A Time to Speak Out

Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zionism and Jewish Identity

By Anne Karpf, Brian Klug, Jacqueline Rose, Barbara Rosenbaum (eds.)
Yale University Press, 2008, £30

When Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) announced its existence in February 2007, with an article in The Guardian by Brian Klug and the publication of a founding declaration with one hundred signatories, it created a stir of controversy in the British Jewish world and beyond. They were described as ‘Jews for Genocide’ by the Jewish Chronicle’s columnist Melanie Phillips, who accused them on a Newsnight debate of straying ‘into the realm of demonisation’ of Israel. Even the vastly more thoughtful Howard Jacobson characterised IJV’s position as ‘self-indulgent fantasy’ and ‘gesture politics’. But the new group also received enthusiastic praise, and the initial signatories were soon joined by hundreds more.
Most of IJV’s founding statement consists of generalities in favour of human rights, peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians, and against racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. These are sentiments to which one hopes any mainstream British Jewish leader would subscribe. Similarly, the aspiration for a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians (without mentioning specifics in terms of timetable, territory, refugees, the status of Jerusalem or anything else) is not in itself especially contentious. What really caused the vitriol was IJV’s challenge to the institutions and attitudes within British Jewry in their declaration that ‘those who claim to speak on behalf of Jews in Britain (my italics) and other countries consistently put support for the policies of an occupying power [the Israeli government] above the human rights of an occupied people [the Palestinians]’. They also reject accusations of ‘disloyalty’ made against Jews who oppose Israeli government policies. The bitterness that IJV generated was not really surprising; no issue has the potential to generate bad feeling more quickly among British Jews than the politics of Israel-Palestine. IJV’s platform was as much about this community as anything happening between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan.
But was this more than a storm in a bowl of borscht? The publication over a year later of A Time to Speak Out, a volume of twenty-seven short essays by IJV signatories and sympathisers (including two involved in similar Jewish initiatives in the United States and Australia), provides an opportunity to take stock. A book, after all, can give space for more nuanced and measured arguments than those usually associated with the immediacy of newspapers, the Internet, or the studios of Newsnight.

This volume does dispel some myths about IJV’s signatories. They are not by definition estranged from Jewish life. The contributors include a some-time synagogue president, a university Jewish society chair, a graduate of Leo Baeck College, and the director of  the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. Many of the essays demonstrate a meaningful intellectual engagement with issues of Jewish identity, which goes beyond the politics of Israel-Palestine. This is not surprising if one considers that the contributors have between them published on matters of Jewish interest ranging from spirituality, the Holocaust and Primo Levi, to Jewish music and cooking. Furthermore, several essays include reflections on family histories and personal experiences of Jewish life. ‘“What are you then?” people ask, as they detect my foreign accent,’ begins Donald Sasson’s contribution: a challenge that has been faced at one time or another by members of every Jewish family in Britain. There is no uniformity in the response of the contributors to questions of Jewish identity, nor is there any sense that being an IJV signatory entails any disdain for Jewish life. Jon Benjamin, Chief Executive of the Board of Deputies, commented ‘If [they] chose to engage with the institutions of the Jewish community, rather than shouting from the sidelines, they may find that most Jews disagree with much of what they say’. On the basis of this volume, he and others will have to do much better to cast IJV’s signatories as inherently marginal to British Jewish life.

This volume does not demonise Israel. Jeremy Montagu explains that he became an IJV signatory ‘as a Jew who loves and supports Israel, who has children and grandchildren who live there, who visits the country regularly’. Several contributors have spent years living in Israel. The focus of the political comments by all the contributors is to change Israeli government policies, not to vilify the state or the society; even the two who describe themselves as non-Zionist do not suggest that the state should be radically reconfigured. These essays cite the work of Israeli initiatives such as B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, and individuals such as Tom Segev, Uri Avnery and the former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg. Thus the contributors to this volume align themselves with a political minority among Jewish Israelis, but to deduce from this that they must be the enemies of Israel per se is entirely unconvincing.

In addition to being half-hearted Jews, and to hating Israel, the third major accusation made against IJV is that they have manufactured the claim that they are marginalised by the ‘official’ bodies of the community. It is true that criticism of Israeli policies is freely heard in the general press, but Emma Clyne’s contribution to this volume illustrates that this need not be the case within the Jewish community. As chair of her university’s Jewish student society, she was troubled by the limited interest of the national Union of Jewish Students (UJS) in any aspect of Jewish life beyond supporting Israeli government politics. This came to a head when her society attempted to hold a meeting at which three IJV signatories would speak on nationalism and Jewish identity. Ms Clyne resisted UJS’s demand that she cancel the meeting (backed up by an accusation of ‘disloyalty’ to the Jewish community). UJS styles itself as a non-political body for all Jewish students. Yet this account of the group’s activities (which chimes completely with this reviewer’s observations over seven years as an undergraduate and graduate student) suggests that it sees its role as policing obedience to a communal ‘line’ on Israel-Palestine, and delegitimising those who stray rather than respecting the diversity of Jewish opinion.  Together with the essay on communal politics by Antony Lerman (director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research), this contribution will make it difficult for anyone to be complacent about the room for open debate in the official bodies of our community.

On the one hand A Time to Speak Out dispels myths about IJV, yet at the same time the volume’s editors engage in what feels like an attempt at some myth-making of their own. IJV is very far from being the first British Jewish group with this platform. The Israeli movements Meretz and Peace Now have always had active British branches; there is little or nothing in IJV’s declaration that contradicts their positions. Among several home- grown organisations, the Jewish Socialists’ Group has existed since the mid-1970s, while Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP, founded in 2002) remains by far the largest and most active of the community’s critics of Israeli policies towards Palestinians. (JfJfP has over 1,300 signatories, IJV has fewer than 600). Yet the editors’ introduction to this volume fails to mention any of these other groups, implicitly presenting their initiative as the first challenge to an Anglo-Jewish consensus on Israel-Palestine. This impression is quietly corrected in some of the contributions that follow, and is not as serious as the distortions to which IJV has been subject, but it is unsettling nonetheless.

A second piece of incipient myth-making comes from the founding document of IJV (reproduced in this volume), which states that ‘we hereby reclaim the tradition of Jewish support for universal human freedoms, human rights and social justice’. This statement, together with the editors’ introduction, and IJV’s other public pronouncements, fails to acknowledge that there is in Britain a flourishing network of Jewish organisations engaged with wide-ranging questions of human rights. At a local level there are numerous synagogues that purchase Fairtrade products, or provide practical support for asylum seekers, or offer a platform for campaigning against human rights violations in Darfur. At a national level, the development charity Tzedek, René Cassin (and its initiative the Jewish Human Rights Network), JCORE, the Make Poverty History Jewish Coalition, as well as the major synagogue bodies Liberal Judaism and Reform Judiasm, among others, all articulate Jewish support for universal human rights. In recent years they have gone far beyond traditional and uncontentious Jewish charitable concerns to tackle some politically charged topics.
It is a pity that no British Jewish group yet systematically integrates an analysis of human rights violations in Israel-Palestine into a universalist political vision. (Although perhaps discretion is the better part of valour; it would be a pity if worthwhile universalist projects were derailed by debates about Israel-Palestine). IJV as a group has gone in the opposite direction, speaking the language of universal human rights but focusing on Israel-Palestine to the exclusion of other issues. It has not even addressed topics that involve Israeli government policies not directly connected to Palestinians, including the development of weapons of mass destruction, the denial of full legal standing to non-Orthodox Jewish denominations or the activities of Israeli mercenaries. A number of Israeli groups, such as Rabbis for Human Rights and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, have succeeded in combining campaigns on a range of universal human rights with trenchant engagement in the specific circumstances of Israel-Palestine. Perhaps attempting to bridge the gap would be a useful activity for IJV; and it is clear from this volume that many of its signatories are exercised by human rights issues far beyond Israel-Palestine.

A Time to Speak Out is unlikely to change the attitudes of anyone, Jewish or not, on questions of Israeli-Palestinian politics. The volume as a whole does not attempt to say anything about facts or attitudes on the ground in Israel-Palestine which are not amply documented elsewhere. This volume, like the furore that surrounded IJV’s launch, is really about being Jewish in Britain, and on this subject it provides food for thought. As the editors acknowledge, there is real variety among their contributors, but it is possible to make out some interesting unifying themes. Most notable is that IJV’s signatories have chosen to live in Britain. This is, after all, a very good place to be Jewish. We are able to participate fully in wider society, while enjoying the benefits of a fairly well-developed communal infrastructure, from Jewdas to Gateshead Yeshiva to Limmud. The contributors as a whole seem comfortable in their skins as Jews in Britian. This is worth emphasising, because the overwhelming experience of British Jews is tolerable comfort (as is not the case for most other ethnic and religious minorities in this country), but far too often the community is characterised as being under siege by anti-Semities. The volume as a whole (and Julia Bard’s contribution in particular) serves as a critique to this notion.
It is also worth noting that the contributors are unapologetic about not living in Israel. The longer-established Meretz UK and British Friends of Peace Now derive their status from their left-Zionist Israeli parent groups, but IJV and JfJfP are products of the British Jewish world. When Ehud Olmert said that ‘it would be good if every Jew in the world would make aliyah to Israel’ he expressed a widespread assumption within the Israeli political establishment, which is ultimately dismissive of Jewish life in Britain and across the world (even if it values diaspora support for Israeli policies). Actually, it would not be good, now or in the future, for all Jews to move to Israel, and it is doubtful that any serious British Jewish leader would really welcome communal self-destruction though aliyah. Yet the rhetoric of political solidarity with Israeli policies prevents a challenge to the view that diaspora communities are secondary to Israel. By placing participation in Jewish debate ahead of ‘Israel solidarity’, the essays in the volume implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) point towards a more self-confident basis for Jewish life in Britain than that articulated by many of the community’s established leaders.

This volume also draws attention to the variety of Jewish stories in Britain. The notion that we all came from the shtetl is as unsatisfactory as the one that we are all on our way to make aliyah. Some of the most compelling involve South Africa. Stan Cohen’s reflections on seventeen years as a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem draw in part on his South African experiences. Richard Kuper (a founder of JfJfP) and Gillian Slovo similarly came to Britain due to their participation in the struggle against apartheid. It is worth reflecting both on why these Jews have made their homes in Britain and what has prompted their involvement with IJV. Other British-based contributors talk of personal and family stories relating to Australia and Sweden, Egypt and France. Sami Zubaida’s thoughts on being an Iraqi Jew are a salutary reminder that these have not always been mutually exclusive categories. Cumulatively these essays, together with the contributions from Australian and American sympathisers, present an ever-changing multi-centred Jewish geography, which is much more satisfying than the oft-repeated but over-simplistic Israel-Diaspora dichotomy.

The biggest division among the contributors here is not somewhere on a left-right spectrum of Israeli politics. Rather, it concerns their attitudes towards Jewish identity. The bulk of these contributors situate their position on Israel-Palestine in the context of more general reflections on Jewish life, but a noticeable minority do not. The tactical employment of Jewish identity in pursuit of justice for Palestinians may be a worthwhile political project, but it does not on its own make for a satisfying contribution to Jewish life. It may be, though, that this limitation is due in part to editorial policy. Most of these essays are too short. The best dozen or so contributions could have been extended to make for a more thoughtful and challenging whole, and move further beyond the journalistic imperatives of the debate surrounding IJV’s launch. Even if IJV is less than the sum of its parts, this volume as a whole deserves neither to be dismissed nor feted. Is it too much to hope that it can simply be received thoughtfully?

Dr Bernard Gowers is a historian and a member of the Jewish community in Oxford

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