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British Jewish Politics, Part II

Keith Kahn-Harris, in his discussion of British Jewish politics (Zeek, June 30th), presents a rather timid community, anxious to maintain cohesion behind its chosen voice, the Board of Deputies of British Jews.  He chooses to present this organisation as the … Read More

By / July 27, 2009

Keith Kahn-Harris, in his discussion of British Jewish politics (Zeek, June 30th), presents a rather timid community, anxious to maintain cohesion behind its chosen voice, the Board of Deputies of British Jews.  He chooses to present this organisation as the quasi-parliamentary representative voice of British Jewry and shows that the elections to the board from the organisations that pay their rather steep affiliation fees, are seldom openly contested.

Kahn-Harris identifies the antipathy of the Board to open dissension within the Jewish community.  He suggests, as perhaps a modernising response, that like the British democratic parliament, there should be a parliamentary opposition which would allow the safety valve of open debate and thus draw the sting from those who feel excluded from Jewish life, because they happen to have fundamentally different conceptions of what the Board should be doing, particularly with respect to Israel.

The Board of Deputies behaves in this way, Kahn-Harris posits, as a coping strategy by a group infused with anxiety.  He traces this to years of persecution and the necessity of showing a harmonious face to the outside world, which otherwise could divide and destroy it. Its a familiar argument, often used to rationalise reactionary Jewish political behaviour. Unfortunately, in this instance, this account is not applicable.

The Board is only copying a tactic used over the centuries by Jewish communities, where Jewish male elders negotiated for their communities in arenas often hostile to them.  It kept the communities safe, enabled them to live according to Jewish precepts, allowed for the  advancement of the leadership and maintained social control. But this depended above all on the fact that no party rocked the boat.  This precluded of course negotiating with those  from within the communities, who could be seen to challenge powerful interests.

The Board of Deputies has tried on the whole to maintain good relationships with those in power and has usually been on the side of reaction. Although according to William Rubinstein’s A History of Jews in the English Speaking World, the Board initially campaigned against the 1905 Aliens Act, Britain’s first anti-immigration law, passed to limit the number of Jews settling in the country, they soon adapted to it, as the implementation was not strict.  The Board of Deputies argued against confronting Fascists during the 1930s.  The Board were similarly hostile to the pre-war effort to boycott Nazi Germany, a tactic demanded by many Jewish communities throughout the world, but not by the Yishuv in Palestine. It also argued strongly against working with the left wing Anti-Nazi league against British Fascists in the late 1970s.

Although initially an anti-Zionist organisation, seeing themselves as Jews and not as nationalists, this changed in 1937, according to Geoffrey Alderman in Modern British Jewry, with the election onto the Board of an organised group of Zionists .  Since then, the board has maintained a consistent pattern of open defence of Israel’s actions and of organising solidarity events whenever there is major criticism of Israel’s behaviour.  Thus, in spite of the fact that the Zionist Federation is Israel’s main supporting organisation in this country, it is the Board, whose remit is British Jewry, not Israeli politics, that will publicly defend Israel’s actions.

It would seem that the Board actually follows the communal lead by identifying the changing opinions within the community and harnessing them in its public pronouncements.  This is fine when there is a degree of homogeneity within the community and when the board is able to co-opt its critics into the big tent, but fails comprehensively once there is real dissent. 

As Keith Kahn-Harris correctly points out, the major source of dissent now is the behaviour of the state of Israel and the fact that among thinking Jews, the idea of blind support of Israeli actions is no longer acceptable.  In his presentation to the annual general meeting of Jews for Justice for Palestinians,  Kahn-Harris outlined what he sees as a significant change in Jewish responses to Israel’s actions and his view that there are many Jews thirsty for fresh streams.  He identifies the Gaza attack as perhaps the trigger for a sense of discomfort in the Jewish community about the direction down which Israel is travelling.  This together with the new extreme government in Israel has made Jewish people in Britain start to question their allegiances. 

A group who have been active since the beginning of the second intifada, campaigning against the occupation and for a just peace, namely Jews for Justice for Palestinians may be well placed to pick up those increasingly disillusioned with undiscerning mainstream support. 

Kahn-Harris came to address our annual general meeting and was unhappy with what he found:

Many of those attending were extremely bitter with the ‘mainstream’ Jewish community, and most were uninterested in working to bring Jews who were more involved in the community on board. As much as the mainstream community shuns leftist critics of Israel, many of them effectively shun themselves’.

In my view, this bald statement does not do justice to the actions of JFJFP.  It is important to recognise that JFJFP has made strenuous efforts to bridge the gap between ourselves and mainstream Jewry.  We find it extremely difficult if not impossible to obtain access to mainstream synagogues, or community facilities. In fact only recently we were well on the way to mounting an uncontroversial event in a synagogue. But the event was cancelled perhaps because of concerns expressed by some that JFJFP were sponsoring it.  Recently we offered to talk to a community in the home counties, after they expressed anger at a meeting arranged by humanitarian activists to highlight injustices suffered by Palestinians.    The response was a public letter of uncontrolled venom.  And indeed JFJFP has met with the Board on at least two occasions.  It is not us who shun the community but the mainstream community who seem to find our message difficult to digest.

In his presentation, Keith Kahn-Harris made a number of suggestions as to how JFJFP could change to harness this disquiet.  He made it clear that our approach is not calculated to appeal to Jews who ‘love Israel’.  These Jews, according to Kahn-Harris, ask ‘Jews for Justice for Palestinians, what about Jews for Justice for Jews?’  They ask why we do not criticise Palestinians who deserve criticism as much as Israelis do and why we are silent on the issue of anti-Semitism and of Hamas.  He believed that this would encourage those Jews now looking for an alternative to take the plunge and join with JFJFP.

Each area mapped out by Keith Kahn-Harris is highly contentious.  It is difficult to understand how to equate the brutality of a military occupation together with its denial of human rights, with injustice to Jews.  Indeed it is difficult to know how, when Jewish life has never been less constricted, what injustice is being perpetrated.  There is also the question raised by those of us who are schooled in  the anti-colonialist struggles of the last century.  This is that those from the dominant side have a responsibility to challenge our own side and to expect the challenge to the oppressed side, to come from within.  Anything else is paternalism.  And indeed while Israel’s supporters continue to maintain a silence about its offences, they take every opportunity to criticise the Palestinians, and often peddle lies. 

Anti-Semitism today has become a much more contested arena.  There are those who would call it anti-Semitism to ‘deny Jews the right to self-determination’, as the EU Monitoring Commission seemed to suggest, taken up with alacrity by the Parliamentary committee on anti-Semitism.  This definition faces challenges from the European Jews for a Just Peace and from JFJP as it seems to be a stalking horse for a declaration that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.  True anti-Semitism is always challenged by members of our group, when on marches or when working with other solidarity movements, and we have managed to change behaviour.  We regard anti-Semitism as the enemy of the Palestinian cause, as much as it is the enemy of Jewish people.  However in talking about anti-Semitism, we need clarity to know exactly what people mean.

At the annual general meeting, signatories suggested that it is not for JFJFP to change, in  reaching out to the anxious, but rather for another organisation, a sort of half way house to be established, something like the almost moribund Peace Now. This would be able to net the unhappy in a way they would find amenable.  Sadly this organisation seems to have gone into hibernation following the ‘War on Terror’.  Now that this strange period is on the wane, perhaps the luminaries of this organisation both in Israel and in the UK might begin to emerge again and take their place in the peace pantheon as a half way house for those beginning at last to feel discomfort  caused by uncritical support for Israel’s actions.

It is strange that Kahn-Harris should be trying to disinter the bones of the British parliamentary system, one that the British public is finding increasingly unsatisfactory.  Maybe it would be more apt to look at the survival tactics of the board over the years.  The board identifies with powerful interests and tries to modify its stance in accordance with perceived changes in the Jewish community itself.  It is now apparent that powerful interests in the United States, in the European Union and in Britain are no longer willing to give Israel the free pass to disregard all international legal frameworks in its endeavour to achieve dominion in the Middle East.  This change is reflected in the more thoughtful approaches of many in the Jewish community that Kahn Harris at the annual general meeting, and Anthony Lerman have sketched out.

This wind of change seems even to be blowing in the direction of the Board itself, perhaps responding to perceived changes in the community. A quick peak at the Board of Deputies’ website shows a complete lack of any activity on behalf of Israel, other than prayers for the family of Gilad Shalit. Maybe the Board itself is beginning to adapt to the new environment in which it now needs to operate. What organisations like Jews for Justice for Palestinians can do is maintain their integrity.  Our goal is ultimately to be accepted by mainstream Jewish organisations, but not to destroy our own values in the process.  

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