Glasgow Jewish Educational Forum

Archive for November, 2010

Letter from London – Turbulent Times: Apocalypse Now or a New Vilna?

Posted by Admin on November 15, 2010

Antony Lerman

‘Turbulent Times’ is the title of a new and important book about the British Jewish community today. ‘Turbulent times’ might also describe the prediction for the Jewish future that most in the audience worryingly subscribed to at a debate on whether Jews are growing ashamed to be Jewish that took place on Monday 25 October. I say ‘might’ and ‘worryingly’ because the book with the TT title realistically describes an obstacle-strewn path which, over twenty years, has nonetheless been rather effectively navigated and could lead to a bright Jewish future. While the TT prediction is a rather mild characterization of the belief that we’re about to be engulfed by an anti-Jewish apocalypse of monumental proportions.

I previewed this debate, in which I was one of four speakers, a month ago and wrote about how much I was looking forward to it. I didn’t plan to return to it here, but the outcome tells us something important about the state of mind of British Jewry and perhaps also of European Jewry more widely. Only last week, the President of the European Jewish Congress, Moshe Kantor, darkly warned of ‘small communities [in Europe] . . . teetering on the brink of extinction’ because of an ‘antisemitic onslaught’. With this tone suffusing Monday’s debate, I felt rather foolish having thought that I might enjoy it.

Apocalyptic fear for the Jewish future in Europe is nothing new in recent years. This is how the 21st century began, with dire warnings about an imminent re-run of Kristalnacht and a rapidly approaching end to Jewish life across the continent, though I don’t believe it was anything like a majority view. I might be wrong, but I think that had Monday’s debate been staged eight years ago, not only would there have been great puzzlement about the subject matter, there would also have been considerable scepticism about predictions of the coming apocalypse, although a not insignificant sense of unease about the future would have been expressed.

We were discussing ‘ashamed Jews’ because the British Jewish novelist Howard Jacobson had parodied this genus in his latest work of fiction, The Finkler Question, which recently won the Man Booker prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary award. When asked what he was going to do with the £50,000 prize money, he replied: ‘Buy my wife a handbag.’ The ashamed Jews are a group of Israel-hating, Jewishness-denying media luvvies which meets at London’s Groucho Club and calls itself ‘ASHamed Jews’. The Finkler in the title is a highly successful author of popular books on philosophy, who becomes the group’s leading light.

Howard Jacobson kicked off the debate by reading key passages from his book about a meeting of the ASHamed Jews. He followed this up with dire warnings about the consequences of the perfidy of such Jews and the mounting atmosphere of insane Jew-hatred gripping the British chattering classes. He was more than just supported by Melanie Phillips, one of the country’s leading columnists who writes for the right-wing Daily Mail and also for the Jewish Chronicle. Melanie, who frequently appears on radio and television in current affairs discussions, spoke of ‘Jews demonising Israel’ as ‘uniquely diabolical’ and laid out her by now well-known thesis that a worldwide surge of left-wing, Islamist, genocidal Jew-hatred is about to engulf us all. And left-wing, Israel-hating Jews are providing support to this genocidal project.

Together with Brian Klug, an Oxford University philosopher and author of a new book, Being Jewish and Doing Justice, I disputed this scenario and argued that ‘ASHamed Jews’ are largely a figment of the imagination, a phrase used to demonise Jews whose views we disagree with. While there are serious problems of antisemitism, and some anti-Zionism is a form of it, Jews who question the path Israel is taking today are not contributing to it. Vilifying them is simply sitting in judgement on their Jewishness. Far better for Jews of different ideological persuasions to engage in debate and dialogue over real differences than to resort to name-calling and politically-motivated insults.

I have no intention of using this letter to continue the argument and prosecute my case. What I want to convey is that our respective views were so polarised, it seemed, that any observer would have recognised the absence of dialogue between the two sides. And I freely admit that the majority of the audience firmly supported the positions adopted by Howard and Melanie.

There is, however, an incongruity here that needs to be brought out. We were sitting in Hampstead Town Hall, in one of the most prosperous and liberal parts of London. The well-heeled, packed Jewish audience—there was standing room only—are unlikely to feel the pain of the drastic spending cuts and job losses now being introduced by the new government, which includes a number of Jewish ministers. An unashamedly Jewish novelist had won a prestigious prize and we were celebrating it. Only a few weeks ago a Jew, Ed Miliband, who fully acknowledges his Jewish background, was elected leader of the Labour Party. It’s a mystery to me that the majority at such a gathering of British Jews should so warmly and enthusiastically embrace an apocalyptic eschatology of a kind found almost exclusively among Christian sects like the Christadelphians. I may not be a world expert on Jewish theology, but I never thought this sort of apocalyptic thinking played any part in Jewish teaching.

These are certainly ‘Turbulent Times’, but the debate goes on as to whether it’s a creative turmoil that could well be leading to a revivified Jewishness that jostles productively and satisfyingly for its place in today’s multicultural reality, or a terminal disorder that will result in a new Holocaust. Unashamed, I know where I stand.

Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today by Keith Kahn-Harris and Ben Gidley is published by Continuum Books.

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