Keith Kahn Harris

professionally curious, communally engaged

Tag Archive: Israel
  1. My new book: Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community

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    Final front cover

     

    I’m excited to announce that my new book Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community will be published by David Paul Books on 12 March 2014 and is available for pre-order now.

    The book will be launched at JW3 London at 7:30 on 12 March.

    Here’s the book blurb:

    “The relationship between Anglo-Jewry and Israel is perilous, complex terrain – and there are few better placed to navigate it than Keith Kahn-Harris.” Jonathan Freedland

    Diaspora Jews are no longer unified in their support for Israel.

    The author, a sociologist. Jewish and a committed left-of-centre Zionist, explores the causes of the conflicts and describes his own innovative efforts at conflict resolution. Analysing the various groupings – left, right, secular and religious, pro and anti-Zionist – in Britain and the USA, Keith Kahn-Harris looks at the history of civility in society and examines the different methods used by international organisations and groups involved in developing dialogue within Jewish communities.

    He describes, how using these techniques and with expert help, he brought together more than seventy prominent diverse British Jews for a series of encounters. He concludes that dialogue and civility is possible. But with no change in behaviour there will be serious consequences for the Jewish communities of the world.

    “A masterful and thoughtful analysis of the various existing positions of Jews and Israel advocates on Israel. This book might just give us the language, the insights – and the pause – for us to do something a little more sensible, before it’s, stupidly, too late.” Clive Lawton – Jewish educator

    “I applaud Keith Kahn-Harris for having the courage to examine this vexatious debate in his richly textured book.” Gabrielle Rifkind – Oxford Research Group’s Middle East conflict resolution specialist

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  2. New survey on Israel

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    The Institute for Jewish Policy Research is running a major survey on UK Jewish opinions about Israel.  Here’s the details from the JPR website:

    The Institute for Jewish Policy Research has been commissioned by the Pears Foundation to carry out a groundbreaking national survey of Jewish opinion about Israel.  The research is being administered by Ipsos MORI.

    This important online survey only takes 15 minutes to complete and does not require any special interest or knowledge about Israel. We want to hear your views, whatever they may be.

    The results of the survey will help us better understand the feelings, attitudes and attachments Jews in Britain have towards Israel.

    To be eligible to participate, you must be Jewish, live in Britain and be aged 18 or over.

    Take part now by clicking www.ipsos-mori.com/israelsurvey.  If this link doesn’t take you directly to the website of Ipsos MORI when you click on it, then please copy and paste the link into your internet browser.

  3. Civilizing the debate

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    I wrote an article for Comment Is Free on the tone of debates on Israel. The article was ‘inspired’ by the hate mail received by Professor David Newman of Ben Gurion University, from Michael Gross, a member of their board of governers.

    Comment Is Free is renowned for the frenzied and often highly unpleasant tone of debates on Israel. The comments on my piece do reflect this to some extent but there are also some thoughtful replies.

  4. Renegade Jews?

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    In a recent article in the Jerusalem Post , the writer and activist Isi Leibler takes an uncompromosing stance against leftist Jewish critics of Israel. Amongst those he damns as ‘renegade Jews’  are Israeli post-Zionists (particularly within Israeli universities), the J Street lobbying group in the US and the newspaper Haaretz. He is dismissive of ‘fringe groups of “non-Jewish Jews,” many with no prior involvement in Jewish life, exploited their Jewish origins or Israeli nationality to defame Israel’. He argues that:

    Such odious Jews can be traced back to apostates during the Middle Ages who fabricated blood libels and vile distortions of Jewish religious practice for Christian anti-Semites to incite hatred which culminated in massacres. It was in response to these renegades that the herem (excommunication) was introduced.

    He recommends the following solution to the problem:

    The Israeli government must now take steps to neutralize the impact of renegade Jews who present themselves as legitimate alternative Jewish viewpoints. Such an initiative by a country which provides genuine democratic rights to all its citizens, including Arabs, could hardly be categorized as eradicating freedom of expression. It would rather represent a highly overdue effort to exorcise such odious groups from the mainstream and expose them as unrepresentative fringe groups with no standing.

    Strong words indeed. Regardless of whether those that Leibler targets really are as odious as he claims; regardless of whether it is possible to maintain a democratic Israel (and indeed a democratic diaspora Jewish community) that at the same time ‘neutralises’ dissenting voices; regardless of whether  those he despises really are confined to small minorities of ‘non-Jewish Jews'; Leibler’s views are reckless in the extreme. The herem he wishes for might have been possible at a time when Jews lived in small, homogeneous self-governing communities. In a time when individuals have the freedom to identify as they please, it is simply a recipe for dischord. Even were it desirable you simply cannot ostracise people in this way anymore – communities and identies are too fluid to be policed in this way. Whether Leibler likes it or not, some Jews in Israel and the Diapora will continue to identify as Jews whilst being severly critical of Israel and Zionism.

    Leibler’s proposal is simply a recipe for yet more intra-communal strife and bitterness. Do the Jewish people really need another source of tension to add to progressive-secular-orthodox tensions? It is sheer fantasy to imagine that Leibler’s ‘renegade Jews’ can be cut out of the body of the Jewish people.Instead of such fantasies, Jewish leaders and opinion formers need to start grappling with the reality and inevitability of dissent.

  5. New Jewish Thought Policy Paper 2: An Experiment in Dialogue

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    By Keith Kahn-harris

    This report discusses a Jewish dialogue group on Israel convened by Keith Kahn-Harris for New Jewish Thought in 2008. It is available to download as a pdf here.

    The problem

    For a community of under 300,000 people, British Jewry is highly diverse. British Jews are secular and religious; they are reform, liberal, masorti, orthodox and ultra-orthodox; they are sephardi, mizrachi and ashkenazi; they are left wing and right wing; they live in London and across the country. While some of these differences are lived with harmoniously, others are sources of tension and confrontation. The progressive-orthodox split, for example, has often caused intra-communal conflict. At the heart of such conflicts is a burning question: where should the boundaries of Jewish community be drawn?

    In some respects, the British Jewish community has in recent decades come to find ways of living with difference. In the 1998 ‘Stanmore Accords’ the main synagogue movements pledged to avoid public disputes and accusations over the validity of other movements. Limmud has proved a fantastic success in building a framework in which different kinds of Jews can come to together within a community of learning.

    Yet there is another set of differences that can create tension and disharmony as no other can – differences over Israel. British Jews holding different opinions about Israel often become involved in disputes that are angry and bitter. For some, the existence of Jews holding certain kinds of opinions on Israel is intolerable. Disputes over Israel are frequently conducted using the most immoderate kind of language, abusing other Jews with no quarter given.
    Those who are most critical of Israel, particularly those who are critical of Zionism, are often accused of being treacherous, self-hating and uncaring about the Jewish community. Members of organisations such as Independent Jewish Voices and Jews for Justice for Palestinians are sometimes treated as pariahs, as illegitimate members of British Jewry. On the other side, Jews who are supportive of Israel and Zionism are also regularly abused for their allegedly uncaring attitudes to Palestinians. Pro-Israel events and institutions are picketed and the subject of vitriolic attacks.

    What results is hurt on all sides. Jewish critics of Israel often complain of being victimised by and alienated from, a mainstream Jewish community that doesn’t want them. Jewish supporters of Israel often complain of being embattled, the subject of antisemitism that Jewish critics of Israel help to legitimise.

    One solution to this divide would be for both sides to part company completely. If critics and supporters of Israel were to see themselves and each other as completely different kinds of Jews, part of completely different communities, then perhaps they could get on with being enemies without all the bitter wrangling. Yet this isn’t really what most people want. The mutual recriminations that Jews with different opinions on Israel subject each other to are a function of the fact that they see each other (and are seen by non-Jews) as part of the same community. Just as disputes within families are often more angry than any other kind of dispute, so disputes over Israel within the UK Jewish community are deeply felt battles over the soul of that community.

    This paper is based on the premise that, while disagreements within communities are inevitable, they should not cause community members undue pain and should not cause them to hate each other. From the enormous emotion expended in fighting them, it is clear disputes on Israel within the British Jewish community do cause enormous pain and do result in mutual hatred. The task is how to deal with these disputes so that they evoke less bitterness and anger. This paper reports on an experiment intended to do just that.

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  6. The Hermeneutics of Anti-Anti-Semitism

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    You knew where you were with the old antisemitism: antisemites hated Jews and were not ashamed to say so. They believed Jews were a cancer on the world and sought to either eliminate them or confine them so they would no longer be a ‘threat’. The old antisemitism was unambiguously intended and unambiguously felt as a threatening assault. Everyone knew where they stood.

    Of course the ‘old’ antisemitism still exists. There are still individuals and organisations that come out and say they hate Jews and try their best to destroy them. But since the Holocaust, most antisemites have come over all coy and bashful. So unpopular have the Nazis made antisemitism, that few will come out and openly long for the physical destruction of the Jews. Indeed, few antisemites will even celebrate their finest hour, the Holocaust, preferring to hide behind outright denial.

    The triumph of Zionism in 1948 has proved a boom for Jew-hatred. The pretext of confining one’s criticism to Zionism or Israel and then slyly facilitating a slippage between Zionists and Jews, allows for almost any manifestation of antisemitism to be explained away. Even al-Qaeda activists occasionally pay lip service to the fiction that they do not hate Jews per se. So felicitous have Zionism and Holocaust denial proved in masking antisemitism, it is now only the most troglodyte and ineffective of neo-Nazis who will publicly own up to hating Jews.

    The contemporary refusal of antisemites to speak openly of their hatred of Jews has had serious consequences for those concerned with Jewish survival. There is a fear that if antisemites seek to hide their hatred of Jews behind seemingly reasonable arguments and coded language, then antisemitism is in danger of becoming more acceptable. Fighting antisemites requires exposing them by interpreting their coded talk. Hermeneutics – the science of interpretation – is one of the most highly prized skill of the Jewish people and it has come to be used for the defence of Jews. The problem is that if Jew-hatred now speaks in code (albeit often thinly disguised), then how should the code be deciphered? And who gets to decipher the code? And to what end?

    Given the importance of Zionism as a fig leaf for antisemitism, the majority of the hermeneutic effort within the Jewish community has been focused on the interpretation of criticism of Zionism and Israel. This is the hermeneutic battleground on which battles over antisemitism are fought. The question of what constitutes legitimate criticism of Israel is heavily contested. The question of whether criticism of Zionism is acceptable at all is also fought over with equal passion.

    The question of the so-called ‘new antisemitism’ has generated most heat of all. The argument goes that in recent years antisemitism has spread to the liberal intellectual elite and is manifested in a concerted attempt to de-legitimise Israel and Zionism. The new antisemitism is seen to be most blatantly manifested in the media. Passionate accusations and counter-accusations have flown around on this topic with great intensity. On the one hand, liberal leftists are accused of double-standards in overlooking racism towards Jews whilst defending Muslims and other groups. On the other hand, leftist critics of Israel accuse Jewish groups of attempting to use accusations of antisemitism to silence any kind of criticism of Israel.

    What is so striking about contemporary debates about antisemitism is how sophisticated they are. Jewish organisations and individuals committed to fighting antisemitism spend their time engaged in minute analyses of language, of ‘bias’, of complex questions of historical interpretation. The question of whether an individual or article is antisemitic generally comes down to fine judgements that are in their turn often refuted with an equal complexity. Increasingly this process has become mired in casuistry, obfuscation and bad faith on all sides.

    The nadir (so far) in the hermeneutics of antisemitism has been the controversy over London mayor Ken Livingstone. As a consequence of his comparison of Jewish journalist Oliver Feingold to a concentration camp guard, the Board of Deputies referred Livingstone to the Adjudication Panel for England, who found him guilty of bringing his office into disrepute. The whole incident reflects the extraordinary world of contemporary antisemitic controversies: not only was Livingstone’s insult bizarre in itself, it is equally bizarre to level the accusation of antisemitism at someone who sees comparing someone to a concentration guard as an insult. The incident became even more convoluted when, in a press release welcoming the Adjudication Panel’s findings, the Board of Deputies seemed to deny that they were ever even accusing Livingstone of antisemitism, saying that they ‘at no stage passed judgement on the motivation for the Mayor’s comments’ (8th March 2006). It seems that not only have discourses of antisemitism become so sophisticated that they are phrased in anti-Nazi terms, but that anti-antisemitic discourses are so sophisticated that they do not even attack antisemitism!

    The Livingstone affair illuminates what controversies over antisemitism are increasingly becoming – an elite bitch-fest. So coded has the whole issue become that concern about antisemitism easily degenerates into score-settling and mean-spirited sideswiping. Given the overwhelming focus on the hermeneutics of antisemitism, and given the conviction that the hermeneutic process is complicated and difficult, concern about antisemitism has increasingly become an obsession of community leaders. Concern about antisemitism has become professionalised, embodied in thinktanks, articles, websites and watchdogs. Similarly, those who are accused of antisemitism are drawn increasingly from the ranks of intellectuals, the media and community leaders.

    What is in danger of becoming lost in this increasingly self-referential world is the actual experience of antisemitism. We have to remember that hatred of Jews is designed to hurt Jews themselves. An overwhelming focus on the hermeneutics of antisemitism can lead to an over-estimation of the power of ‘texts’ of antisemitism. The contexts within which antisemitic discourses are produced and received can often be overlooked. At the moment the enormous concern with the hermeneutics of antisemitism has lead to a neglect of the sociology of antisemitism.

    Looked at sociologically, we can have a more balanced approached that tempers panicked fears of a contemporary ‘tsunami’ of antisemitism (in the Chief Rabbi’s words). It is clear that in sections of the Muslim world there is rampant anti-Jewish rhetoric and holocaust denial, often thinly disguised as ‘mere’ anti-Zionism. It is clear that there has been a rise in antisemitic incidents in the UK (Iganski, Kielinger et al. 2005). It is clear that in some places, France being the most important example, many Jews have come to feel so threatened that they have started to emigrate in serious numbers. It is also clear that significant numbers of Jewish intellectuals and communal leaders themselves feel worried and threatened about antisemitism. These are all significant and worrying phenomena.

    What is much less clear is how far elite concerns about antisemitism translate into any kind of existential crisis amongst ‘rank and file’ British Jews. Certainly, my research (Cohen and Kahn-Harris 2004) suggests that British Jews seem as secure and comfortable as ever, if perhaps mildly disgruntled about perceived media bias.

    It is also unclear as to how far many of those who criticise Israel and Zionism are motivated by a hatred of Jews. Even if there are many Jews who consider any opposition to Zionism as de facto antisemitism and even if there are many anti-Zionists who make little attempt to hide their dislike of Jews, an anti-Zionism of good faith is possible. After all, it was not so long ago that large sections of the UK mainstream Jewish community were dubious about Zionism.

    A consideration of the sociology of antisemitism should be the bedrock of any attempt to penetrate antisemitic discourse. It requires research on people, Jews and non-Jews, in their full complexity. It requires intellectual openness and bravery rather than posturing and casuistry.

    The best way of investigating antisemitism is, perhaps paradoxically, not to do so directly. Much better is to devote time and resources to research on Jews in the contemporary world and in particular to their relationships to and perceptions of non-Jews. As a sociologist myself you would perhaps be forgiven for accusing me of promoting my own self-interest. I have opinions and agendas just like everyone else, but the difference between a well-grounded sociological treatment of antisemitism and a hermeneutic decoding of antisemitism is that social research has much better procedures for dealing with, allowing for and challenging one’s own preconceptions.

    Ultimately, unless those who hate Jews start to develop the courage of their own convictions, fighting antisemitism looks likely to remain a controversial and difficult process. Better then that the fight takes place in a spirit of fearless intellectual endeavour, rather than one of bad-tempered point-scoring.

    References

    Cohen, S. M. and K. Kahn-Harris (2004). Beyond Belonging: The Jewish Identities of Moderately Engaged British Jews. London, UJIA / Profile Books.
    Iganski, P., V. Kielinger, et al. (2005). Hate Crimes Against London’s Jews: An Analysis of Incidents Recorded by the Metropolitan Police Service 2001-2004. London, Institute for Jewish Policy Research.