Pollard and Bright's Islamist fear betrays our community's values

By Keith Kahn-Harris, January 5, 2012
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It is part of the job of the Jewish Chronicle to raise difficult questions. One such troubling question is how far London Citizens, a broad-based coalition of religious and community groups within which some supporters of Islamist extremism are involved, is unwittingly providing a way for fundamentalist groups to gain respectability. At one level then, Martin Bright's denunciation in these pages of New North London Synagogue (and in particular its Rabbi, Jonathan Wittenberg) for cooperating with London Citizens, appears to be nothing more than Anglo-Jewry's principle newspaper doing its duty.

However, while in theory Martin Bright and the JC have done nothing more than their job, in practice the controversy over London Citizens has exposed a disturbing trend in the paper's relationship to the British Jewish community.

The London Citizen's controversy is revealing of the chasm between two kinds of politics. New North London Synagogue and other Jews involved in London Citizens are exponents of a 'politics of engagement' that prizes dialogue, cooperation and community above all. The JC under Stephen Pollard and Martin Bright is an exponent of a 'politics of exclusion' that prioritises principle and ideology and seeks to marginalise anyone that crosses certain 'red lines'.

Both politics have their place and both have their weaknesses. To some extent Martin Bright has highlighted a certain naivety in those in the Jewish community who advocate a politics of engagement. But I would argue that this whole controversy has ultimately been much more revealing of the blindness that an excessive commitment to a politics of exclusion can produce.

The front pages are dominated by Israel, antisemitism and Islamism - not the only issues that impinge on British Jews

Martin Bright is a highly experienced journalist whose contacts in the political sphere are second to none and a principled opponent of fundamentalist extremism of unimpeachable integrity. But his knowledge of the politics of the Jewish community is limited and – more disturbing – he does not appear to be aware of his limitations. It is clear that he does not have proper contacts at New North London Synagogue or even a desire to understand where those within the shul are coming from when they advocate involvement in London Citizens. Synagogues and communities are not the same as political parties and it takes time to understand how they work. The fact that Bright is not Jewish is irrelevant – like a good policeman a journalist has to take the time to understand his 'beat'.

Bright's limited understanding of the community has been encouraged by the turn that the JC has made under Stephen Pollard's editorship. The front pages are dominated by Israel, antisemitism and Islamism – important issues but not the only ones that impinge on British Jews. With some honourable exceptions (such as the recent expose of inhumane child burial practices and the current series on Anglo-Jewry in 2012) news of other Jewish communal issues is all too often relegated to short features and the community pages. I am not convinced that Stephen Pollard is that interested in much of what goes on in the Jewish community. I have yet to see him tweet about bread and butter community issues, rather than national politics. His presence at Limmud and other communal events is sporadic.

This apparent lack of concern for Jewish community is also embodied in the JC's tolerance for uncivil and abusive language. Martin Bright's use of the term 'useful idiot' to describe Rabbi Wittenberg is symptomatic of an editorial regime that does little to encourage more measured language.

In short, the JC's current politics of exclusion appears to be based on a lack of concern for Jewish community. A narrow range of ideological issues and a desire for controversy have been foregrounded with little or no regard as to what the consequences will be. For sure today's JC is always lively – Stephen Pollard is a gifted controversialist and his willingness to publish this piece is certainly a point in his favour– but it is often destructive entertainment.

This lack of concern for Jewish community is the reason that the JC's concerns about London Citizens have faced such resistance. Martin Bright has raised a vitally important issue that needs to be discussed, but the way he has raised it has been self-defeating. Ultimately, a more communally-rooted JC would be a much better platform from which to ensure that legitimate concerns are heard and acted on.

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

Last updated: 3:09pm, January 5 2012