Tuesday, February 13, 2007

With a bang, not a whimper: "rebellion goes global"

A final summing-up on the Independent Jewish Voices debate from one of the signatories.

February 12, 2007 9:45 AM

Brian Klug

At the end of a week of intense debate on the Guardian's Comment is Free website, I shall try to take stock of how the launch of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) has been received.

Not with a whimper but with a bang, it would be fair to say. When a number of us got together with the idea that it was time to stake a claim for the principles set out in the IJV statement, we hoped we would have an impact. We even expected that our initiative would not fall entirely flat. But we did not realise that the tinder of public opinion was quite so dry and that news of our ideas would spread like wildfire.

"The rebellion goes global" is the headline of the lead article on the front page of this week's Jewish Chronicle (JC), which prides itself on being the "world's oldest and most influential Jewish newspaper". "International drive to challenge communal leaders' 'unquestioning support' for Israel reaches Britain" explains the strap line. The article reports that in just three days over 1,000 entries on the subject were posted on the Comment is Free site. This is not to say that the JC is sympathetic to IJV, as it makes clear in an editorial [subscription only]. But its extensive coverage reflects the extent of public interest, not least in Jewish circles, in the issues raised by the launch.

It's the issues, not the IJV as such, that count. As one email writer put it: "Judging by the enormous response, it is clear that these issues have been smouldering beneath the surface for some time". He thought that the launch of IJV has "catalysed the debate".

Another wrote: "You have said openly what many of us have felt for a very long time but have lacked a vehicle for expressing our views."

These sentiments, which have been expressed in abundance over the last week, provide part of the answer to an objection raised frequently - in the threads of comments on this site and elsewhere - during the week. We stand accused of being a clique of marginal Jews who have ample opportunity to express our views in the media; who have invented or imagined the figment of censorship; and who simply cannot bear the heat of vigorous debate.

It would take a while to unpack this accusation in full. Briefly, there is no clique. The two email writers I just quoted are not members of the glitterati. They do not have automatic access to the comment pages of newspapers. Like many signatories to the IJV statement, they are individuals who feel alienated by the prevailing climate of debate over Israel and Zionism within the Jewish world.

Numerous Jews in Britain fit this description. They are at the heart of our initiative. We are seeking to enfranchise people who are effectively disfranchised by the current ethos, whether the lives they lead are within an organised Jewish community or not. Some negative responses to IJV seem to suggest that people who are not in the Jewish mainstream have less right to a voice as Jews; as if living on the margins of "the Jewish community" makes you a marginal Jew. This idea is as invalid as it is offensive.

Furthermore, contrary to the construction put on our words by some critics, none of us is suggesting that there is an unofficial censor who prevents individuals from expressing unpopular views about Israel or Zionism. It's what happens after people speak out - how their words are received - that is the point. Moreover, individual dissenting voices get lost or drowned out when weighty bodies (like the Board of Deputies or the Chief Rabbi) appear to speak on behalf of all Jews in Britain. It is the combination of these two factors that closes down a debate that should be open.

An open debate on a controversial subject is bound to be vigorous. But vigour is one thing, vilification another. The difference can be seen in the range of reactions to the launch of IJV. There have been reasoned objections and legitimate questions. But there has also been an extraordinary amount of abusive language, ridicule and attacks on our character or motives.

Who are we? We are a network of Jews in Britain who share a commitment to certain principles, especially with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in mind: putting human rights first, rejecting all forms of racism, and giving equal priority to Palestinians and Israelis in their quest for a peaceful and secure future.

We believe that these principles, rather than group loyalty, should determine the parameters of legitimate debate. What is there to hate? Yet the vitriol is ubiquitous. One leading commentator refers to us as "Jews for genocide". Nothing could offer a clearer illustration of the climate we are describing than an epithet like this.

There is a larger context. Domestically, the IJV statement bears on the current public debate in Britain about the nature of a plural society: Sunny Hundal makes the connection in his article on the Comment is Free website. And there are initiatives like ours abroad, as the front page article in the JC reports. Developments in America are described by Richard Silverstein in his piece on this site and by Gaby Wood in Sunday's Observer.

At the end of the launch week it is clear that IJV has struck a chord - hence the degree of support we have received - and hit a nerve - hence the scale of the hostility. Things are changing, at home and abroad, and this is just the beginning.

Click here for a full list of articles in the Independent Jewish Voices debate.

Dr Brian Klug is senior research fellow & tutor in philosophy at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford and member of the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University. He is an honorary fellow in the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non Jewish Relations at the University of Southampton, associate editor of Patterns of Prejudice and a founder member of the Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights. He has published widely on race, antisemitism, Jewish identity, Zionism and related subjects. Books include, Children as Equals: Exploring the Rights of the Child (co-editor) and Ethics, Value and Reality: Selected Papers of Aurel Kolnai (co-editor).

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