Uncivil War: the israel conflict in th e Jewish community
Dissenter of a fundamental kind
By Keith Kahn-Harris
David Paul, £10
Between 2009 and 2011, the sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris hosted more than a dozen dinner parties at his London home that were more than just social occasions; they were intended as an experiment in dialogue.
Disturbed by the overheated tone of the debate over Israel within British Jewry, he brought representatives of different viewpoints around the table not to try to get them to agree, but to see if they at least could treat their opponents with respect.
Kahn-Harris is well-versed in the workings of modern British Jewry and its family feuds. But the problem he addresses in his new book is not merely local. Only recently, the American Jewish literary critic Leon Wieseltier commented on an increasing "level of virulence" in discussion about Israel among Jews in the USA.
Whereas support for Israel was once a unifying force among diaspora Jews religiously divided, the breakdown of that consensus has led to conflict.
Civility, he believes, might draw some of the sting from the debate
Analysing the causes and the fall-out, Kahn-Harris argues that the intra-communal splits became deeper after the failure of the Oslo Accords. Add to that the capacity of the internet to broadcast discord worldwide and endlessly prolong any argument. Kahn-Harris's wish not to identify individuals to avoid "excessive finger-pointing" sometimes dilutes his case-histories but few would dispute his claim that Israel has become a source of rising tension.
So, what to do? Kahn-Harris proposes a more inclusive concept of Jewish peoplehood that does not ostracise individuals with radically different views from one's own. (Though his tent is not open to all: he would draw a line, for example, at the "Jewish antisemite", Gilad Atzmon).
But Jewish peoplehood can seem a tenuous idea unless it rests on some shared sense of culture, or religion, or
political vision such as Zionism.
More practically, he calls for the erection of "firewalls" to stop conflict over Israel spilling into other areas of communal life; people from different factions should be able to rub along in activities where their opinions on Israel are irrelevant.
The final section of his book explores the practice of "civility", which he believes might draw some of the sting from the Israel debate. Civil argument, he maintains, does not mean bland argument, bleeding it of passion or humour.
It requires refraining from "abusive or overly insulting behaviour" and the kind of witless vituperation that screeches across the internet.
Some years ago, religious frictions prompted community leaders to act to cool tempers and try to foster better understanding (producing the so-called Stanmore Accords).
Kahn-Harris's book would suggest a similar dialogue initiative is long overdue on Israel.
Certainly, events in the Middle East do not give much hope that the debate is going to die down.
Simon Rocker is the JC's Judaism editor