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British Jewish Politics, Part III

I write this with some mixed feelings. On the one hand, I am pleased that my original post on Zeek / New Jewish Thought was taken seriously enough by Diana to provoke her into writing a lengthy, articulate and serious … Read More

By / August 13, 2009

I write this with some mixed feelings. On the one hand, I am pleased that my original post on Zeek / New Jewish Thought was taken seriously enough by Diana to provoke her into writing a lengthy, articulate and serious response. However, I am also concerned that readers of Zeek, which in my understanding caters to a largely North American/Israeli readership, might find the exchange between us difficult to translate into local vernacular, if not irrelevant to their national experiences as Jews.

In our defence though, the questions we are grappling with are important ones in global Jewish terms. Who should represent Jews, what Jewish politics should consist of, how we should relate to Israel: these issues recur throughout the Jewish world.

The first thing I should say in my response to Diana is that her piece appears to conflate two public statements I have made. The first, my piece for Zeek, only mentions Jews for Justice for Palestinians in one paragraph as part of a wider (and generally rather abstract) discussion of British Jewish politics. The second is an invited speech I made at the Annual General Meeting of JFJFP a few weeks before the Zeek article was published. In my speech I described myself as a ‘critical friend’ of the organisation and suggested ways in which JFJFP might build a closer relationship to the UK Jewish community. This speech was for the most part received respectfully but it was also clear that most (but by no means all) participants at the AGM disagreed with what I had to say.

In what follows I will respond briefly to some of Diana’s points. Some things we will have to agree to differ on; other criticisms that Diana made are based perhaps on a misunderstanding of my intentions in writing the Zeek piece and conflating what I said at the AGM and what I wrote in the article.

First of all, I should say that I share many of Diana’s historical criticisms of the Board of Deputies. In its long history it has a shameful history of quietism and accommodation with power. However, while some of the basic problems with the Board remain, I do think that there are grounds for working with the organisation. First, it provides an umbrella for a lot of uncontroversial and necessary work, such as statistical research. Some of its representative work attracts little criticism, as in its defense of Kashrut. The Board is also involved in important inter faith work (although arguably some of its public positions on Israel may undermine this at times) and I had absolutely no reticence in completing a research report on inter faith work for them earlier this year.

Second, the Board no longer has the kind of unquestioned power it used to. The fast-growing UK Haredi community is not affiliated to it and power has shifted to the Jewish Leadership Council and other ad hoc groupings. Third, the recent election of Vivian Wineman, a former chair of British Friends of Peace Now, as President, does suggest that there is more room for movement among the Deputies than has often been supposed. Indeed, Diana herself notes that the Board’s unquestioned support for Israeli actions may finally be waning.

Diana represents my views regarding the Board as follows:

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.

I wasn’t actually suggesting that the Board needed to have an official opposition as a practical policy suggestion. Rather, I was trying to demonstrate that the parliamentary model on which the Board is based is imperfect as it fails to allow for an organised but respected opposition. I certainly would not want people who have different conceptions of the Board to be incorporated and neutered through some cynical ‘safety valve’. In fact, my suggestion, perhaps an overly subtle one, was much more radical: that we rethink what it is to ‘represent’ a community.

On to my views of JFJFP, Diana argues that I did not ‘do justice to the actions of JFJFP’ in my article and that the organisation has ‘made strenuous efforts to bridge the gap between ourselves and mainstream Jewry’.  Diana quite rightly points out that JFJFP are often viewed with great hostility and that attempts to reach out are often rebuffed. Where I would differ from her is in her argument that ‘It is not us who shun the community but the mainstream community who seem to find our message difficult to digest’.

Now I have absolutely no hesitation in recognising and condemning the hostility that JFJFP engenders. I acknowledge that JFJFP have, in their public statements at least made efforts to use moderate language most of the time. I also acknowledge that in their current process of consultation about whether to support boycotts of Israel there is a real internal debate going on as to how to engage with the Jewish community and how to bridge the divides on the boycott question within JFJFP itself.

The problem is that there are many signatories to JFJFP that I met at the AGM and at other occasions that are incredibly angry at the ‘mainstream’ community, have very little involvement with it and have no hesitation in attacking it rather than working with it. Now much of this attitude does indeed stem from the historic conformism and conservatism of Anglo-Jewry. Until very recently the only choice for the leftist Jew with concerns about Israel was ‘put up or shut up’. Understandably, many rejected this choice and chose to leave the community, while often still identifying as secular Jews. 

But while I understand where the hostility comes from, I also think that it is ultimately self-defeating and increasingly anachronistic.  In the last decade or two, things have moved on in Anglo-Jewry. Among a younger generation, brought up with Limmud, Jewdas, the JCC for London and the Moishe House, the old choice to put up or shut up no longer has to be made. There are spaces now to be a leftist, critical Jew and still be religious to some degree and to be part of the Jewish community. I have no illusions as to the limits of this trend and that many mainstream institutions are unreformed. But – for the first time in decades, perhaps even ever – there is now something to play for.

There is a real chance to change the Jewish community, to create more spaces to be Jewish and progressive, without the need for hostility and anger.

The biggest difference between Diana and myself probably lies in my attitude to the Palestinians. She claims that

‘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.’

I do not for a moment deny that the more powerful party in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is the Israeli one. I do not for a moment seek to minimise the brutality of the occupation and the injustices heaped on the Palestinians. However, none of this is to say that Israelis/Jews do not suffer terribly from the conflict. Suicide bombings are horrific and cause huge pain. The spasmodic bombardment of Sderot – however amateurish and however few it kills – causes terrible fear and trauma. No of course I would rather live in Sderot than Gaza, but pain is pain, anguish is anguish, post-traumatic stress is post-traumatic stress.

There’s a bigger issues here. Diana argues:

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.

Absolutely, those of us who are attached to the most powerful side in such conflicts have a duty to challenge our own side. But things don’t stop there. There are fundamental questions of morality and ethics. To give a ‘free pass’ to the ‘oppressed side’ in a conflict is immoral and ultimately self-defeating. One of the main problems in liberation struggles is that when the oppressed side eventually wins, they frequently themselves end up as oppressors. Look at Mugabe!

It is utterly wrong to suspend moral judgements until the far-off day when victory is won. The liberated state is always formed in embryo in the struggle. Do you really want to see a Hamas style government in the occupied territories? In any case, it is pointless to remain silent if the tactics of the oppressed will only increase their suffering and make liberation less likely. Bombarding Sderot was a gift to the right-wing in Israel. It has probably put paid to any chance of a just peace for decades. Hamas and the Israeli right are both happy that they can continue their sordid little conflict indefinitely.

I should state here what it is that I would like to see: a real peace movement that makes excuses for NO ONE. A movement that rejects violence on both sides. At the moment there is no peace movement – just people who are happier to excuse one sides crimes that the other’s.

This is the problem with single –issue politics. In focusing ire on just one group, institution or issue, any kind of holistic vision is lost. The argument I have with Engage is similar to the one I have with you. I am frustrated that in their justifiable desire to oppose anti-Semitism, a leftist group most of whose members hold views on Israel are not to different from JFJFP have essentially sidelined activism against the occupation. I am equally frustrated by JFJFP’s lack of enthusiasm at fighting anti-Semitism (and yes I recognise that the issue is controversial and different definitions abound) which is sidelined in the fight against the occupation. I recognise that JFJFP do important quiet work on anti-Semitism in the pro-Palestinian movement and that Engage do restate their opposition to the occupation regularly, but there is no question that these activities come a very distant second to the main activities.

As I have stated before, there is a real opportunity for a broad-based progressive Jewish organisation that is critical about Israel. At the moment though, the internecine warfare that bedevils the Jewish community and the Jewish left makes this a dim possibility.

But perhaps Diana and I are both wrong: me in my call for a more politicised Jewish community and Diana in her defence of the integrity of her organisation. Maybe, just maybe, the new generation that is emerging will build a Jewish community that is less limited by the (non)-politics that those of us who grew up in the pre-Noughties community have experienced. Perhaps there is more respect for difference – on Israel and on other things. Perhaps there is less tolerance for puerile ‘Judean People’s Front’ politics and a greater desire for grassroots coalition building. Perhaps there is a willingness to see love of Jews, love of Israelis, love of Palestinians, hatred of violence, hatred of racism and hatred of anti-Semitism as non-contradictory values.

In short, maybe Diana and I are dinosaurs.

 

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