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British Jews Speak Out

Until just a few decades ago, if you were a minority in the UK–national, ethnic, religious, whatever–then the only way you had a remote chance that your concerns and agendas might make it into the public arena was through some kind of official representative. If you didn’t have such a sanctioned "voice," you had no voice.

Multiculturalism as it developed in the UK in the 1960s, ‘70s and beyond changed things to the extent that minority voices came to be heard increasingly loudly in the public sphere, speaking for themselves rather than being spoken for. But multiculturalism also silenced some minority voices since, as the diversity of British society grew, so government, media and public bodies came to rely on official representatives to navigate Britain’s complex minority landscape.

In the British Jewish community, official representative bodies such as the Chief Rabbinate and the Board of Deputies have long provided an influential and respected voice for British Jewry. However, these bodies have at times defined the boundaries of British Jewry in narrow ways, with the result that their voices have, at different points in history drowned out those of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Reform Jews, pre-1948 Zionists and those critical of the politics of the State of Israel. Feeling themselves to be excluded from the structures of communal representation, a group of British Jewish critics of Israel have now produced the collection, A Time To Speak Out.

The collection emerged out of a project called Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) that was launched in February 2007 with a declaration that claimed that: "the broad spectrum of opinion among the Jewish population of this country is not reflected by those institutions which claim authority to represent the Jewish community as a whole" and that "those who claim to speak on behalf of Jews in Britain and other countries consistently put support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of an occupied people.’"

IJV was subject to a firestorm of Jewish criticism. Shriller voices accused the group of nothing short of treachery–prominent neo-conservative Melanie Phillips described them as "Jews for genocide." What was also noteworthy was that many British Jewish leftists, such as Jonathan Freedland and Linda Grant, also criticised the group for distancing itself from the community. Some pointed out that many IJV signatories were well-known public intellectuals such as Harold Pinter who have little involvement in Jewish communal life and are hardly short of platforms from which their voices can be heard. It is similarly true that most of the contributors to A Time to Speak Out are well-known, widely published intellectuals such as Lynne Segal, Jacqueline Rose and Mike Marqusee who have no need of the mainstream Jewish community’s imprimatur.

But contrary to the criticism of IJV as a group of Israel-hating extremists, most of the contributors to A Time to Speak Out are measured in their arguments. Most confine their criticisms to Israeli actions in the occupied West Bank and to British Jewish apologists for them. There is little talk of the more radical one-state solution, only two writers declare themselves as anti-Zionists, and no one advocates an academic boycott of Israel.

Perhaps A Time To Speak Out‘s most important contribution is not as a progressive critique of Israel (there are many other books that do this just as well if not better), but as a multicultural critique of British Jewish society. The collection provides ample evidence of the pressure and abuse that some have been subject to from the mainstream Jewish community. Emma Clyne’s particularly affecting chapter details how, as chair of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies Jewish society, she was the subject of disgraceful treatment by the Union of Jewish Students for organising a discussion by IJV signatories at her university. The book also provides some spirited refutations of the abusive accusations that Jewish critics of Israel are often faced with, as with Jacqueline Rose’s acute demolition of "the myth of self-hatred."

The question remains though, what does the fact of the Jewishness of these critics matter? Some detractors of IJV complain that by making such a play of being Jewish critics of Israel, the signatories contribute to the anti-Semitic agenda of those who treat Jews as inherently racist unless they publicly renounce support for Israel. Such criticisms are over the top, but it is true that most contributors have difficulty in articulating a positive vision of Jewishness and the Jewish community. Some offer vague suggestions for communal restructuring, some allude to the Jewish radical tradition, there is some quoting of biblical texts and some lukewarm theology. None of this is anywhere near as convincing or effective than the criticisms of Israel and the Jewish community in the collection.

In the end, we are left with a lacuna that bedevils both Jewish and other attempts to ensure that the voice of difference is heard in British communal deliberations and representation: it is much easier to be a critic than to envision forms of ethnic or religious representation that are truly diverse and representative. The Chief Rabbinate and the Board of Deputies and other such bodies may not truly represent all those whom they say they represent, but at the moment they have a clearer sense of purpose than many of their critics. A Time to Speak Out is an excellent contribution to the definition of a serious problem, but the work of communal reconstruction is yet to truly start.

Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist based at Goldsmiths College, London and is currently co-writing a book on British Jewish communal leadership since 1990. He is the convenor of New Jewish Thought.

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