Drawing the lines

February 8, 2014 by

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Recent controversies within the American Jewish community over what kinds of Israel-related activity should be allowed within Hillel Houses, raise issues that are much bigger than just student life on campus. Debates about Open Hillel and Swathmore College, touch on questions of communal boundaries and in particular of what ‘red lines’ Jewish institutions should draw in excluding some kinds of Jews.

 Israel, once a unifying factor in Jewish communities, has become a source of communal discord

In my forthcoming book Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community (David Paul Books), I discuss how Israel, once a unifying factor in Jewish communities, has become a source of communal discord. I argue that a plurality of Jewish positions on Israel have emerged in recent years and that supporters of these positions often come into conflict with Jews who hold other views. In response, I make the case that it is essential that Jewish communities begin to come to terms with the divisions within them.

While there has been a move towards a limited acceptance of pluralism on Israel from some mainstream Jewish communal organisations (Makom being one of them), I suggest that this process needs to go much further. Jewish communities need to retreat from creating pariahs and from practices of exclusion towards those with minority views on Israel – and that means including at least some kinds of Jewish anti-Zionists in at least some kinds of Jewish communal settings.

I do not make this argument out of sympathy with such views, but from a concern for Jewish peoplehood and Jewish community. This is, in part, an idealistic argument. I believe that if Jewish peoplehood means anything, it means accepting that one’s destiny as a Jew is tied into the destinies of Jews who hold views that one may find objectionable.

But my argument is also pragmatic. In a wired world where everyone has a platform and everyone can find like minds, it is simply no longer possible to exclude people entirely from Jewish communities – those who are excluded will not go away and will not shut up.

I suggest that the inevitable tensions that stem from the plurality of Jewish views on Israel need to be eased through practices of dialogue that aim towards greater civility. Civility, as I understand it, isn’t necessarily about being ‘nice’ and polite, it’s about taking care over how we communicate. A more civil Jewish community will still not find divisions over Israel easy to navigate, but at least some of the stress, anger and conflict that is currently rife may be eased.

I also suggest an institutional agenda. Jewish cross-communal institutions – like Hillel – have become used to using Israel as a way of building consensus and enthusiasm. This is no longer a viable strategy. It follows then that in order to ease the Israel conflict, Jewish institutions that aspire to inclusion may have to pull back from some kinds of celebratory and defensive Israel-related activity. These kinds of activity should be the job of specialist organisations with clear ideologies. There is no such thing as a non-political response to Israel and we need to abandon the illusion that celebrating or defending Israel will not be divisive and political.

If the Jewish community would be more open about its divisions, it would actually find it easier to come together.

What I am arguing is paradoxical to some extent; if the Jewish community would be more open about its divisions, it would actually find it easier to come together. Acceptance that there cannot be a non-controversial, simple ‘pro-Israel’ position and that those who reject Israel cannot be suppressed is actually a liberating move. If Israel is recognised as a permanent source of division, then inclusive communal bodies can actually get on with working on areas of genuine consensus.

To be clear, I am not saying that Jewish communal bodies should pull back from Israel-related activity – in fact, quite the reverse. Jewish cross-communal spaces should be arenas in which Jews can engage with, learn about and discuss Israel, within a civil setting in which the inevitability of different views is accepted. Beyond this, celebrating, defending or criticising Israel is the job for more specialist and ideologically-driven organisations.

So, should anyone be excluded from Jewish communities? Although I am arguing for an inclusive Jewish community, I am not arguing that anyone should be included into any kind of Jewish institution, activity or event. For example, I am not suggesting that anti-Zionists be welcomed into Israel independence day celebrations. What I am arguing is that by concentrating Israel-related activity into certain dedicated spaces and institutions that have a clearly political line on Israel, a broader spectrum of Jews could be included into other kinds of spaces and institutions.

In practice that means that Hillels would not take a position on Israel, beyond providing a forum in which Israel can be engaged with seriously and with civility. In terms of criteria for inclusion, anyone who identifies himself/herself or is identified by others as a Jew should, in principle, be included in cross-communal institutions and activities. In some institutions this is already the case – Jewish welfare organisations do not formally exclude anti-Zionists – but, in others, those who reject Israel usually face a rough ride.

I do accept that some red lines are necessary and that some who identify as Jews or are identified as Jews should be excluded from most kinds of communal activity. This category would include only those who have actively and explicitly:

The number of Jews falling into these categories is very small and includes notorious figures, such as Gilad Atzmon and Israel Shamir. However, not only do such people rarely wish to be part of Jewish communities, they are already mostly excluded even from anti-Zionist Jewish circles.

Messianic Jews – those who follow Christianity, including groups like Jews for Jesus – would also be excluded from most Jewish communal institutions and activities. While they rarely embrace anti-Semitism and their Zionism actually puts them in the Jewish communal mainstream, their proselytising for another religion, even with Jewish trappings, ultimately means they seek the dissolution of Jewishness in most of its forms.

However, even these red lines should not be inflexible. If a Jewish anti-Semite like Atzmon were to seek to attend a Jewish funeral for a family member, it would be unethical to refuse him entry. If a messianic Jew were to be a victim of an anti-Semitic attack, then he/she might arguably be entitled to Jewish communal support.

I do not expect my proposals to be universally accepted any time soon. I do expect that my proposals and I myself will be accused of being a Trojan horse for anti-Zionism. However I remain convinced that if there is to be any hope of breaking free of the endless conflict that accompanies discussions of Israel in Jewish communities worldwide, then those of us who care about Jewish community need to think very seriously about how Jewish communities could be organised differently.

And that means expanding our red lines to the absolute bearable limit.

Keith Kahn-Harris is the author of “Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community”

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