I will not go over the circumstances that lead Ruth Rosenfelder to withdraw from New Jewish Thought’s conference on Jewish music. Our recollections of the events do tally – and that, at least, is a positive sign. It is also helpful to know that Ruth found the whole experience as distressing as I did. Clearly, cooperating with an IJV signatory was something that she found deeply compromising.
I can appreciate that Ruth did not take the decision to pull out of the project lightly; I can appreciate that Ruth’s view of Israel and the relationship of the diaspora to it is not a crude one; I can appreciate that she desires good intra-communal relations as much as I do; but what I cannot do is empathise with her view that to collaborate with me would be compromising. I have never felt that to be involved in a project with someone with whom I vehemently disagree threatens my own integrity. I have never felt that cooperating with someone with whom I vehemently disagree on a project that we both agree on necessarily implies approval of all the actions and beliefs of that person. I have worked with right-wing Zionists, left-wing Zionists and anti-Zionists, with orthodox Jews and secular Jews; in my other life as a sociologist of popular music I have even worked with Satanists. I don’t believe this makes me either a moral hero or a gullible fool. Rather my desire to work with a wide range of people stems from my desire to cooperate with anyone who will help me further my beliefs and principles. To me, this is what community is about.
I do understand that Ruth felt that my position as both a signatory to IJV and as a founder of New Jewish Thought was mutually contradictory. Clearly, IJV raised some very strong feelings and was felt by many to be an attack on the Jewish community itself. The presence on the list of a number of unapologetic anti-Zionists was seen to undermine whatever humanitarian message was intended.
My own feelings about IJV are complicated. I signed because I felt the declaration to be an articulate and sensible plea to respect the diversity of views on Israel within the Jewish community. I was naïve to not investigate the other signatories nor to anticipate the reactions to the declaration. When the declaration was published, I soon realised the shortcomings of the IJV project. I believed and still believe that effective politics and communal transformation requires ‘coalitions of the willing’ to be built, even when it draws you into alliance with distasteful people. The problem with IJV though was that the organisers appear to have been more assiduous in seeking the signatures of secular Jews with little connection to the community, than they were in seeking the signatures of others such as myself with a strong involvement in Jewish communal life. I am no supporter of Harold Pinter, defender of Slobodan Milosevic, yet I would still have been content to add my signature next to his if the signatures of more involved and principled Jews were also there. As it was, the isolation of figures such as myself meant that the declaration was read as an attack by secular Jews on the Jewish community.
The withdrawal of Ruth Rosenfelder and the subsequent collapse of the inaugural New Jewish Thought conference were not the only consequences of my signing the IJV declaration. I also received e-mails attacking me from a number of people and faced the prospect of losing support from a major Jewish communal body for a research project that I am conducting. As someone who has endeavoured to work across communal boundaries, this criticism was extremely upsetting. As someone who works as a sociologist within the Jewish community, it was also potentially career-threatening. If the IJV project had been effective and had I not had reservations about it, I would have stuck to my guns no matter what; but given that the IJV declaration seemed to have been entirely counter-productive, I decided to ask that my name be removed from the declaration that had been published online.
What can be learnt from this whole experience? Personally, it is that I have to be extremely careful in what I sign up to. I would hope that the organisers of IJV have learnt that if they are serious about working to transform the way the Anglo-Jewish community handles debate on Israel, they are going to have to involve more communally-involved ‘moderates’.
At the same time, I do not agree with the criticism Ruth makes that IJV represents the antithesis of the values of New Jewish Thought. Yes it included the signatures of some who do indeed represent the antithesis of NJT’s values, but the majority were simply concerned Jews. The organisers themselves have been guilty of little more than naivety and some of them are committed to serious intra-communal dialogue. Indeed, Brian Klug will be involved in a dialogue session with Clive Lawton that has been organised by New Jewish Thought at the December 2007 Limmud conference.
Even if I did agree with Ruth’s viewpoint on IJV, I still cannot empathise or agree with her decision to withdraw. Yes, had she continued with the project she would have remained associated with an IJV signatory, but I was not the only person on the conference committee and none of the others were IJV signatories; Ruth and I we were not going to appear on a platform or do anything public together; nor did the project have anything directly to do with Israel. In my view, the connection was simply too tenuous and too broad to be compromising. The reduction al absurdo of Ruth’s position is in fact deeply sinister: that ties should be cut with anyone who signed the IJV declaration.
So Ruth and I are left with a divide between us. I am grateful though that she felt able to write about her experience in a thoughtful and respectful manner. I I hope that she can be involved with New Jewish Thought as it develops. I hope that our ability to talk to each other can heal the wounds that this situation created; indeed I hope that this attitude can prevail in the community as a whole and help to heal the wounds that the IJV declaration opened up.
Keith Kahn-Harris is convenor of New Jewish Thought