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Dialogue

New Jewish Thought Policy Paper 2

An Experiment in Dialogue


Keith Kahn-Harris

Keith Kahn Harris

This report discusses a Jewish dialogue group on Israel convened by New Jewish Thought in 2008. It is available to download here. Comments can be left at the bottom of this page.

The following is an extract from the report:

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.

Read the rest here

Comments:

Comment from a member by: A member @ 05:41:20 pm on December 19, 2008.

I was a member of this dialogue group. It was an interesting experiment and I applaud Keith for taking the initiative. But dialogue is not a panacea - far from it. Indeed, the main lesson I took from the sessions was the limits of dialogue. What follows is not intended to be nihilistic. But I do think it is important for future experimenters in this area to be aware of the limits of dialogue, in order to avoid setting up false expectations.

Disputes between Jews about Israel are indeed robust. But that’s hardly surprising. The tiny minority of Jews who advocate ‘One State’, for example, are striking at the centrality of a Jewish-based Israel to the vast majority of their co-religionists. I see the Jewish ‘One Staters’ as a problem because they give our enemies open goals. How often have I heard the absurd argument that “s/he is Jewish and s/he says that Israel is a racist State - so it cannot be an antisemitic statement” (I heard the same argument about the recent sham ‘carol’ service in central London, which was co-organised by a Jewish group). But the fact that these people are opposed by the rest of us – and that the debate often gets heated – is not, per se, a problem. After all, we have the choice of the ‘off-button ‘ – if we are upset by the tone of a debate, we can stay out.
Even for those who believe that robust debate is a problem (and I have yet to be convinced that such people exist in any number) I don’t see how dialogue groups can help. Robust debate about Israel is a fact of life, just as robust debate about the invasion of Iraq is a fact of life. Dialogue groups will not put an end to either debate.
In other words I disagree with the rationale for Israel dialogue groups stated in the paper.
Next to Keith’s point about ‘facts’. The group member who argued that “it was impossible to conduct dialogue unless one agreed on a basic set of facts” was me. If dialogue is about anything, it’s surely about learning from each other. How can one learn from someone who maintains that Israel was responsible for the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948? Or from someone who does not accept the EUMC Definition of antisemitism which says that denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination – eg by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racists endeavour – is antisemitic? Or from someone who maintains (like Walt and Mearsheimer) that there is a single “Israel Lobby”, in the sense of a single body with single policies? I’m not saying these were all examples of what was said in the group, but you will understand the gist of my argument. With such people debate is possible, at least in theory. But dialogue – in the sense of a mutually beneficial exchange of opinions and the reasons for holding those opinions – is not.

Finally the idea for Israel dialogue came – as Keith observes – from the US and there are important differences between the tenor of the debate in the US and the UK which must surely impact on Israel dialogue within the Jewish community. In the US there is wide support for Israel across the whole population. In the UK there is not. For the majority of the Jewish community that believes in an Israel grounded in Judaism, that means that the dissenting minority is far more of an issue – in terms of the potential for ‘open goals’ for Israel’s enemies – in the UK than it is in the US. That surely must have repercussions for the comparative nature of Jewish-Jewish dialogue in the two countries.


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