Are There Any Jewish Red Lines?

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The launch event for sociologist (and editor of the forthcoming JQ spring issue) Keith Kahn Harris’ new book was a sell-out. Cynically one might suggest this was due to the free tickets and delicious free food on offer, but it was clear there was also genuine interest in how to make dialogue around Israel in the Jewish community more civil and more inclusive of diverse views. There was a particularly interesting discussion on red lines;  the panellists were asked to discuss their boundaries – who, in relation to views on Israel, and in terms of the Jewish community, was beyond the pale. The panellists worked hard to sound liberal and tolerant – all declaring that they would sit on a panel with pretty much anyone. But sitting on a panel is a relative easy issue – the more interesting one is: are there some views that should not receive a platform in Jewish institutions like JW3 and Limmud? And are there some Jewish groups that should not receive funding from communal bodies due to their supposedly controversial views? Despite UJIA chief Michael Weiger’s open minded words, Jewish youth movements are funded on the basis of their being Zionist – were one to declare itself no longer Zionist it would lose its UJIA funding. And whilst Jonathan Sacerdoti talked of being willing to debate with anyone, it would have been interesting to have heard his thoughts on the decision of his former employer, the Zionist Federation, to refuse membership to the pro two-state group Yachad.

A particularly interesting inclusion test-case occurred last December, when Marcus Weston of the London Kabbalah Centre applied (as anyone can, without being an invited presenter) to give a session at Limmud Conference. Having been initially accepted as part of the programme, the session was removed after protests from a range of communal figures and a splash on the front page of the JC. This was particularly uncomfortable given that the main orthodox argument in favour of Limmud is that it is a free market – anyone can present so simply being on the programme does not constitute an endorsement. The Kabbalah centre ban suggests the opposite – that accepted sessions have been given some kind of communal hechsher.

When advocating for greater tolerance and inclusion it is always politically helpful to state that you have some red lines. Kahn Harris does precisely this, laying out a series of positions that he considers beyond the pale in the Jewish community. They are pretty reasonable and would exclude few people, those:

Who seek the dissolution of any kind of Jewishness (call this the Gilad Atzmon clause)

Who explicitly and actively embrace the discourses and practices of open anti-Semites who explicitly seek to destroy the Jewish people in its entirety (Israel Shamir perhaps)

Whose Anti-Zionism explicitly calls for the mass expulsion of all Jews from Israel

Who embrace Holocaust denial

This is all pretty uncontroversial. But he goes to further exclude ‘Messianic Jews’ as ‘their proselytising for another religion, even with Jewish trappings, ultimately means they seek the dissolution of Jewishness in most of its forms’. I find this position surprising and hard to defend. While some groups, like Jews for Jesus, are simply missionaries who use their ethnic Jewishness to better attract Jewish converts to Christianity, other are genuinely creating a fusion of Judaism and Christianity. Their focus is not necessarily on proselytising, they are more interested in worshipping as they see fit. I’m not even certain we can say with any certainty that Messianic Judaism is not Judaism – we collectively do not have any agreement on what Judaism is – from fervent atheists on the one side to people who believe that a dead rebbe is the messiah on the other. Historically, the position is even less clear – readers of Daniel Boyarin’s works will be aware that it took hundreds of years from Judaism and Christianity to fully separate. During that period it was perfectly possible, and indeed common, to be a Jewish-Christian.

I applaud Keith Kahn Harris’ project – Uncivil War is well worth reading – and the cause of trying to build a more civil community is an excellent one. I just hope that as part of that project attention is paid to the very real exclusions that occur within the British Jewish community and that we don’t end up creating false red lines in the process. Be it the Kabbalah centre, Neturei Karta or Messianic Jews; if people want to be part of the Jewish community they should have a place there.

Uncivil War is available here:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Uncivil-War-Israel-Conflict-Community/dp/0992667305

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