Keith Kahn-Harris, David Paul Books, March 2014
£20 hb, £10pb

By Deborah H. Maccoby
August 2014

Keith Kahn-Harris is anguished about the battle over Israel that is poisoning the life of the British Jewish community – indeed all the world Jewish communities; but, because of his intimate involvement with and knowledge of the British Jewish community, this is what he concentrates upon.

In his second chapter, he presents a fascinating break-down, based on this very deep and intimate knowledge, of all the different positions held in the community towards Israel – a break-down that is very valuable, both to those like myself who are involved in the groups and to outsiders wanting to learn about the subject. He divides the community into: Public Supporters; Pro-Israel Pluralists; The Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Left (chiefly represented by Yachad); Jewish Radicals (represented by groups such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Independent Jewish Voices); The Anti-Zionist Left (represented by groups such as Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods, Jews Against Zionism and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network); The [self-described] Decent Left (represented by the Engage website and commentators such as Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch); The Neo-Conservative Right (represented almost entirely in Britain by Melanie Phillips); The Jewish Religious Right; the Haredi Community; Authoritarian Zionists (such as Kahanists); Private Engagers; Zionist Youth Movements; The Apathetic; Non-Jewish Supporters.

I should declare an interest by saying that, as a member of the Executive of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, I am firmly in the camp of the “Jewish Radicals”. Kahn-Harris is a JfJfP signatory, but in a footnote he positions himself – perhaps a little vaguely – as “somewhere between the ‘Jewish Radical’ and ‘Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace’ positions”.

Before reading this book, I tended to lump all Israel government supporters together and so have learnt a lot from the distinctions drawn between the various groups on the right, in particular between the Public Supporters and the Pro-Israel Pluralists. This bears out Kahn-Harris’s contention that all sides need to learn more about the complexities and nuances of each other’s positions. He makes an interesting point in writing that the Public Supporters cannot be necessarily labelled as right wing, in that their position is to support whatever the current Israeli government does – so, if an Israeli government were ever to negotiate a genuine peace, the Public Supporters would support it. Interestingly too, Kahn-Harris points out that the fiercest and most bitter debates are between those closest to each other in position, such as the Public Supporters versus the Pro-Israel Pluralists and the self-described Decent Left (exemplified by the Engage group) versus the Jewish Radicals and Anti Zionist Left.

Kahn-Harris writes that since the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel has been a source of unity for Diaspora Jewish communities; but since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, Israel has become a focus of bitter conflict that threatens to tear the communities apart. The modest aim of his book is “to show that it is possible to formulate strategies to manage the conflict better.” This is not “conflict resolution” – only “conflict management”. Kahn-Harris points out that conflict resolution could only be achieved if peace were to break out in Israel/Palestine – and this is not likely to happen any time soon. His “conflict management” strategies focus on the concepts of “civility”, “peoplehood” and “dialogue”.

Some of his recommendations would be extremely helpful if adopted. For instance, he writes:

in order to ease the Israel conflict, Jewish institutions that aspire to inclusion may have to pull back from some kinds of Israel-related activity. Celebratory, defensive and political engagement with Israel should be the job of specialist organisations with clear ideologies. The ‘big tent’ approach, which has been pioneered by pro-Israel pluralism, can only be a big tent covering pro-Israel organisations, rather than a big tent covering the community as a whole.

In other words, the Israel question should be kept separate from Jewish life as a whole instead of taking it over and those who oppose Israeli government policies should no longer be treated as outsiders. The Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council should definitely take note. And Kahn-Harris is surely right to criticise the point-scoring and aggressiveness of so much of the debate over Israel, in which bitter argument often becomes an end in itself and the end goal of peace and reconciliation in Israel/Palestine is forgotten.

So far, so good. But I have a number of problems with the book. For a start, nowhere does Kahn-Harris point out that this identification of the whole community with support for Israeli government policies is fuelling the current rise in antisemitism in Britain – on the contrary, he associates opposition to antisemitism primarily with the right wing of the community. Also, throughout the book he describes supporters of Israeli government policies as “supporters of Israel”, the implication being that those who oppose these policies are opponents of Israel. He never deals explicitly with the position held by many “Radical Jews” – and indeed by many in the Palestinian solidarity movement – that Israeli government policies are self-destructive as well as destructive, and that Israel needs to be saved from itself.

But my main problem is with the whole concept of “conflict resolution/management”, which tends towards the view that – as was stated explicitly in an “assertiveness training course” I once attended – “there are no right opinions or wrong opinions, only different opinions”. Kahn Harris does address the accusation of relativism and blandness and insists that he is not precluding the need to hold strong opinions and engage in passionate debate. But there is always a tendency in his book towards the position of the rabbi in the old Jewish joke who tells each opponent in a completely contrary dispute “You’re right” and when confronted by an onlooker who says “they can’t both be right”, responds “You’re right too!”

In Chapter Four Kahn-Harris criticises “an absolutist attitude to truth that sees one’s own position not as one motivated by particular values and judgements, but as the only possible position a person could honestly take.” Of course there is always a range of views that we can respect while disagreeing with them. But Kahn-Harris cites as an example of issues that evoke “an absolutist attitude to truth” the question of the illegality or not of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank, writing that this debate “leads to…a plurality of minutely contested legal points that becomes ever more contested and complex over time. What gets lost is any sense that international law might be unclear on certain points and further that international law might be fluid, flawed and open to change.” In fact, if anything is clear in international law, it is that the settlements are illegal! As the Israeli Jewish peace activist Adam Keller, of the Gush Shalom movement, pointed out in a letter published in The Guardian on April 3rd, 2012: “in 2004, the international court of justice in the Hague ruled clearly and unequivocally that the Israeli settlement on the West Bank is completely illegal. The international court of justice is the body set up by the international community for the specific purpose of interpreting international law in specific contentious cases, and it did just that…..until and unless the international court rules otherwise, its 2004 ruling stands as the authoritative interpretation of international law.” Kahn-Harris may accuse me of being “absolutist” in insisting on this, but surely he himself is being absolutist in his claim that international law is unclear on the illegality of settlements!

Kahn-Harris writes with disarming frankness about the failure of the “dialogue group” that he valiantly set up. There was very little interest in it and the few who did attend it do not seem to have derived much benefit from it: “two of the group members had in the past exchanged confrontational emails with each other. While the group offered them an opportunity to develop a different kind of relationship, in practice this never happened, and they clashed repeatedly during the course of the sessions…..Following the last session of the group (which one of the parties could not attend) the war of words became more intense and spilled over into other online and offline forums.”.

After this failure with the “grassroots”, Kahn-Harris decided to hold dinner parties for “Jewish leaders and opinion-formers”, which went much better, as do most Jewish events centred on food (he writes “it is perhaps no coincidence that one of the few rows we had occurred at a dinner where we served a fairly indigestible lentil dish that had burned.”)! He is certainly to be admired for the care he and his wife took in preparing food and creating a convivial atmosphere. There is a fascinating passage in which he brings out the conflict between public stances and private criticism, writing: “Many of those who spent much of their time defending Israel in the public sphere or running ‘pro-Israel’ activities were privately concerned about or even horrified at Israel’s settlement policy and the rise of the Israeli right. Conversely, many guests who were known as critics of Israel or supporters of Palestinian rights were critical of aspects of the pro-Palestinian movement and its tendency, at times, to tolerate forms of antisemitism.”

In an interesting passage at the end of the book, Kahn-Harris argues that the current ambiguity of the position of the Israeli government is actually helping to keep the community – or at least the Zionist sections of the community – together:

As long as Israel keeps the possibility of the two-state solution formally on the table but does not enact it, there is at least the possibility of some kind of relationship between all the various Diaspora Jewish Zionist positions on Israel… long as there is no final agreement and Israel does not officially set its borders, most Zionist visions remain viable, at least in theory. Ambiguity is useful both to Israel diplomatically and to Diaspora Jewry communally.

The real rupture, Kahn-Harris claims, will arise if and when the ambiguity stops. He predicts that if, as seems likely, Israel annexes the West Bank, “there is likely to be a movement of some, or all, pro-Israel, pro-peace Jews towards radical Jewish or even anti-Zionist positions”. So the “conflict management strategies” are intended to be put in place in preparation for the even worse community split and confrontation that is likely to happen in the future.

But if this major community split and confrontation takes place, with the Jewish community almost completely split between Radical or anti-Zionist Jews on one side and the increasingly marginalised and defensive Israeli government apologists on the other, would this actually be such a bad thing? Maybe this rift is necessary in order to help to bring about a resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict, with the Israeli government increasingly losing the support of the Diaspora Jewish communities and therefore under pressure to negotiate a genuine peace.

To conclude: I found the detailed analysis of the British Jewish community Israel-related groups fascinating and useful, and Kahn-Harris is surely right about the need for more courtesy and less point-scoring and aggressiveness in the debate and for all sides to understand each other better – and this book will surely help with this understanding. But he seems obsessed with “managing” a rift that probably needs to deepen if the community is ever going to help to achieve genuine peace and reconciliation in Israel/Palestine – which would be real support of Israel. Ultimately, despite all the positive aspects of his book, Kahn-Harris is trying to paper over the cracks.

Poster for the film Sabra set in Palestine, 1933. A Sabra was someone born in Palestine (now Israel) – and also the Hebrew word for the prickly pear. Note the prickly pear, the ‘new Jew’ – manly, cultivating the arid land while supporting a girlie Sabra swooning under the intolerable heat.

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.

EXCERPT from Uncivil War by Keith Kahn-Harris
Times of Israel
March 18, 2014

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 antisemitic 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.’ 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.


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