People power needs people

By Keith Kahn-Harris, July 4, 2011

Never has the term "people power" seemed more relevant than today. In the past few months, mass demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa, together with sit-ins in Spain and Greece, have shown that mass protests can challenge apparently immovable power structures.

Fuelled by social media, causes across the political spectrum are being energised by grassroots campaigns - in the US, for example, from the Tea Party on the right to the pro-union campaigns in Wisconsin on the left.

It's natural, then, that Jewish community causes will also try and harness this wave of people power. In the UK Jewish community, we have recently seen the launch of two campaigns intended to start a grassroots movement. One is Yachad, the "pro-Israel pro-peace" movement that is eschewing J Street-style lobbying in order to build a movement of self-defined lovers of Israel in favour of a two-state solution.

The other was the We Believe In Israel conference held in May, intended to inspire community-wide activism for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Such projects recognise that, in the age of the internet and 24-7 media coverage, political campaigning cannot be confined to elite lobbying. Politics is everywhere now and, to win your argument, you have to take it into the mass of comment threads, blogs and tweets.

Limmud has succeeded through its community of volunteers

The problem is that, all too often, the grassroots model is drawn on only partially or even cynically, to give a veneer of mass support for an elite campaign. This phenomenon is sometimes called "astroturfing" and can be found, for example, in industry-led anti-environmental campaigns in the US.

The We Believe In Israel conference showed signs of astroturfing. The attendance was impressive and there is no doubt that many there were energised and inspired by the conference to go out and campaign for Israel. But there were too many plenary sessions in which a small number of grandees harangued the audience with no real conversation possible. The process through which the sessions were put together was opaque to say the least and some of those who were more critical of Israel felt that they were marginalised, at least in the big-name sessions.

Interestingly, it was not just the left who were critical of the conference. While it was going on, a counter-demonstration against the Naqba Day protests outside the Israeli embassy was organised by pro-Israel activists who often have little patience with Jewish communal structures. The same is true of the counter-protests outside the Ahava store in Covent Garden, which were put together by a loose coalition of largely web-based activists.

That's not to say this kind of grassroots campaigning is always admirable. Indeed, pro-Israel grassroots protests often face accusations of irresponsibility, just as anti-Israel grassroots protests do. "Grassroots" does not always mean good. The Tea Party is a grassroots movement in which anti-Obama racism is widely tolerated, just as antisemitism is too often tolerated in the pro-Palestinian movement.

Organisations that aspire to create a grassroots movement should, at the very least, be clear to themselves and others what it is they really want. Largely, it is a kind of "managed" movement that leaders desire - and this is not an illegitimate aim - but in such cases unwarranted claims about people power should not be made.

In any event, the most far-reaching grassroots movements tend to be those that develop slowly, without shrill, public campaigning. Limmud is the prime example of this. For over 30 years, the organisation has built up a radical challenge to the anti-intellectualism and communal divisions that have bedevilled the UK Jewish community.

Limmud has done this by developing a substantial, constantly self-renewing community of volunteers - people who are prepared to work hard in the background to create a welcoming and dynamic Jewish space.

Limmud is now big enough, and its roots deep enough, that not only is its future existence guaranteed, it has created change across the community. Can we say the same about those grassroots protests and movements that are so much in the news today?

Ultimately, people power can only be truly established through hard work, time and a refusal to go for easy headlines.

Keith Kahn-Harris is co-author of 'Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today'

Last updated: 2:48pm, July 4 2011