Keith Kahn Harris

Metal Jew

Tag Archive: Intra-Faith Dialogue (among Jews)
  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


  2. Dialogue session at Limmud

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    I organised and facilitated a diallgue at Limmud between David Newman and Gerald Steinberg. Both of them are UK-born Israel academics who, in recent years, have often been on different sides on debates about Israeli politics. The aim of the session was to encourage them to ‘talk about talking’ , to talk about the tone of debates on Israel. I also challenged them to dialogue rather than debate with each other.

    You can see a video of the session here:

    As you can see in the video, some of the audience members were unhappy with the session. They felt that Newman and  Steinberg were debating rather than dialoguing and that they were scoring points off each other. I was more positive about the session. I felt that Newman and Steinberg were largely civil to each other and in these times that is something of an achievment! There’s no doubt though that this is difficult stuff and that public dialogues are hard to organise. Hopefully, the idea of civility will become more widespread and such experiments will become commonplace.

  3. New York event on Israel

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    Following Peter Beinart’s well-publicised recent article that  argued that young US Jews were being ‘lost’ by the Jewish establishment, through being forced to chooose between liberalism and the support for Israel, it’s interesting to see this event being organised in New York:

    Love, Hate and the Jewish State 3.0:
    What’s Jewish about a Jewish State?

    Thursday, June 24 at 7:00 pm
    The JCC in Manhattan
    334 Amsterdam Ave at 76th Street
    Cost $10

    Do your social justice values impact the way that you relate to Israel as the Jewish state?

    Social justice and Israel are often polarizing and separate conversations. Israel’s Jewish character affects government policy, life-cycle events, state symbols, and everyday life for both Jews and non-Jews.

    Join us for the third in a series of highly interactive, non-persuasive, open discussions with a diverse group of people in their 20s and 30s.  The program will be followed by a reception.

    Hosted by Joel Chasnoff, Comedian and Author of The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah

    It’s interesting that the event is being organised by the  New Israel Fund and various other progressive groups. There seems to be an emerging strategy within self-defined ‘pro-Israel, pro-pace’ groups to soft-peddle campaigning in favour of opening spaces for free discussion of Israel. While this is fine in and of itself, there is a danger of bad faith in that clearly the sort of views they want to encourage are of a particular kind. What we really need are ‘establishment’ organisations holding such discussions with both left and right participating.

  4. A civil letter on Islamic fundamentalism in Europe

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    Stephen Handley, who has written on this site before, has allowed us to publish a letter he wrote to a fellow member of his schul on the divisive question of Islamic fundamentalism in Europe. The letter is a good example of how to have a civil dialogue about a difficult issue. We reproduce it here prefaced by Stephen’s intro to the letter:

    I wrote something that was published in “Degel” which is a magazine of divrei Torah produced by a shul I belong to. I was told that it had created a stir, which manifested itself in the form of one or two individuals challenging me as to whether Islam stood for anything good. One of these people loaned me a copy of the book, “While Europe Slept” by Bruce Bawer.

    The book is about the effect of Islamic extremism in Europe: think of Melanie Phillips’s “Londonistan”. Mr. Bawer is an American journalist, living in Norway with a Norwegian partner, who left the United States partly because he was upset at American anti-gay prejudice. He had written a book called “Stealing Jesus” on American Christian fundamentalism, which I suspect did not go down to well in his own country. When Mr. Bawer arrived in Europe, he percieved it as dominated by Islamic fundamentalism.

    I only read the book once and have now given it back to its owner, but if I have understood it correctly it is a critique of “multiculturalism”. It argues that Europeans have failed to stand up for their own values, in order not to be seeen as racist, and have thereby allowed themselves to be overtaken by Islamic extremism. It also suggests that in contrast to America, where everyone is encouraged to see himself as American, we have created in Europe ethnic ghettoes of people who see themselves as excluded from the mainstream, or indeed exclude themselves from the mainstream, and whose loyalties lie elsewhere than here.

    Here is the letter:

    Dear XXX

    Thanks for the loan of “While Europe Slept”.

    I will now pare down what I could say, which would probably fill another book, to the essentials. When I wrote what I did to Degel magazine, I was told I had caused a considerable stir. I did indeed challenge a considerable number of received “orthodox” or “modern orthodox” opinions. But the only matter on which anybody actually took me up was whether or not Islam stands for anything good. I find that interesting.

    Like the radical Islamists, I used to reject modern Western culture. I did so because I felt it was responsible for the Holocaust. When I was living in Stamford Hill, between 1998 and 2001, I used to reflect with glee on how corrupt, inefficient, and politically correct the local Council was, because it was too weak to prevent us doing whatever we liked. I recall sitting around a Shabbat table and sharing in the laughter at the news that my host’s eleven year old boy had succeeded in hoodwinking the school inspector into thinking that the school taught the national curriculum. It was great fun to get one over on the State. More recently, I used to sit in a shtiebl, no more than 400 metres from LSJS, where the man in charge told us that the Western world was rotten to the core. It was clear to me that he didn’t think any of the laws of the land were worth the paper they are printed on, and that we should live as if the only law was the Torah.

    Indeed, it is notorious that the Western world invented the lie that the Jews killed Jesus, the blood libel, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Communism, and Fascism. The “New Testament” of Christianity, if you read it at face value, is anti-semitic to its boots. It is easy to conclude, as some do, that European culture has no value whatsoever, and that we should replace it with something different.

    The reason I no longer think that way is that I have considered my ways, and resolved that I will not be against anyone. We all think we are perfectly right, given our worldview. What we have to do is to examine our fundamental beliefs about life, God, the universe, and other people: which, to me, are all the same thing for all practical purposes. You would agree that God made mankind in His image. I suggest that implies that because God is a unity, so are we: because He is a spiritual being, so are we: because He is eternal, so are we. It isn’t easy to grasp this idea at first, because we are all walking around in physical bodies and we all look different from each other. The physical world that we inhabit is a world of illusions: it has to be, because we cannot function in the physical world unless our perceptions are limited. If you could see all the angels that surround you, you’d have no vision left for road traffic hazards. The ultimate reality is that humanity is a spiritual creation in which we are all one.

    That is how, for example, giving tzedakah within halachic boundaries does not make you poor. You are in fact giving to yourself as much as you are giving to the poor man. You are the only one in the room.

    Thus, I feel obliged to see the rest of the world as if it were part of me. This is a paradigm of social action that is not based on dualism or indeed on any other philosophy of life that I have encountered elsewhere. If you want to know where I got all this from, please call or e-mail me: I would love to meet you and your family in order to discuss it properly from the sources.

    Turning to the book, Mr. Bawer makes a great deal of the collapse of Communism, but as far as I can see events in Europe had very little to do with it. If the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, as the Duke of Wellington thought, then it seems clear that the Berlin Wall was pulled down on the mountains of Afghanistan. The Soviets, for whatever reason, chose to invade. The Afghan muhajadeen, with the help of American weapons, fought them off, and the illusion of overwhelming Soviet military force went up in smoke. From then on, it would only be a question of time before the Soviet empire collapsed.

    We were quite happy to have fanatical Muslims doing our fighting for us then. The fact that we left them hanging out to dry after the conflict was over has much to do with our present troubles. Had we handled them with more wisdom, the situation may have been very different.

    What comes to my mind when I think of Islam is the government of Spain before the expulsion of 1492, and of the medieval philosophers of Islam who brought the Greek classics back to Europe, and of the Sufis. My neighbours also come to mind, who are upstanding members of the local mosque, and have absolutely no time for the antics of the extremists. What passes for Islam these days is light years away from the way it used to be practised, or is practised by sensible people. Unfortunately, it is clear from reading “While Europe Slept” that there is little or no financial incentive nowadays for anyone to behave sensibly.

    Like Mr. Bawer, I am a libertarian. I would agree with him when he says that the state interferes way too much in our lives, and doles out money with no thought of the consequences. I also agree that the European focus on immigration is misguided, in that we Europeans tended to get former subjects of the Empire in to do the jobs that we wouldn’t do, rather than encouraging people to come here and contribute something really worth having.

    I cannot agree with his views on the EU. It is far from perfect, but if you don’t get involved in it with a view to reforming its institutions, it will not get any better. I see the EU as an attempt on our part to run our affairs on the American model of a collection of states, sharing one land mass, and working together for the good of the whole. The United States of America used to be anything but united. Over time, the states learned to submit their own interests to that of the Union. That is what we have to learn to do in Europe. I’m passionately convinced that for all its faults, the EU has done more to prevent further armed conflict than we could have dreamed of, mainly because the economies of the member states are interlinked in such a way that it would be insane self-destructiveness to go to war.

    If you were to ask me what I would do about Islamic, or indeed any other religious, extremism in the UK, I would suggest that all religions have to moderate their practices for the sake of democratic principles. (May I say in passing that not all extremists are Islamic: I have personally suffered at the hands of fundamentalist Christians.) We’ve all heard of the Sheva Mitzvot B’nei Noach. What follows is the next step forwards from there. It is pretty well agreed around the world that we should have democratic governments, because the alternatives are far worse. Now for a democracy to work, you need certain preconditions: the rule of law, equality before the law, universal education so that we know what we’re voting about, equality of opportunity, equality of the sexes, and so forth. If we want a working democracy, we have to trim our religion to suit.

    The entire reason that the Torah was given was so that we would have a society that functions properly. This was the view of the Ishbitzer Rebbe, known as the Mey Shiloach. Had mankind on Planet Earth managed to invent such a society, then the Torah would not have had to be given. I believe that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe that did devise fully functional modes of living, and therefore they did not need to be given the Torah. But that’s another story.

    Anyway, for the sake of democracy and social institutions that work, we all would have to agree to change our religious practices. To take a few examples from many, Islam would have to stop insisting that women wear veils, to offer women the same education as men, and to give women the opportunity to be imams and judges of Islamic law. The Church would need to have women bishops. We would be required to allow women to become Rabbis and Dyanim. To do otherwise would be contrary to democratic principles of equality for women. If the religious leaders do not agree with this, the answer would be very simple: No money. No recognition. No state funding. No planning permission. No Government help of any kind, until you agree to put democratic principles into practice.

    But I wonder how much the Beth Din would like the above paragraph?

    My opinions on everything are subject to change. My love for you will not change.

    Kind regards,

    Yours sincerely,

    Simcha Handley

  5. An American Jewish resolution on civility

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    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.
  6. Project reconnections

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    The Jerusalem Report has an interesting article by Jan Jaben-Ellon called ‘Learning How to Argue’ in its November 9th issue. The article talks about the SanFransisco Project Reconnections (sadly it has no website for me to link to) which aims to develop dialogue on Israel amongst Jewish community members and seems to have had some success. The Jerusalem report’s lousy website appears to deny that the article exists and technical gremlins (to say nothing of copyright issues) prevent me from uploading a pdf. Still, the article is well worth tracking down….

  7. The Jewish Chronicle discovers dialogue

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    The Jewish Chronicle has always been criticised by critics of Israel  for giving too little space to their concerns. The plain fact of the matter is that the majority of British Jews feel themselves to be supporters of Israel so – for economic reasons if nothing else – it’s inevitable that the paper should reflect this. That said, it’s also clear that under the editorship of Stephen Pollard (who took over at the end of 2008) there has been a pronounced increase in comment pieces that reflect the editor’s right of centre position on Israel. The same is true for coverage of antisemitism which is clearly a major concern of Pollard, particularly antisemitism from the left and from Muslims.

    But for those who decry the JC, something interesting has happened in the last couple of weeks. In the controversy over the alleged antisemitism of Michal Kaminski and of other parties in the Conservative’s new European allies, Pollard has taken the line that Kaminski is no antisemite but a staunch friend of Israel. However, the JC’s new political editor Martin Bright and the columnist Jonathan Freedland have taken a completely different approach, arguing that Kaminski’s view of Jews remains disturbing.

    Now it isn’t my intention to adjudicate on who is right in this dispute. What I want to point out is that Pollard has shown an admirable willingness to print – at length – the views of those who are extremely critical of his perspective. This is exactly what the JC should be doing – acting as a forum for dialogue and debate in the UK Jewish community. In the last few weeks the JC has been much more interesting and engaging than at any time during Pollard’s editorship. Let’s hope that this willingness to provide space for a multiplicity of views carries on.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.


  10. Listening to Jews

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    Discussed in this essay: Les Back (2007) The Art of Listening. Oxford: Berg Books.

    Since last May I have been researching Jewish communal leadership in the UK since the early 1990s with Ben Gidley, my colleague at the Centre for Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths College. Part of this project has involved an investigation into how Jewish organisations have used and commissioned social research. I have been impressed at the extent to which, broadly speaking, the Anglo-Jewish community has been research active in the last decade and a half. The Board of Deputies, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and several other major Jewish organisations have commissioned substantial research projects and used their findings to shape policy. I myself owe my own current involvement in the Jewish community to this minor boom in research – in 1995 I was taken on by Jewish Continuity as a part-time research assistant, a position that gradually snowballed into my current level of involvement in Jewish communal life.

    Inasmuch as research is a basic requirement for any community or organisation that seriously desires to understand itself and work better, the commitment to research shown by many communal bodies since the early 90s (and long before that in some cases) is admirable. At the same time though, it’s important to recognise the limitations of the research that has been carried out on Anglo-Jewry. The majority of the projects that have been initiated have been quantitative, based on surveys and statistics. There has been some qualitative research based on in-depth interviews and focus groups, but even these projects have had very specific policy goals. I do not want to disparage these kinds of projects (how could I? I was involved in quite a few of them) but it is striking that more open-ended research projects have been virtually absent in the UK. There has been little or no attempt to undertake observational social research projects that aim first and foremost to paint detailed and finely textured portraits of the way Jews in the UK live.

    In reading Les Back’s new book The Art of Listening, it struck me just what we are missing. Les Back is Professor of sociology at Goldsmiths College and an expert on racism, urbanism and ethnic identity. I must declare a personal interest as he has been very supportive to me personally and a model of what an engaged academic should be. At first glance (hearing?) The Art of Listening is a book of little interest to non-sociologists, being a sustained meditation on sociological methodology and the art of social research. So why am I reviewing the book here? The reason is that Back has important things to say about the way we ‘listen’ to the world that are relevant beyond the sociological community.

    Back makes a powerful case for sociology as ‘listening art’ that is well suited to ‘hear those who are not listened to and challenge the claims placed on the meaning of events in the past and in the present’ (1). Back summarises the importance of listening as follows:

    Our culture is one that speaks rather than listens. From reality TV to political rallies there is a clamour to be heard, to narrate and gain attention. Consumed and exposed by turns, ‘reality’ is reduced to revelation and voyeurism. The central contention of The Art of Listening is that this phenomenon is having severe and damaging consequences in a world that is increasingly globalized and where time and space are compressed. Listening to the world is not an automatic faculty but a skill that needs to be trained. (7)

    Both sociology and the everyday lives that sociologists study are shot through with both insight and ‘social deafness’ (11). Sociology may offer a systematic form of listening to others, but it is not capable of hearing all and knowing all. It requires a certain humility that ‘prizes patience, commitment to dialogue and careful and reflective claims to truth’ (20). For Back, this ‘commitment to dialogue’ means not only listening but also asking hard questions of the subjects of sociological writing, albeit in a respectful manner. He argues that ‘the political value of sociological work lies in being open to unsettling dialogues with humility’ (162). Above all, sociology offers hope in the possibilities of listening and dialogue.

    The bulk of The Art of Listening consists of demonstrations of the author’s commitment to hearing and to dialogue, with a number of chapters reflecting on particular aspects of his research. Back ‘listens to’ such topics as the Immigration and Nationality Directorate in Croydon, young people’s feelings of safety and of home in East London, tattooing and the July 7 bombings. Throughout the book he draws on personal experience, particular that of the death of his father, but in a way that is never self-indulgent. Rather, there is a continual attempt to understand to draw connections between personal experiences and that of the other.

    The book brought home to me just what has been lacking in social research on Anglo-Jewry. For all that all research projects since the early 90s have been initiated in order to ‘understand’ British Jews, it is a thin kind of understanding that has been achieved. Most research projects have been tied into very specific policy goals. The desire for ‘data’ in the pursuit of policy can force research into a straightjacket in which the subjects of research are only half-listened to – only that which is ‘relevant’ to the research gets heard. One of the problems of policy-oriented research is that starting with a view of what the subjects of research should be doing can lead to a certain lack of respect for them. This is a real dilemma in, for example, policy-oriented research on Jewish education. In the research on ‘moderately engaged’ British Jews that Steven Cohen and I carried out for the United Jewish Israel Appeal a few years ago (published as Beyond Belonging 2004), I hope that we managed to do justice to the dignity and complexity of our respondents; but I also worry that the desire for a more committed, engaged and educated population of British Jews might have led us to overlook some of the complex textures of peoples’ lives. Attention to what Les Back calls ‘interpretation without legislation’ (1) might have instilled in us a more creative and humanistic attitude to research.

    Perhaps then the value of social research isn’t just its ‘pay offs’ for policy makers, but as a valuable exercise in its own right. Perhaps it can teach us how to listen to others in a more systematic and open way. Perhaps social research should be a more formal version of what we should be doing anyway. It is here that The Art of Listening gave me most pause for thought. It made me realise once again just how poor British Jews are at listening to each other. I’m always struck by this on my visits to Finland and Sweden – countries I love dearly – where it is rare to interrupt anyone when they are talking and listeners usually pause for a second or two before responding. I always find this hard to adapt to and until I adjust I feel crass and rude. The Jewish community (not just in the UK) is full of noise and clamour, we eschew silence. Think of how the standard way of studying Talmud is in a crowded Beth Midrash in which the student and hevrutah partner part-chant, part-talk across and around each other. Our culture of noise isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it makes for an atmosphere that can be wonderfully warm and vibrant. But the dark side is that the clamour to make oneself heard can lead to frustration and this frustration can lead to an increasing shrillness. The ‘still small voice’ can be drowned out; the voice of the marginalised can be suppressed. The recent controversy over Independent Jewish Voices is an example of how the desire to be heard can erupt in exchanges that are vituperative in their bitterness.

    Perhaps then the major value of research in the UK Jewish community is as an exercise that can, potentially at least, force us to listen more clearly. We do not need to silence ourselves to do this in an illusory attempt at ‘objectivity’, but we do need to leave space for the other to be heard. Anyone with an interest in how to do this would be well advised to consult The Art of Listening as a treasury of good practice.