Posted by: jbwuk | March 8, 2010

Keith Kahn-Harris on ‘A Way Forward?’

A Way Forward?

The final session of Jewish Book Week 2010 demonstrated the all-consuming concern about Israel that unites the often bitterly-divided UK Jewish community. ‘A Way Forward?’ was a sell-out and its audience included some of the key participants in UK Jewish debates on Israel – from Jonathan Hoffman to Tony Lerman.

The panel for ‘A Way Forward’ featured Daniel Levy, a key figure in the foundation of the US ‘pro peace, pro-Israel’ lobbying group J Street; Francesca Klug, LSE professor and expert on human rights law; and David Newman, Professor of Political Geography at Ben-Gurion University. The chair, The Guardian and Jewish Chronicle’s Jonathan Freedland, ably steered the discussion and floor questions so that a substantial amount of ground was covered.

The session was sponsored by the New Israel Fund, which has been much in the news lately for the vicious attacks it has been subjected to in Israel and elsewhere. It was appropriate therefore that much of ‘A Way Forward’ dealt not so much with the future of Israel-Palestine and the prospects for peace, but the nature of debates on Israel, particularly in the Jewish community.

All the panellists did have their ‘red lines’, the kinds of arguments and activists that they found hard to tolerate. There was much talk of the current hot topic of the ‘delegitimization’ agenda amongst pro-Palestinian activists. However, there were also repeated concern expressed about the tendency on all sides to ‘close down debate’ on Israel-Palestine.  For example, Daniel Levy argued both that the application of the term ‘apartheid’ to Israel was unhelpful but also that the term ‘Zionism’ has ‘ossified’ in the Jewish world in ways that restrict discussions. Similarly, David Newman was critical of the careless use of antisemitism accusations and Francesca Klug bemoaned the way that ‘human rights’ has become a bugbear amongst some pro-Israel campaigners.

Although towards the end of the discussion Daniel Levy made a passionate call for Israel to ‘stop the excuses’ and finally state their intention to end the occupation, the focus of the session on the debate itself probably reflects the challenges that the Israeli and diaspora Jewish left is confronting at the moment. Just at the point in which debate on Israel is opening up in the diaspora, thanks to J Street and other initiatives, in Israel itself the left is in a parlous state. Against this backdrop, the struggle within the Jewish world over who has the right to speak and criticise Israel is becoming ever more bitter.

What ‘A Way Forward?’ demonstrated was the existence of a Jewish left that is engaged with Israel, that does not see Zionism as a term of abuse and that eschews the easy answers and dismissive politics of sections of the pro-Palestinian movement. This is a Jewish left that cannot be easily dismissed and marginalised by the Israeli and Jewish right, despite the attempts by organisation such as Im Tirtzu who began the campaign against the New Israel Fund.

As a leftist Jew who is deeply attached to Israel, the question I was left with was ‘is this all too late?’. Is the occupation so entrenched and the Israeli right so dominant, that a peaceful solution to the o ccupation and a proper reckoning with inequality inside Israel, now not possible? I hope not and the final panel at Jewish Book Week 2010 suggests at the very least that there are still those who w ill fight to save Israel from itself. Keith Kahn-Harris is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society at Birkbeck College and the convenor of the New Jewish Thought project (w


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