Keith Kahn Harris

professionally curious, communally engaged

The politics of engagement and the Jewish Chronicle


Over the last few months, the Jewish Chroncile’s Martin Bright has been conducting a campaign against the involvment of some Jewish groups, and in particular New North London Synagogue, in London Citizens. Bright has pointed out that a key player in London Citizens is the East London Mosque, in which some very unplesant extremists seem to be involved.

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.

Engagement, it is true, can be an incredibly vague term. It needs unpacking. I have tried to do this in this article I published last year.

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…



  • Pogosticks

    Keith, interesting piece in the JC and here. But are you aware that NNLS is not actually a member of London Citizens, following a vote by its management board? I understand that support for that group is very small within the Synagogue, though the Rabbi is personally very involved.

  • Keith Kahn-Harris

    Yes I was aware that The NNLS London Citizens group is technically at an arm’s length from the shul. I don’t know the level of support for the group, but in any large shul only a minority are likely to have strong feelings about any issue.

  • Pogosticks

    Thanks for replying. Unfortunately, it’s words like “technically” that have allowed the shul to be dragged into this mess. The Citizens Group (no NNLS in their rather ambiguous, perhaps deliberately ambiguous, name) *is* at arm’s length from the Synagogue, it isn’t “technically” at arm’s length. And the Synagogue could have been spared the pain of this episode if the distinction had been made clearer by all involved.

  • Keith Kahn-Harris

    Maybe so, but it’s arguably even more damning of the JC not to have recognised that distinction.<o:p></o:p>From: Posterous [mailto:

  • Pogosticks

    Hmm, I’m not sure that’s quite right. Anyway, I get the sense that the Citizens Group are still smarting from their failure to join the Synagogue up to London Citizens. Anyway, thanks for responding.

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