Jewish dissent gets a louder voice

The following book review of the Verso release, A Time to Speak Out (in which I have a chapter), appears in the leading Jewish publication in Britain, the Jewish Chronicle:

Michael Pinto-Duschinsky
September 19, 2008

Edited by Anne Karpf, Brian Klug, Jacqueline Rose, Barbara Rosenbaum
Verso, …£9.99

In February 2007, more than 100 “Independent Jewish Voices” issued in The Times and the JC a manifesto critical of Israeli policies. Verso, an imprint of New Left Books, has now published a collection of 27 essays, mostly by signatories to that manifesto. They are varied in content, highly personal, fascinating and controversial.

The authors include seven professors, as well as journalists, writers, activists and professionals. They range from human-rights lawyer Sir Geoffrey Bindman to Antony Lerman, director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, and Gillian Slovo, loving daughter of the late South African Communist leader, Joe. A few contributors have been active in Jewish communal life; most have a strong Jewish identity, which they express in different ways.

Among the most intriguing chapters are Emma Clyne’s recent experiences as chair of a university Jewish Society, Anthony Rudolf’s description of his changing attitudes to Israel over 40-plus years, and Anne Karpf’s distaste, as a second-generation Holocaust survivor, for the misuse of Holocaust analogies by Arabs and Jews alike.

Especially noteworthy are Richard Silverstein’s account of the “blogging wars” about Israel; DD Guttenplan’s recollection of IF Stone’s and Sir Isaiah Berlin’s correspondence over whether Jews should express criticism of Israel in front of gentiles; Eyal Weizman’s review of decisions by the Israeli high court over the route of the separation wall; Lerman’s observations on Anglo-Jewish communal bodies’ reactions to the issues of antisemitism and of Israel; and Jeremy Montagu’s dignified statement of dissent.

Fairly common themes are dissatisfaction with such established institutions as the Board of Deputies for being overly prescriptive, and an assertion of the right of British Jews to disagree publicly with Israeli actions.

These significant points need to be addressed. There is great energy among British Jews for engagement in Jewish affairs. But no single religious or non-religious institution or political viewpoint is capable of catering for all tastes. Alongside synagogues, congregations, and communal bodies, other Jewish gathering points are needed. The idea that Jews should criticise Israel only in private settings is outdated and counterproductive. Shtetl traditions of carrying on political arguments by rudeness and sarcasm need to be forgotten.

A heartening chapter contains an exchange of emails between Gillian Slovo and Paul Gross of the Israeli embassy in London. Far from dismissing Slovo’s accusations of Israeli “apartheid” with disrespect, the diplomat takes the trouble to give considered responses. The two parties develop at least some understanding of each other.

But dialogue requires IJV to listen as well as speak. Though they are wholly justified in condemning settlements in occupied territories as barriers to peace and as a major cause of Israeli human-rights abuses, the authors tend to over-generalise. They underestimate the difficulty of maintaining the rule of law amid suicide bombings. Too many criticisms of Israeli actions are well founded but, in my recent experience, international organisations and media regularly publish false, irresponsible allegations which they refuse to correct when disproved.

Moreover, the reasonable argument of Independent Jewish Voices that criticism of Israel is not always antisemitic does not address the evidence that sometimes it is.

These essays deserve to be read carefully and debated courteously. At the same time, it is to be hoped that, in the name of the “open forum” which the authors advocate, New Left Books will publish another volume by Jewish authors of other persuasions.

Michael Pinto-Duschinsky is senior research fellow in politics at Brunel University