Keith Kahn Harris

Metal Jew

Tag Archive: Board of Deputies
  1. Dispatch from the UK: What is British Jewish Politics?

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    Politics is an inescapable part of human existence. It concerns the way that people organise themselves, in particular how they act within institutions and units of governance. Above all, politics concerns the way humans interact with power. It is therefore self-evident that politics exists in the British Jewish community, but what I want to question is how far the British Jewish community has an acknowledged politics.

    In much of the British Jewish community, politics is in ‘bad taste’. In synagogues a macher that is too overt in political scheming is likely to be viewed with suspicion. On a community-wide level, inter-denominational politicking is widely practiced, but often looked down on. In the oldest and most influential UK Jewish representative organization, the Board of Deputies, which has a quasi-parliamentary structure and whose deputies elect a president and vice-president, there is nothing resembling parties and deputies rarely face election fights in their own communities. Even those few organisations that are openly political, such as the UK branches of Israeli political parties, tend to be low-key and poorly supported.

    In short, there is a disparity between the de facto inevitability and ubiquity of British Jewish communal politics and the degree to which this politics is openly recognised. British Jewish politics is largely a matter for quiet, behind-the-scenes activity.

    This reticence is perhaps a function of a tacit assumption that politics is antithetical to community. To be openly political is seen to be to seek to divide, to create strife and discord that threatens to rupture communal harmony. In part this may derive from long-held feelings of insecurity that as a minority in British society, the Jewish community must show a united front and that division can only equal weakness. In terms of Israel, one of the most contentious issues in British Jewish life, public campaigning against Israeli policies (from both a right and a left perspective) or open support for Israeli political parties, are marginal activities – viewed by much of the community as bad form and potentially dangerous.

    The assumption that small minorities need to present a united front is not necessarily illegitimate. The problem is that the lack of politics can create problems more serious than those it is designed to combat. If Jewish communal politics is not acknowledged, politics will still continue, but it will continue in ways that can be corrosive. If those who disagree with a particular direction the community takes can only been seen to legitimately disagree if they do so privately, this increases the likelihood that rather than accept their marginality they will resort to attacking the community.

    I am thinking here about the position of those who disagree with communal support for Israel. Contrary to the commonly made accusation that the community ‘suppresses’ debate, it is more the case that debate is possible if it is done quietly and behind the scenes. The trouble is that some will not accept only being able to disagree privately while in public maintaining a facade of unity. Without a legitimate political process through which to debate communal policies, those British Jews who are critical of Israel have often resorted to attacking the community from the outside.

    I recently attended the annual general meeting of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, an organization whose aims I broadly support. Many of those attending were extremely bitter with the ‘mainstream’ Jewish community, and most were uninterested in working to bring Jews who were more involved in the community on board. As much as the mainstream community shuns leftist critics of Israel, many of them effectively shun themselves.

    It is essential to begin the process of rethinking British Jewish politics. The tacit assumption that politics and community are antithetical needs to be questioned. In any but the tiniest, most homogeneous community, differences of opinion are inevitable and there has to be a way of dealing with these differences without the dissolution of the community. What models might there be for a community whose political system could allow for the mediation of difference? What kind of political language do British Jews need to embrace in order to function without undue rancor?

    One source of inspiration might be parliamentary democracy itself. The Board of Deputies is structured as a kind of parliament, but it lacks one crucial element of parliamentary democracy – an official opposition. When a politician who has been democratically elected speaks for a country, region or locality, it is clear that even if they govern for all, they were only elected by some. To be a leader in a democracy is to publicly affirm that not everyone agrees. Indeed, when democracies work best (and admittedly they often do not) the opposition plays an important role in the democratic process, scrutinising the executive and acting as a constant rebuke to delusions of unanimity. Political opponents may disagree vehemently but in the best parliamentary democracies, this does not stop them respecting each other as individuals, nor does the fact of divided political loyalties necessarily prevent the cohesiveness of the nation.

    The parliamentary model is of course not applicable in its entirety in the British Jewish community. It is hard to envisage a truly representative Jewish parliament – who decides who is a Jew and who can vote? But the parliamentary model does suggest that overt politics can not only allow community and difference to be balanced, it can also improve the quality of the leadership within of the Jewish community. Above all, it suggests that we should not fear politics but embrace it.

    This essay is being published in collaboration with Zeek.

  2. Making Jewish Communities Work

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    By Daniel Anderson

    Whilst reading Andrew Mawson’s recently published, and deeply inspiring, book ‘The Social Entrepreneur – Making Communities Work’, I found myself continually asking how can we apply the lessons of his experiences within our own community?

    The book documents Mawson’s experiences, as an initially wet-behind the ears young reverend, appointed to a run-down parish church in the heart of one of the poorest neighbourhoods in London’s East End. Confronted with the harsh realities of his situation, Mawson acknowledged he had 3 options. To simply accept the situation as a dead loss confining himself to the weekly sermon to a handful of elderly regulars; to retreat into his ivory tower and write a theological treatise on poverty; or get off his backside, enter the real world, meet ‘real’ people and seek to find ways of engaging and involving them. Needless to say, he chose the latter and over a 20-year period, set about transforming his parish in Bromley-by-Bow into a modern, active, community-based, healthy living centre. Indeed Mawson was the feature of one of the Chief Rabbi’s Rosh Hashanah broadcasts a few years back on the subject of hope against all the odds.

    2 years ago at Limmud I presented my own personal manifesto for creating real change within our community. For too long, I believe that our needs and interests have been delegated, often by default, to the various communal bodies and religious organizations, and in the process, we have abrogated personal responsibility and local community action.

    For sure, these associations are excellent at forming committees and working parties, writing mission statements, talking about the ‘Jewish contribution’, the importance of social action and decrying the growth of intermarriage, but in practice have been poor at addressing the diverse needs of its somewhat disparate community – one which, according to the Board of Deputies own research, over 30% are choosing not to affiliate in the traditional sense, i.e. to belong to any synagogue movement.

    For example, if we take the numerous initiatives that have emanated from the Chief’s Rabbi’s office in recent years, such as ‘the learning hour’? The ‘What will you do?’ project, or the most recent ‘Project Chesed’ they have, in the main, sunk without a trace. That is not to say that these ideas were not worthy in and of themselves, but because there was no attempt to involve real people at the local level, to make tangible the theoretical, to create a true sense of ownership, but rather just an expectation of participation, they failed to make any long-lasting impact.

    And what about the Jewish Leadership Council, a group of self-appointed grandees, made up of luminaries such as Lord Levy, Gerald Ronson and Sir Trevor Chin? They recently set up the Commission on Jewish Schools to determine the future of Jewish educational needs, given the growth in school places and a projected shortfall in take-up. Now since it is parents and the choices that they make, which are the determinant factors as to the likelihood or otherwise of this scenario coming to fruition, you would have thought that they would be at the centre of any such research, but you’d be wrong. Apparently, this was not considered practicable, and so instead they are relying on the views of the various representative bodies. Can this really be the best way of tackling the potential crisis? I don’t think so.

    I suggest that we need to promote an enterprise culture, one that seeks to empower the individual, recognizing and unleashing the untapped, complementary talents across the community and encourage entrepreneurial initiative. It is interesting to note that Mawson himself created a climate whereby people felt comfortable coming forward with ideas and suggestions. More to the point, he supported and nurtured them, acting in the role of a mentor, rather than that of autocrat, creating true empowerment rather than paying synthetic lip service, and in the process made a tangible and long-lasting difference that cut across the age, gender and income divide.

    But for this type of approach to happen within the Jewish community, we need to radically rethink the role of the synagogue. Traditionally, this has been the epicentre of communal life, but to many it has become a place of spiritual stagnation. Parochial, not just in geography, but often also in mindset, it has a dated, unresponsive approach more in tune with the past and not with the challenges of the 21st Century.

    For our synagogues need to be more than just places of prayer, Maleva Malkas, and ad hoc learning programmes. Instead we need to transform them into spiritual activation zones, places where individuals are inspired and encouraged to use their initiative, to take responsibility and play a full contribution in the best way they can, rather than be prevented due to a combination of process, policy and procedure. To that end, our rabbis themselves need to step back and stop believing that they and they alone can or even should determine what is in the best interest of their congregations, particularly since the vast majority are, at best, involved in the periphery, if at all. They need to take a leaf out of Mawson’s book, and start trusting more in people rather than simply in ideology.

    Daniel Anderson is a life coach and aspiring social entrepreneur. He co-runs Tiferet.

  3. 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.


    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.