Review: Being Jewish And Doing Justice

Declaration of independence

By Stephen Frosh, April 11, 2011

By Brian Klug
Vallentine Mitchell £40

Brian Klug is a philosopher and one of a controversial group of Jewish academics, being an originator of Independent Jewish Voices and a founder member of the Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights. Because of his allegiances, he frequently finds himself the object of scorn, or at least energetically expressed opprobrium, from other members of the Jewish community. This opposition is usually directed towards him for his critical views on Israel and sometimes for his reluctance to give credence to claims about the rise of antisemitism.

In a political and communal context in which Israel and antisemitism have become core issues defining Jewish identity, the stirring up of dissent around them can feel like an act of betrayal, verging on "self-hatred".

Those are common accusations directed towards Klug and other "ASHamed Jews" - to borrow the sobriquet employed by Howard Jacobson in The Finkler Question.

In such a heated context, it is a pleasure to encounter Klug in this book as someone who writes in an urbane and thoughtful way, drawing on his Orthodox background to provide context and learning as well as a (sometimes over-done) stock of yiddishisms and personal stories.

Klug is a philosopher with a healthy distrust of the claims of his own discipline but nevertheless with that capacity for clarifying muddled conceptual territory that one always hopes a professional philosopher can provide.

He writes simply, humorously, often touchingly. With many of the chapters in this book having originally been talks of one kind or another given over a 30-year period, his tone is immediate, his connection humane and direct.

The first part of the book consists mainly of quite recent papers on antisemitism and Zionism, all the time pressing the idea that Jewishness is characterised religiously and morally as giving priority to questions of justice and, practically, as whatever Jews do.

This last point is important in justifying the opposition to the "mainstream" representatives of the British Jewish community by Independent Jewish Voices. The idea is that no-one can say who is a "bona fide" Jew, who is entitled to speak up as Jewish, because there are so many ways of being Jewish, and because everyone who claims him- or herself as such has a right to do so.

The former point - on justice - is what gives the book its thrust, and what makes critical examination of contemporary Israel so sharp and important. The historical and philosophical arguments here are that there have always been countervailing voices within and towards Zionism, and speaking up about injustice done by Jews, or in our name, is a Jewish thing to do, not something that places a person "outside" the community.

In relation to antisemitism, Klug provides considerable evidence of its reality and his own acceptance of that (his exploration in part two of the rhetoric around "humane" versus "ritual" slaughter of animals is masterly in this regard) but also warns against the danger of seeing it everywhere.

The chapter on American black antisemitism raises these issues in an unusually powerful way, but so does the treatment of Israel early on in the book. It is a bit of a stretch to see where Klug's writings on animal rights (apart from the shechitah material) and childhood quite fit in, though one might be generous and accept his own claim that everything in the book is dedicated to the "doing justice" theme.

Klug's sub-title is "bringing argument to life", which he believes is characteristic of Jewishness at its best.

His book does what it says, and however irritating some may find it, it reminds us that it is possible to argue with humour and passion, with history and politics; and that trying to make something moral and just out of these arguments is a Jewish thing to do.

Stephen Frosh's latest book is 'Feelings' (Routledge)

Last updated: 4:23pm, April 11 2011