How high can grass roots grow?

September 11, 2014 16:30

These are certainly interesting times for UK Jewish communal politics.

The JC's banner headline last week - Speak For Yourself : The Changing Face of Community Protest - captured the moment well. Newly formed groups such as the Campaign Against Antisemitism and the Israel Solidarity Campaign are bypassing venerable communal institutions in favour of more direct activism. Eschewing heavy institutional structures, they are often seen as "grassroots" groups that bypass entrenched communal elites.

This isn't the first time that activists have sought to usurp the establishment's role - think of how Jewish anti-fascists stood up to Mosley in the 1936 "Battle of Cable Street" in the face of the disapproval from the Board of Deputies.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the current wave of activism is that it comes from the most vehemently pro-Israel sections of the community, who often (although not always) lean towards the right rather than the left. In recent decades, it has usually been left-wing, Israel-critical Jews who have attacked the communal establishment (eg Independent Jewish Voices in 2007).

Grassroots activism of this kind may ensure greater visibility and a more powerful voice but it often does so at the expense of access and influence to power. The emerging cornucopia of pro-Israel initiatives, while empowering for those involved in them, is confusing for others. The constituency of grassroots groups is never clear and, not unreasonably, government and outside bodies may be suspicious of groups whose representativeness is questionable.

Grassroots groups are more prone to takeover by cliques

Given that part of the impetus for the new wave of pro-Israel activism has been a perceived sense that Jewish representative bodies were failing "the community", it would be ironic if grassroots activism led to pro-Israel activism becoming even more niche and unrepresentative of the majority of British Jews.

Nonetheless, while grassroots groups are unlikely to challenge the communal establishment in terms of access to power, they still provide a formidable challenge. Community leaders are going to face very difficult choices as to how and whether to engage with them. There are huge risks involved, both in giving grassroots groups the cold shoulder and conversely in welcoming them into the fold.

These risks were starkly illustrated in the Campaign Against Antisemitism rally. Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, who has a strong record in interfaith action against Islamophobia, shared a platform with Douglas Murray, who rejects the term - and the existence - of Islamophobia. It was very unclear whether this was an instance of genuine coalition-building into which all parties entered with open eyes, or whether Janner-Klausner (or Murray for that matter) felt impelled to go along with the rally despite the discomfort it caused them.

The great advantage of old-style Jewish communal institutions is that, for all their cumbersome nature, there is at least some possibility of accountability and transparency. Grassroots groups work in a much more opaque way and are more susceptible to take over by cliques of highly motivated activists.

It is unclear at the moment whether the present moment genuinely heralds a new age in Jewish communal politics or whether the new groups will disappear as fast as they emerged. The British Jewish community may be small, but these days it takes it is increasingly difficult to navigate its tensions.

September 11, 2014 16:30

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive