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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Papering Over the Cracks, 25 Aug. 2014
Deborah H. Maccoby (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community (Paperback)
Keith Kahn-Harris is anguished about the battle over Israel that is poisoning the life of the British Jewish community - indeed all the world Jewish communities; but, because of his intimate involvement with and knowledge of the British Jewish community, this is what he concentrates upon.

In his second chapter, he presents a fascinating break-down, based on this very deep and intimate knowledge, of all the different positions held in the community towards Israel - a break-down that is very valuable, both to those like myself who are involved in the groups and to outsiders wanting to learn about the subject. He divides the community into: Public Supporters; Pro-Israel Pluralists; The Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Left (chiefly represented by Yachad); Jewish Radicals (represented by groups such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Independent Jewish Voices); The Anti-Zionist Left (represented by groups such as Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods, Jews Against Zionism and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network); The [self-described] Decent Left (represented by the Engage website and commentators such as Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch); The Neo-Conservative Right (represented almost entirely in Britain by Melanie Phillips); The Jewish Religious Right; the Haredi Community; Authoritarian Zionists (such as Kahanists); Private Engagers; Zionist Youth Movements; The Apathetic; Non-Jewish Supporters.

I should declare an interest by saying that, as a member of the Executive of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, I am firmly in the camp of the "Jewish Radicals". Kahn-Harris is a JfJfP signatory, but in a footnote he positions himself - perhaps a little vaguely - as "somewhere between the 'Jewish Radical' and 'Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace' positions".

Before reading this book, I tended to lump all Israel government supporters together and so have learnt a lot from the distinctions drawn between the various groups on the right, in particular between the Public Supporters and the Pro-Israel Pluralists. This bears out Kahn-Harris's contention that all sides need to learn more about the complexities and nuances of each other's positions. He makes an interesting point in writing that the Public Supporters cannot be necessarily labelled as right wing, in that their position is to support whatever the current Israeli government does - so, if an Israeli government were ever to negotiate a genuine peace, the Public Supporters would support it. Interestingly too, Kahn-Harris points out that the fiercest and most bitter debates are between those closest to each other in position, such as the Public Supporters versus the Pro-Israel Pluralists and the self-described Decent Left (exemplified by the Engage group) versus the Jewish Radicals and Anti Zionist Left.

Kahn-Harris writes that since the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel has been a source of unity for Diaspora Jewish communities; but since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, Israel has become a focus of bitter conflict that threatens to tear the communities apart. The modest aim of his book is "to show that it is possible to formulate strategies to manage the conflict better." This is not "conflict resolution" - only "conflict management". Kahn-Harris points out that conflict resolution could only be achieved if peace were to break out in Israel/Palestine - and this is not likely to happen any time soon. His "conflict management" strategies focus on the concepts of "civility", "peoplehood" and "dialogue".

Some of his recommendations would be extremely helpful if adopted. For instance, he writes: "in order to ease the Israel conflict, Jewish institutions that aspire to inclusion may have to pull back from some kinds of Israel-related activity. Celebratory, defensive and political engagement with Israel should be the job of specialist organisations with clear ideologies. The 'big tent' approach, which has been pioneered by pro-Israel pluralism, can only be a big tent covering pro-Israel organisations, rather than a big tent covering the community as a whole". In other words, the Israel question should be kept separate from Jewish life as a whole instead of taking it over and those who oppose Israeli government policies should no longer be treated as outsiders. The Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council should definitely take note. And Kahn-Harris is surely right to criticise the point-scoring and aggressiveness of so much of the debate over Israel, in which bitter argument often becomes an end in itself and the end goal of peace and reconciliation in Israel/Palestine is forgotten.

So far, so good. But I have a number of problems with the book. For a start, nowhere does Kahn-Harris point out that this identification of the whole community with support for Israeli government policies is fuelling the current rise in anti-Semitism in Britain - on the contrary, he associates opposition to anti-Semitism primarily with the right wing of the community. Also, throughout the book he describes supporters of Israeli government policies as "supporters of Israel", the implication being that those who oppose these policies are opponents of Israel. He never deals explicitly with the position held by many "Radical Jews" - and indeed by many in the Palestinian solidarity movement - that Israeli government policies are self-destructive as well as destructive, and that Israel needs to be saved from itself.

But my main problem is with the whole concept of "conflict resolution/management", which tends towards the view that - as was stated explicitly in an "assertiveness training course" I once attended - "there are no right opinions or wrong opinions, only different opinions". Kahn Harris does address the accusation of relativism and blandness and insists that he is not precluding the need to hold strong opinions and engage in passionate debate. But there is always a tendency in his book towards the position of the rabbi in the old Jewish joke who tells each opponent in a completely contrary dispute "You're right" and when confronted by an onlooker who says "they can't both be right", responds "You're right too!"

In Chapter Four Kahn-Harris criticises "an absolutist attitude to truth that sees one's own position not as one motivated by particular values and judgements, but as the only possible position a person could honestly take." Of course there is always a range of views that we can respect while disagreeing with them. But Kahn-Harris cites as an example of issues that evoke "an absolutist attitude to truth" the question of the illegality or not of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank, writing that this debate "leads to...a plurality of minutely contested legal points that becomes ever more contested and complex over time. What gets lost is any sense that international law might be unclear on certain points and further that international law might be fluid, flawed and open to change." In fact, if anything is clear in international law, it is that the settlements are illegal! As the Israeli Jewish peace activist Adam Keller, of the Gush Shalom movement, pointed out in a letter published in The Guardian on April 3rd, 2012: "in 2004, the international court of justice in the Hague ruled clearly and unequivocally that the Israeli settlement on the West Bank is completely illegal. The international court of justice is the body set up by the international community for the specific purpose of interpreting international law in specific contentious cases, and it did just that.....until and unless the international court rules otherwise, its 2004 ruling stands as the authoritative interpretation of international law." Kahn-Harris may accuse me of being "absolutist" in insisting on this, but surely he himself is being absolutist in his claim that international law is unclear on the illegality of settlements!

Kahn-Harris writes with disarming frankness about the failure of the "dialogue group" that he valiantly set up. There was very little interest in it and the few who did attend it do not seem to have derived much benefit from it: "two of the group members had in the past exchanged confrontational emails with each other. While the group offered them an opportunity to develop a different kind of relationship, in practice this never happened, and they clashed repeatedly during the course of the sessions.....Following the last session of the group (which one of the parties could not attend) the war of words became more intense and spilled over into other online and offline forums.".

After this failure with the "grassroots", Kahn-Harris decided to hold dinner parties for "Jewish leaders and opinion-formers", which went much better, as do most Jewish events centred on food (he writes "it is perhaps no coincidence that one of the few rows we had occurred at a dinner where we served a fairly indigestible lentil dish that had burned.")! He is certainly to be admired for the care he and his wife took in preparing food and creating a convivial atmosphere. There is a fascinating passage in which he brings out the conflict between public stances and private criticism, writing: "Many of those who spent much of their time defending Israel in the public sphere or running 'pro-Israel' activities were privately concerned about or even horrified at Israel's settlement policy and the rise of the Israeli right. Conversely, many guests who were known as critics of Israel or supporters of Palestinian rights were critical of aspects of the pro-Palestinian movement and its tendency, at times, to tolerate forms of anti-Semitism."

In an interesting passage at the end of the book, Kahn-Harris argues that the current ambiguity of the position of the Israeli government is actually helping to keep the community - or at least the Zionist sections of the community - together: "As long as Israel keeps the possibility of the two-state solution formally on the table but does not enact it, there is at least the possibility of some kind of relationship between all the various Diaspora Jewish Zionist positions on long as there is no final agreement and Israel does not officially set its borders, most Zionist visions remain viable, at least in theory. Ambiguity is useful both to Israel diplomatically and to Diaspora Jewry communally". The real rupture, Kahn-Harris claims, will arise if and when the ambiguity stops. He predicts that if, as seems likely, Israel annexes the West Bank, "there is likely to be a movement of some, or all, pro-Israel, pro-peace Jews towards radical Jewish or even anti-Zionist positions". So the "conflict management strategies" are intended to be put in place in preparation for the even worse community split and confrontation that is likely to happen in the future.

But if this major community split and confrontation takes place, with the Jewish community almost completely split between Radical or anti-Zionist Jews on one side and the increasingly marginalised and defensive Israeli government apologists on the other, would this actually be such a bad thing? Maybe this rift is necessary in order to help to bring about a resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict, with the Israeli government increasingly losing the support of the Diaspora Jewish communities and therefore under pressure to negotiate a genuine peace.

To conclude: I found the detailed analysis of the British Jewish community Israel-related groups fascinating and useful, and Kahn-Harris is surely right about the need for more courtesy and less point-scoring and aggressiveness in the debate and for all sides to understand each other better - and this book will surely help with this understanding. But he seems obsessed with "managing" a rift that probably needs to deepen if the community is ever going to help to achieve genuine peace and reconciliation in Israel/Palestine - which would be real support of Israel. Ultimately, despite all the positive aspects of his book, Kahn-Harris is trying to paper over the cracks.
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Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community
Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community by Keith Kahn-Harris (Paperback - 3 Mar. 2014)
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