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What is British Jewish Politics?

Politics is an inescapable part of human existence. It concerns the way that people organise themselves, in particular how they act within institutions and units of governance. Above all, politics concerns the way humans interact with power. It is therefore self-evident that politics exists in the British Jewish community, but what I want to question is how far the British Jewish community has an acknowledged politics.

In much of the British Jewish community, politics is in ‘bad taste’. In synagogues a macher that is too overt in political scheming is likely to be viewed with suspicion. On a community-wide level, inter-denominational politicking is widely practiced, but often looked down on. In the oldest and most influential UK Jewish representative organization, the Board of Deputies, which has a quasi-parliamentary structure and whose deputies elect a president and vice-president, there is nothing resembling parties and deputies rarely face election fights in their own communities. Even those few organisations that are openly political, such as the UK branches of Israeli political parties, tend to be low-key and poorly supported.

In short, there is a disparity between the de facto inevitability and ubiquity of British Jewish communal politics and the degree to which this politics is openly recognised. British Jewish politics is largely a matter for quiet, behind-the-scenes activity.

This reticence is perhaps a function of a tacit assumption that politics is antithetical to community. To be openly political is seen to be to seek to divide, to create strife and discord that threatens to rupture communal harmony. In part this may derive from long-held feelings of insecurity that as a minority in British society, the Jewish community must show a united front and that division can only equal weakness. In terms of Israel, one of the most contentious issues in British Jewish life, public campaigning against Israeli policies (from both a right and a left perspective) or open support for Israeli political parties, are marginal activities viewed by much of the community as bad form and potentially dangerous. 

The assumption that small minorities need to present a united front is not necessarily illegitimate. The problem is that the lack of politics can create problems more serious than those it is designed to combat. If Jewish communal politics is not acknowledged, politics will still continue, but it will continue in ways that can be corrosive. If those who disagree with a particular direction the community takes can only been seen to legitimately disagree if they do so privately, this increases the likelihood that rather than accept their marginality they will resort to attacking the community.

I am thinking here about the position of those who disagree with communal support for Israel. Contrary to the commonly made accusation that the community ‘suppresses’ debate, it is more the case that debate is possible if it is done quietly and behind the scenes. The trouble is that some will not accept only being able to disagree privately while in public maintaining a facade of unity. Without a legitimate political process through which to debate communal policies, those British Jews who are critical of Israel have often resorted to attacking the community from the outside.

I recently attended the annual general meeting of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, an organization whose aims I broadly support. 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.

It is essential to begin the process of rethinking British Jewish politics. The tacit assumption that politics and community are antithetical needs to be questioned. In any but the tiniest, most homogeneous community, differences of opinion are inevitable and there has to be a way of dealing with these differences without the dissolution of the community. What models might there be for a community whose political system could allow for the mediation of difference? What kind of political language do British Jews need to embrace in order to function without undue rancor?

One source of inspiration might be parliamentary democracy itself. The Board of Deputies is structured as a kind of parliament, but it lacks one crucial element of parliamentary democracy – an official opposition. When a politician who has been democratically elected speaks for a country, region or locality, it is clear that even if they govern for all, they were only elected by some. To be a leader in a democracy is to publicly affirm that not everyone agrees. Indeed, when democracies work best (and admittedly they often do not) the opposition plays an important role in the democratic process, scrutinising the executive and acting as a constant rebuke to delusions of unanimity. Political opponents may disagree vehemently but in the best parliamentary democracies, this does not stop them respecting each other as individuals, nor does the fact of divided political loyalties necessarily prevent the cohesiveness of the nation.

The parliamentary model is of course not applicable in its entirety in the British Jewish community. It is hard to envisage a truly representative Jewish parliament – who decides who is a Jew and who can vote? But the parliamentary model teaches us that it does suggest that politics can overt politics can not only allow community and difference to be balanced, it can also improve the quality of the leadership within of the Jewish community. Above all, it suggests that we should not fear politics but embrace it.

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