Debating the Debate

‘Anglo-Jewry finds its voice’, trumpeted the front page of the Jewish Chronicle during the harrowing days of the Gaza bombardment.

What voice exactly was this? What was it saying? More importantly, for whom was it speaking?

If the tangible feelings of dismay, paralysis and incredulity around me were anything to go by, whole swathes of Anglo-Jewry were left unspoken for.

Urgently, it seemed, a platform was needed for those unheard voices. The following is a transcript of the first conversation organised by the JQ to establish what these voices might be saying. What are the issues? How might they be broached? How, as a community, might we manage these differences?

The conversation was chaired by Jonathan Boyd (acting director of Jewish Policy Research). The participants were Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg (Rabbi of New North London Syngogue), Douglas Krikler (Chief Executive of the UJIA), Paul Usiskin (Co-chair of Peace Now UK), Geoffrey Alderman, (Columnist, Professor of Politics & Contemporary History at the University of Buckingham) Kevin Sefton, (Limmud Trustee) Joseph Finlay (Musician, involved with Jewdas and the Moishe House), Keith Kahn-Harris (Sociologist, convenor of New Jewish Thought www.newjewishthought.org) and Daniella Peled (journalist and analyst who specialises on the Middle East).

JB: What’s the problem? Can we define it? Do we have a shared understanding of what the issue is in the community?

GA: Why are we here? Is there a reason why we’re here? Is there a problem? I know some people around here. We talk. We have different views but maintain a civility towards each other.

KKH: Being willing and able to talk to anybody is unusual in the Jewish community The dominant mode of intra-Jewish politics is to refuse to talk to people and appear on platforms with them. Some people feel personally damaged by their encounters. Some feel pariahs. It creates a lot of disquiet and hurt and affects the community dynamic.

JW: Ignoring everyone else in the room momentarily, I find the things I say to myself about Israel difficult. I worry that it ceases to be a moral example of the kind of Judaism I, as a rabbi, believe in passionately.

I say to myself that I do not understand how this country has a future and how it’s going to survive. I think the most appalling things are being done to it. I say to myself that the world treats it wretchedly, and I tend to think those things all at the same time. I feel guilty about saying this and I feel hopeless a lot of the time — that is a struggle. I see the Jewish world in an existential crisis of a different kind completely to the shoah, but great in magnitude.

GA: Would you not feel the same about Britain? I moralise about Britain.

DP: No one questions whether or not you’re a self-hating Briton. People care about Israel and get upset…more than might be reasonable.

GA: I don’t find this at all. Perhaps I’m meeting the wrong kind of Jews. People walk out of talks I give, but never over Israel. Maybe it’s because in academia we have tradition of free dialogue.

DP: I thought we did in Judaism.
DK: The assumption that there is no debate in the Jewish community about Israel is patently wrong. You only need to look in the JC; the letters pages, the columnists. In any shul community there will be discussion. There are constraining factors and we need to find a way to escape those constraints, which come from within and without.  Many people feel dislocated from any position because there is a degree of defensiveness from the more established elements of the community — understandably because of some of the external pressures. People who want to have a more nuanced, sophisticated, and honest discussion are squeezed between the lack of openness within certain sectors to hear that debate, and the nervousness about giving succour to ‘the enemies of the community’. So there is a conflicting set of dynamics within the community which causes dislocation. We need to find a way to reduce those constraints which hamper people’s ability to speak out

The onus is on the mainstream, established, organised elements of the community, to enable and contribute to the creation of a space where all views on Israel are acceptable, and where people feel they can express those views without being ostracised.

KKH: Does that extend to those who question Zionism?
DK: Of course it depends how you define Zionism. If I can define myself as a Zionist but never have any intention of going to live in Israel that’s one thing,when you start to unpick these terms you see how loaded they are.

Zionism is a term used by enemies of the community as a substitute for Judaism. A Jew using the term may have a very different understanding.

What does Zionism mean? It depends who you ask. We have to determine the starting points and parameters. When the baseline of a conversation is an acceptance of the right of Israel to exist, anything else I think is completely open for debate. One can question the nature of society in Israel, policies of Israeli government, morality within  Israel, Israel with reference to rest of the world, us as Jews with reference to Israel.  If one’s starting point is to question the legitimacy of the existence of the State of Isreal, it becomes very much more problematic.

My sense is that there is a need to have an honest debate within the community without being ostracised. But you can’t be naïve: that debate takes place within a broader context, where there are others who don’t have such a benign set of motivations behind questioning and criticising Israel.

PU: I search daily in Ha’aretz and Yedioth Achronot these days to find some residue of something optimistic. But I find little aside from debate about whether the figures of 250 or 236 innocent Palestinian lives are acceptable collateral damage. I don’t go near the JC anymore. I don’t see a place in that paper for the views that I held, let alone the views I hold now. I also find myself viewing communal responses to Israel as something of an outsider. I last viewed the community at Trafalgar Square. When I was there on behalf of Israel, in 2002, there were some 60,000 people there, this time there were around 6,000, which shows that there are a hell of a lot of conflicted Jews out there.

DP: Is there a place in the mainstream community for your views? The big organisations with funds are supposed to represent the Jewish community but how could only one body represent the Jewish community? It certainly couldn’t over Israel. Maybe over shechita, maybe over religious legislation. Israel is the biggest alienating force, certainly when it comes to the younger generation. Why would you want to be involved in something so contentious? It’s a complete turn off.

DK: You can’t dismiss all of the young people involved in Israel-related activity in what you might call a traditional way; 50 per cent of all Jewish 16-year-olds go on an Israel tour, 20 per cent go on a gap year.

For many people, Israel is not a turn off and they are trying to find ways of engaging with Israel in a way that is relevant to them. To the surprise of many, some of the programmes we’re involved with in Israel are not the traditional Rightist Zionist stuff: we are actually challenging the development of society in Israel today, engaging with people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, as well as environmental issues. These are not the sort of things traditionally associated with a mainstream Zionist organisation, and this has caused us to have debates within UJIA to challenge received wisdom about what engaging with Israel means.

DP: I think things are changing. Take someone going to university today — do they have to defend Israel on campus? Is it a positive engagement to have to defend Israel on campus and in the media?

DK: You can’t pretend that doesn’t exist. The debate and the grappling with issues in Israel doesn’t take place in a vacuum. The reason Jews on campus need to defend Israel is because it’s a very short step from the attacking of Israel, to the compromising of people’s ability to lead Jewish lives on campus.

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KKH: I’d like to argue that the events in Israel since December — the Gaza War and the election of Lieberman — represent an enormous opportunity for the Jewish community: it’s clear that the old Israel solidarity narrative is falling apart. The low attendance at the recent rally in Trafalgar Square, the fact that one synagogue movement (Liberal Judaism) refused to take part, the fact that in a letter to the Observer a number of leading Jewish communal figures were critical — albeit in a coded way — of what was going on in Israel.

I think that the consensus is breaking apart both at the leadership level and at the grassroots level. But there’s any opportunity here to do something that has to be done which is to democratise the community. The community has got a lot better at dealing with religious difference, I think the antagonism between reform and orthodox is much less, although it still goes on, and I think the task now is to do the same with Israel and I think the election of Liberman is where it has to happen because when he comes to London (and at some point he will come to London if he’s not put in prison for fraud first) there is going to be a choice for the community: do we roll out the red carpet as usual? There are some senior members of the community who will not be able to. The consensus cannot hold anymore. You can see that negatively or positively.

JW: I think the rally presented all the different directions. One of the reasons why I went, even though I was critical of some of what was going on in Gaza was that people told me they’d seen banners  saying ‘kill the Jews of London’. That was sufficient for me to feel that one cannot be frightened out of public space. I went there feeling extremely torn but was happy to bump into people from the Three Faiths Forum as I think what they stand for is closely related to what I stand for. I was asked to come on the platform but said I didn’t want to and I was walking around the edges a non-Jewish person said to me ‘unforgivable slaughter’ and walked on. I have to speak about this; I am in a public position and not to speak would be an act of cowardice. The conclusion I’m coming to is that criticising the right of Israel to exist is far further than anything I believe in but I have to find those organizations, those people in Israel who represent the values I care about. I agree there are opportunities here but they are opportunities accompanied by pain.

JF: The debate is about what institutions with money and power ought to be doing. Doug’s comment that Jews should be able to take any position on Israel is fantastic and I think that most of us would broadly agree with that. But you put a limit on that: the Jewishness of the state. So let’s agree, for the sake of argument, to take that position. Within that position you could publicly condemn the occupation, the wall, the war on Gaza. You could propose a boycott of settlement goods, even a boycott of all Israeli products for the aim of ending the occupation. If there was genuinely free debate all those things would be legitimately up for discussion, but let’s see how far away we are from that: would voices within the UJIA, the Board of Deputies, the JLC, the JC be able to publicly say those things? Of course not, we’re miles away from that.  But that’s the logic of that really brilliant position that Jews should be able to say anything about Israel! I don’t understand the comment that you can say anything but if you criticize the Jewishness of the state you’re beyond the pale. Why should one who is a principled anti-nationalist who doesn’t believe in states based on ethnicity be somehow outside the conversation. The idea of a state for all its citizens was part of Zionist thought at a certain point in history so, it should still have a place in the debate. Also this notion of Zionism as being contested, and indeed it is contested: let’s imagine we get rid of the word altogether. Let’s imagine youth movements don’t have to have ‘Zionist’ in their title in order to get funding. I think though that if we agree to this openness and this approach we should recognize we are quite far away from here and should think about how we could get there.

KS: I am taken by this idea that the starting point should be the right of Israel to exist. If I went into a room full of Jews and said I’m not really sure if God exists, people would engage with me. They would have strong arguments but would listen to what I have to say. But if I said Israel should not exist as a Jewish state the atmosphere would become uncomfortable and awkward.

The amount of money we spend on sending young people to Israel is interesting. Part of this obligation to support Israel is built up through programmes people go on. That we need to invest all this money in ensuring they talk about Israel in an appropriate way highlights how difficult it is for us to talk about it.

DP: Should the baseline be the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state or the right of Israel to exist?

DK: My baseline is the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state run along democratic lines with equality for all its citizens before the law.

GA: Israel has to exist within a certain world order. I’ve criticized Israel on many occasions however to deny the right of Israel to exist is racism. Anglo-Jewry is very different today than it was in May 1948. There is no table long enough for all members of Anglo Jewry to sit at. We now have a  series of overlapping circles with ends that don’t talk to each other and don’t even recognise each other as Jews. We’ve become pluralized and polarized. Maybe that’s why some of us experience an emotional difficulty when talking about Israel. Zionism was at one time the unifying force of Anglo Jewry and is now the most divisive. I don’t mourn this but try to live my life within it. I heard a lecture at Hebrew University a long time ago that the borders of the state of Israel would change over 150 years. They would expand and contract, it would take a long time to for Israel to settle into its true shape within the Middle East. We are in the middle of this and we don’t know the end game. But let us be civil to each other as we are around this table.

JW: Nothing is outside discussion because eventually one has to confront everything, but not caring if Israel is wiped off the map is morally unacceptable. The question of the relationship in Israel between Jewish and democratic, however, is an essential, unavoidable question.

I find myself weeping many times over things especially the Gaza war. But my biggest difficulties are with the West Bank, particularly the eviction from houses. Certain anti-Zionist comments are racist, but certain actions of the State of Israel are definitely racist. I’ve heard from people and I’ve seen with my own eyes that they’re not accidental but part of a clear policy of wanting to remove non-Jewish inhabitants from certain key areas. I worry this is part of a process of long-term defeat for Israel. In the end, and this is a rabbinic matter, ultimately Judaism is much greater than Israel.

JF: There is no table big enough for these views. Can we just agree not to be saying things in the name of all of us? The things that happen, the solidarity demonstrations  and delegations to government on behalf of the Jewish community- I just don’t understand how any this can be representative. It strikes me that the model is to have a proper debate between right and left as was done at LJS, rather than waiting to hear what the rabbi says. Let’s stop trying to have The Jewish Position, particularly on Israel.

GA: There is no Jewish position.

KKH: People will fight tooth and nail to defend their position. People in representative institutions, who are often very dedicated and able, believe that the jewish community is under threat, criticism of Israel usually goes too far and to defend anglo-jewry you need to take this position. I disagree with this position but I understand those who hold it and also the bad effect of it. It comes back to the word democratization, which is a painful process.

DP: It’s only been 60 years since the foundation of the State of Israel. Both sides have a lot of growing up to do. We still have this idea that we need to look after Israel, we need the UJIA, and the jewish national fund. We need to give money to israel, to defend Israel at home. We believe Israel is the only safe place for jewish people around the world. We shouldn’t shy away from debating these things and also the responsibility of Israel to the diaspora. The age of mass aliyah is over, we now have a drip of people from western countries at great expense supported by organizations like nefesh b’nefesh but even the remaining jews in Russia want to stay in Russia. Our old ideas of Zionism and supporting Israel need to change but we’re too insecure and we don’t want to wash our dirty linen in public. Jews are terrified and always have been of giving succour to our enemies. But if that’s how we define ourselves we’re still living within our old ghetto walls, despite being British citizens in a liberal democracy. There is no future, no dynamism, no progress.

KS: It’s the debate that matters. What is the right forum to have discussions which will allow people to inform themselves and maybe change position. We should have people from all sides joining the debate. I am appalled by the whitewashing of all Palestinians as terrorists who all want to destroy Israel.

DP : You can’t fight a war unless you demonise the enemy or enemies: other Jews are enemies and other people in Britain are also enemies. Where is the place to demonstrate if you’re Jewish and against the Gaza war. Do you go to Trafalgar sq rally or the JFJFP? Where is the place for someone who isn’t protesting as a Jew?

JB: In 2002 we saw a turning point in British Jewish history: the mass demonstration was a very public statement of solidarity with Israel. Prior to that the prevailing ethos was to keep well below the parapet. But we have reached a point where people are really struggling with their relationship with Israel and it’s problematic to have an establishment with such an exuberant, new-found voice.

KKH: It is a fantasy that one can take a position on Israel which is apolitical, consensual and safe. The Jewish community has not learned that great feminist lesson: everything is political.

I like seeing Jews demonstrate, even for things that appal me. But there are 270,000 Jews in the UK. There should be ten different demonstrations. Look how terribly depolitised all the Zionist youth movements have become. All of them have taken the king’s shilling and become part of the centralised structure. Habonim, Bnei Akiva, FZY, Beitar should all be having their own demonstrations because on paper they represent different points of view. But they’ve adopted this myth that one can show solidarity and be unified in a consensus. It’s a contradiction of how the Jewish state was formed. It was created in a completely fragmented Jewish world: there was virtually a civil war in 1947-9 between the revisionist and the mainstream Zionists. Davka, these divisions helped propel the Jewish state forward. People who are politicized are motivated and dynamic. They achieve things.

DP: We have lost our dynamism. We’re not arguing about the issues anymore. We’re not arguing about the occupation or the future of Zionism. We’re arguing about the argument – is the BBC biased, over who stands up and are they acceptable or not. I guarantee you try and have the debate about the future of Zionism and it will revert to the Guardian, the Independent, Melanie Philips and a certain number of columnists. The debate has become circular and we’re losing dynamism and becoming fragmented.

JW: Given that these difficult things are happening in the Middle East and not here, it’s important to find a way to express oneself in that arena, mainly through supporting those people who are doing courageous work out there. There is some level of decision. We can decide how we spend the money we and other institutions raise and this can make a difference.

PU: We need to look for a way to have this dialogue with Israelis. If we have issues with the morality of Israeli government policy we should be discussing it with Israelis. The Jewish Agency, which is as much of a joke as the Jewish Leadership Council, was supposed to be the place where people in the galut met with people in Israel to discuss and make decisions about substantial matters to do with the state. It’s no longer a meritocracy — people who give the most money sit there. The shift in Israel moved long ago from listening to European voices to American voices, which are now beginning to coalesce around not should we but when should we say these things?

RL: is there a respectful language which could enable a closer listening….?

KKH: Behind the scenes I’ve been trying to meet with senior Jewish leaders to discuss just that – to see if there is something not as formal a code of conduct but certainly a statement to say we will not use a certain language within our discussions. I think it’s possible for people to sign up to a minimal statement that would undertake to avoid certain types of language.

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