For several years I’ve been working to try and improve the civility of intra-Jewish debates over Israel. It hasn’t been easy work and I would not claim any clear victories. The issue is complex and so is the solution. I’ve been working on a book on the subject for a year now and it may take another year to finish.
But I think there are some ‘low hanging fruit’ – things that are relatively easy to do that would have a substantial impact. One of these is to desist from what I will call ‘argument outsourcing’. That is, rather than making a case for something yourself, pointing to someone else’s argument and treating it as the last word on the subject.
Argument outsourcing can be found on all points of the political spectrum but I will briefly highlight one particularly striking version of it: the use of the 2005 EUMC (European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia) definition of antisemitism. You can download the full definition here.
I take no position here on what the EUMC definition says and how it should be applied. What I am interested in is how the EUMC definition has become the most commonly used one in UK pro-Israel circles. It is particularly relevant to debates on Israel as pro-Israel campaigners who draw on the definition claim that the definition classes anti-Zionism as anti-semitism – which clearly has big implications for how the boundaries around acceptable and unacceptable discourse on Israel are framed.
Using a particular definition of antisemitism is not problematic in and of itself. What is striking though is that the EUMC definition is often treated as the last word on the subject. The definition is seen as an absolute one as if simply pointing to it will end any argument. But I have rarely actually seen campaigners explain exactly why the EUMC definition is correct.
For instance, the pro-Israel CiFWatch blog has a page ‘How we define antisemitism’ that points to the EUMC definition as the correct definition. Although it goes into some detail as to how the EU and other bodies adopted the definition and although it explains what the definition says, nowhere do CiFWatch explain why the definition is correct on its own terms.
Another example: the pro-Israel campaigner Jonathan Hoffman recently published a criticism of Rabbi Danny Rich for, amongst other things, tolerating one-staters – and one-staters are by definition anti-semitic according to the EUMC definition. Again, the argument as to why this is the case is not made – it is outsourced to the EUMC.
I am not necessarily challenging the EUMC definition or how it is used. What I am suggesting is that it is often used in such a way that its validity is automatically assumed, as though that argument doesn’t need to be made. I would like to know why Jonathan Hoffman or CiFWatch believe the definition is correct and not simply with reference to what bodies or countries have adopted the definition. I want to hear it justified with reference to its content. I want to hear what they themselves actually believe.
Argument outsourcing is not just something that pro-Israel campaigners use. You see it among anti-occupation activists, for example, in the mantra-like references to the settlements being illegal. Again,this may or may not be the case – what I want to hear is why the occupation is wrong, not outsourcing to international law. Another example: the justification of BDS as ‘the Palestinians have called for it’. That is not a justification, it is outsourcing.
So what’s wrong with argument outsourcing anyway? The problem is that it prevents dialogue from occuring. When you exclusively use someone else’s definition or opinion to justify your beliefs, you are hiding what you yourself believe. You become a cypher, not a person, and no one can argue with a cypher. Argument outsourcing closes down dialogue before it even begins. It builds impenetrable walls that cannot be breached. It does not convince or seek to convince, it only defends.
The only way to really create a connection with someone – and convince them of your argument – is by owning what you yourself say. Stopping argument outsourcing might not solve conflicts over Israel, but it could certainly lead to a more productive debate.
Charlie Bertsch’s wonderful article published on the Souciant website describes how he developed a convivial and respectful relationship with a neighbour who’s political views were the polar opposite of his. It’s important to be reminded from time to time that everyday relationships can subvert the ideological chasms dividing us. People who cannot live side by side in the abstract can sometimes live side by side in reality. Here’s an excerpt:
…despite taking a dim view of my neighbor’s ideological commitments, I am deeply grateful for having had him as my neighbor and especially for having taught me how to be a good neighbor. I may not feel as comfortable as I once did telling my fellow leftists to stop preaching to the converted, but this caution goes hand in hand with more modest advice. Outreach has to start with the search for common ground.
You already share one thing with your neighbors. The challenge is to use that fate, the accident of proximity, as the basis for finding others. As sympathetic as I am to the critique of humanism, my experiences living in Arizona have taught me that sometimes it’s still worth insisting that our humanity has the potential to transcend all political and economic divisions. At bottom, the concept of the good neighbor is a testament to this belief.
I’ve been in two minds about this whole issue: on the one hand the dangers of legitimising fundamentalism through groups like London Citizens are real, on the other hand to refuse to have anything to do with a mosque with a very large membership (at least a proportion of which are definitely not extremists) seems to be a foolhardy act.
But in the last week or two I have been increasingly disturbed by Bright and the JC’s stance due to the highly agressive and personal language that has been used and the clear failure to even attempt to understand where New North London Synagogue and other Jewish stakeholders in LC are actually coming from. Further, this has seemed to me to be symptomatic of a Jewish Chronicle that, under Stephen Pollard’s editorship, has become disconnected from the community and foregrounds a few issues (Israel, antisemitism, Islamism) while relegating others to second place.
Following a speach I made at a Limmud session (called, unfortunately, ‘Is the JC waging a Jihad against British Jews’, not a title I would have chosen) in which I strongly criticised the JC, Stephen Pollard got in touch and invited me to write something in the paper. It has now been published.
Fair play to Stephen for opening up the paper to some quite personal (though I hope, not uncivil) criticisms. Martin Bright has also responded here. It’s clear we have very different views. Just to pick up on a couple of things he wrote:
Engagement for the sake of engagement is pointless and intellectually lazy. In order to engage, it is essential to know with whom you are engaging.
Very true, but a) it’s quote possible that NNLS and other Jewish groups do know with whom they are engaging and have weighed the risks of doing so, only to come to a conclusion that Martin Bright disagrees with, b) the type of engagement is crucial in this case – London Citizens is not a forum for dialogue so much as a means for different faith groups to collaborate on matters of mutual concern, c) there are risks of not engaging here as well, given that a refusal to engage with a v large mosque may well alienate an often marginalised community.
The choice, as Martin and perhaps some of his opponents at NNLS also see it, is a stark one – between engagement and refusal. But there are other choices, between different forms of engagement. One of the things that has upset me about the JC’s coverage is that it has prevented the kind of nuanced conversation that needs to happen over how Jews engage with Muslims.
Martin also says:
I am told I would take a different approach if I had better contacts within New North London Synagogue. Mr Kahn-Harris might want to ask himself who it was that raised questions about London Citizens if not concerned members of that congregation.
I would be happy to develop the relationship further, but have not been invited by anyone within the Masorti movement to share the intelligence I and others have about their unsavoury partners.
Well, I am aware that it was indeed people within NNLS that contacted Martin, but supporting one side in an intra-communal dispute is hardly evidence of the broad kind of contacts that a journalist working on a Jewish newspaper needs to have. Martin would like ‘to develop the relationship further’ but, given the langauge used (on both sides) this is unlikely to happen. Again though, Martin’s complaint that he has ‘not been invited by anyone within the Masorti movement to share the intelligence’ is hardly evidence of a willingness to develop a proper dialogue. NNLS certainly need to listen to Martin’s concerns – they are serious ones that must be taken seriously – but Martin also needs (or rather needed as it’s unlikely to happen now) to listen to them.
This whole issue has got me thinking about how one criticises communities. I certainly do not believe that communities are sacrosanct and that no one outside them should say anything – that’s how child abuse became endemic in the Irish Catholic church. I do believe though that to be effective it makes sense for critics to have deep connections in the communities they criticise. I’ve tried to do this myself: I have been strongly critical of sexism in the metal scene for example and because I spent years writing for a metal magazine, my concerns have been heard to an extent.
I guess this controversy will run and run. My relationship with Martin Bright, which I value, is still just about surviving. Given that I write and promote civility it’s been hard to know how to criticise named individuals while not being abusive. I’ve tried my best though…
The American Jewish Council of Public Affairs, adoped a resolution on civility in discussions within the Jewish community at their 2010 plenary. In my view it’s a far-reaching statement which, if taken seriously, would have a real impact on Jewish communal discourse. Of course, the question is how far people will pay attention to it.
Here’s what it says:
Robust, vigorous debate about the pressing issues of the day is vital and essential in a pluralistic society, including within our diverse Jewish community.
Deep divisions are to be expected over how to address many issues including but not limited to the domestic economy, the environment, health care, American military involvement abroad, the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the existential threats posed to Israel by terror and Iranian nuclear ambition. A frank and civil exchange of ideas helps to inform and distill consensus. In recent years, however, we have been witness to an increasing challenge in general society and in our own community. There is greater political and socio-economic polarization, the deterioration of civil interaction, decreased sense of common ground among individuals with divergent perspectives, greater tension around global issues and their impact on American society. At times divisions spill over into racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice and bias. It is cause for great concern.
As differences devolve into uncivil acrimony, dignity is diminished and people holding diverse viewpoints cease listening to each other, it becomes more difficult if not impossible to find common ground. We are experiencing a level of incivility, particularly over issues pertaining to Israel, that has not been witnessed in recent memory. Where such polarization occurs within the Jewish community, it tears at the fabric of Klal Yisrael – our very sense of peoplehood – and is a cause for profound concern.
Civility is neither the lack of difference nor the squelching of debate. It is the application of care for the dignity of every human being, even those with whom we may sharply disagree. It is listening carefully when others speak, not just to understand what they are saying and thinking, but to open ourselves to the possibility that they may have something to teach. It is the guarding of tongue and the rejection of false witness.
As Jews, our shared past, present, and future require that we find ways to work for a common good, toward Klal Yisrael. Each of us has a sacred obligation to heal our broken world. This repair requires that we recognize that the divine is in every one of us.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs believes that: The decline in civility in our community and broader society is a matter of urgent priority that demands we issue a Call for Civility and institute a campaign to address this urgent challenge. This campaign will convene, inspire, and empower Jewish community institutions and their leaders from across the political spectrum to engage in and model for others civil discourse on the most challenging issues.
Through this effort, our institutions and leaders will engender mutual respect, shared listening and learning, and become powerful bridge builders who can assist our people to navigate future sensitive community relations challenges.
The community relations field should:
Model civility in our own work based on a commitment to dialogue and mutual respect for those with whom we may disagree, and swiftly condemn acts of demonization, defamation, and demagoguery.
Mount Civil Discourse campaigns in communities throughout the country in cooperation with partner organizations.
Educate our community about the rich sources in our tradition that embrace civility as an ethical and moral duty and that warn of the consequences of incivility.
Develop resources including training modules for lay and professional leaders on conflict resolution, active listening, and respectful communication.
Advance programmatic and process oriented solutions for difficult communal issues that afford opportunities for disparate voices to be heard, respected, considered, and valued.
Examine the role of the internet and other media in the decline of civility.
Develop respectful mechanisms to challenge false or defamatory communications.