February 11, 2007

Independent voices and vicarious identity

Here's Arthur Neslen in the Guardian's Comment is free arguing that meaningful debate in the Jewish community under the auspices of established institutions cannot happen because debate is stifled by the "dependent voices" of, among others, the Board of Deputies:
Having burst through the rusty eruv of acceptable discourse on Israel, the territory has quickly morphed around them. Ripostes on this website and elsewhere have denounced them as splitters, luvvies and traitors, comparable even to the Neturei Karta Rabbis who attended the Holocaust denial conference in Tehran. But the various dependent Jewish voices levelling the charges have united around one bone of contention: the absurdity of claiming that the Jewish establishment is stifling debate on Israel. Perish the thought.

Of course, the logical fallacy of this argument is that it is aimed at stifling the new initiative. Thus do the various dependents prove the need for IJV, even as they rubbish it. That the initiative has stirred up such angst, though, should not be surprising.
I particularly enjoyed the bits on the Board of Deputies' approach to certain issues facing Jews over the centuries.
The underlying problem is the instinctive cosying up to power by a cowardly communal hierarchy that is at once reactionary and deeply unresponsive to change. The Board of Deputies of British Jews was actually established in 1760 to pay homage to George III on his accession to the throne, and it has dedicated itself to upholding the ruling order ever since. Fearing association with Jewish communists, Bundists and anarchists fleeing Tsarist Russia for their lives, it never opposed Arthur Balfour's anti-semitic 1905 Aliens Act that denied them entry to Britain. Hermann Adler, the Chief Rabbi of the time, even travelled to Russia to ask his co-religionists not to come.

In the 1930s, the Board remained wedded to the British establishment, issuing dire warnings to the Jews of the East End not to confront Oswald Moseley's Blackshirts at Cable Street. Thankfully, our forebears ignored their advice. But for the greater part of the last century, the board continued to talk down the dangers of far right anti-semitism and talk up the threat of anti-Zionism. As Jacob Gerwitz, ex-President of the Board of Deputies in the early 1980s put it in a paper on "Anti-Semitism, the Left and the Right":

Although theoretical differences can be drawn between anti-semitism and anti-Zionism, these are distinctions without a difference. The fascists, odious as they are, have at least the virtue of candour.

Perhaps this is why the Board declared there was no need for Prince Harry to make a public apology after he adorned himself in swastikas in 2005. Predictably, their hechsha did not extend to Ken Livingstone. Equally predictably, dissenting voices within the community could not find much space to articulate a critique.
He ends by contrasting the uncritical support given to Israel within the Jewish establishment with calls by the same establishment on Muslims to denounce certain of their leaders.

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