New Jewish Thought, dedicated to ‘foster[ing] dialogue and respectful connection between Jews with different opinions’, whilst radical in concept fills a much needed and, I believe sustainable, void in Anglo-Jewry’s cultural and social landscape. As a member of the Jewish Book Council for many years, I have experience of the possibility of successfully creating a forum for productive inter- and intra-communal and religious dialogue between individuals who would not as a rule engage with one another. But Jewish Book Week, the event that is the Council’s focus, is essentially a two-week annual event.
I therefore responded with deep interest when a member of City University’s administration asked if I would be interested in a project proposed by Keith Kahn-Harris of Goldsmiths University of London and his colleagues to tie in with the setting up of New Jewish Thought. Keith had obtained funding to run a project with City University to develop a seminar to debate new Jewish thinking. As Visiting Lecturer in Jewish Studies in City University’s Department of Music, I was invited to participate.
The information available to us at City was that the aim of the project was to promote interfaith or possibly intra-faith activity and discussion, demonstrated through the arts, with particular emphasis on music. At an exploratory meeting, Keith explained that funding was to provide for a website and a conference to establish New Jewish Thought. He added that the desired aim was to bring together members of different faiths or different sections of the same faith to debate openly and possibly heatedly, but always constructively, on subjects about which they felt passionately. His excitement and that of his colleagues was both palpable and infectious, but we eventually decided to restrict the conference to a one-day event, confining ourselves to one discipline ¾ music ¾ and one religion ¾ Judaism ¾ in view of our limited resources.
A date was agreed; Keith then found a venue and structured the day to comprise five panels encompassing a range of aspects of music, from cantorial to heavy metal, addressing issues of politics, religion, gender and performance-practice all within a Jewish reference. We sought to draw our panels from all sections of the community such as secular and religious, practitioners of art and popular musics, male and female, some with political agendas, to debate, discuss, argue and, we hoped, find common ground in their different musical genres and backgrounds. By the beginning of February 2007, with the conference scheduled for the end of June, all appeared to be going really well
Then, on 5 February 2007 a full page advertisement appeared in the Times under the banner heading, ‘A Time to Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices’. The five principles laid out appeared unobjectionable and indeed somewhat anodyne. Could any reasonable reader disagree with the declaration, ‘Palestinians and Israelis alike have the right to peaceful and secure lives’, and ‘Peace and stability require the willingness of all parties to the conflict to comply with international law’? The advertisement continued with a two-paragraph outline of its aims, describing the organisation as a ‘group of Jews in Britain. . . .who have in common a strong commitment to social justice and universal human rights’ continuing 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’. I confess to having trouble with the hubristic tone and the unsubstantiated claims of the text, but my objection is essentially one of style. However, there followed a sentence that gave me greater pause. ‘We declare our support for a properly negotiated peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people and oppose any attempt by the Israeli government to impose its own solutions on the Palestinians [my italics]’. Besides the chutzpah of claiming ‘support for a properly negotiated peace’ as though the notion is in someway exclusive while the rest of the world is at best indifferent to a just peace, the final clause made shocking reading in its implications. Amongst the list of signatories, the majority of whom I assume are essentially concerned with the wretched plight of the Palestinian people, there nestled a group of names associated with aggressively anti-Israeli bias; some have published material questioning the very existence of the State whilst others are busily orchestrating academic and professional boycotts of Israel. So the objective was therefore revealed to be yet another attempt at Israel-bashing dressed up in the clothing of an humanitarian initiative. I regard Israel as a democratic, sovereign State grappling with internal and external socio-political and religious issues of profound complexity, of which conflict with the Palestinians is one most in need of resolution. I also believe that reductive posturing and simplistic demonisation of Israel do no good and may well do harm to all parties involved.
I then noticed with concern that Keith was a signatory to the advertisement. Since his published writings indicate close links with Israel and its complex social structures, it would seem that he fully supported all the declared aims of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV). I still find it hard to comprehend how he came to add his name to those who demonstrably avoid ‘dialogue and respectful connection’ as defined by New Jewish Thought. After considerable thought I contacted Keith and the conference committee to let them know that, whilst I was happy to continue working on the project and take an active part in its organisation or as a member of a discussion panel, I felt I could not allow my name to be linked with a signatory of IJV. The general response was one of amazement since IJV is a political, activist group and ours was to be an academic event concerned with Jewish identity in a musical context. Nevertheless, in addition to the fact that politics was to be one of the our five subjects for panel discussion, Keith’s signature provided a plausible link between the two organisations that allowed, I felt, room for confusion, and for my standing as an organising member of New Jewish Thought to be compromised.
Perhaps naively, I believed that the conference would proceed without my overt involvement. However, as it was to be a joint event, funding could not be released without my name attached; since the remainder was insufficient, the conference was abandoned. I believe it had the potential to be a worthwhile, and possibly ground-breaking event, and I can only imagine Keith’s disappointment. I, for my part, hope he understands that whilst I would share a platform to debate with members of IJV I will continue to avoid any situation that might suggest I could make common cause with them.
I deeply regret the position that I felt compelled to adopt, but the experience has served to demonstrate the importance of New Jewish Thought. Despite the similarity in their names, I believe IJV and New Jewish Thought represent diametrically opposing positions in addressing delicate issues. Whilst the former hectors and strikes attitudes, the latter encourages dialogue, negotiation and debate. It was this spirit that made working with Keith and his partners so enjoyable; I look forward to the day when we might be able to join in creating a forum where integrity, passion and honest debate prevail.
To read Keith Kahn-Harris's response click here.
Ruth Rosenfelder is visiting lecturer in Jewish studies within the department of music, City University.
August 2007 (revised September 2007)