[This post is by Norman Geras, Shalom Lappin and Eve Garrard.]
These times we're living through, you can occasionally get to feeling that there's not too much to laugh about. It's a good idea, therefore, to seize the opportunity when it comes your way. Independent Jewish Voices announced itself yesterday on Comment is Free and with the launch of a website. In doing so, it threw in a seemingly bold commitment to argument as a good in itself. Here's Brian Klug (and see also here) explaining the reasons for setting up the group:
If there is one thing on which Jews can agree, it is this: it's good to argue. Jewish culture has thrived on argument - frank, sincere disagreement - ever since Moses disputed with God. But today an oppressive and unhealthy atmosphere is leading many Jews to feel uncertain about speaking out on Israel and Zionism. People are anxious about contravening an unwritten law on what you can and cannot discuss, may or may not assert.Klug goes on to say that this is 'a climate that raises fundamental questions', the first of these being, of course, about 'freedom of expression'.
You see? Argument. Disagreement not only frank but also sincere. Disputing with God even. But should you take some heat (for that's what prompts the 'turn' in the middle of Klug's paragraph) on account of what you say with your fiercely independent voice, then it's all oppressive and unhealthy and anxious, it's a climate - why goodness, it's freedom of speech.
What a hoot! What a kingsize, mouth and trousers, peaches and yoghurt, tractor and bright scarlet pyjamas belly laugh.
Harold Pinter, one of the 'independent voice' signatories, cowed by... the Jewish Board of Deputies. Eric Hobsbawm and many another well-known name on the same list stifled. Most of these signatories would be able, practically any day of the week, to find column space in the would-be progressive press, there to be applauded for their courage in 'speaking out' (see the comments threads attached to the posts we've linked to above). But no, they're all anxious, uncertain and oppressed because of an 'unwritten law on what you can and cannot discuss'. The law is unwritten because there isn't one. What there is, rather, is vanity and self-regard.
And a dislike, when you use your independent voices, of being criticized by other people using theirs. 'No one', Klug says, 'has the authority to speak for the Jewish people' - and we agree with that. We have never felt that we are bound or implicated by what the Board of Deputies may think. At the same time, no Jew has a monopoly on independence, and when some independent Jewish voices find some of what other independent Jewish voices are saying, and some of what their independent persons are doing, repugnant, the former lot of independents are free to say, sincerely and frankly, what they think about that. For example, back in August last year, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, some of whose members are signed up to this new initiative, put out a shamefully apologetic statement about Hizbollah; and some of the JfJfP membership were willing to march alongside other demonstrators shouting 'We are all Hizbollah'. There was condemnation of them on this blog, both frank and sincere. You live by what you profess, or else you should eat your own words. Calling that statement and that participation shameful fell well within the bounds of legitimate political disagreement.
Likewise now, if we point out the following... The Independent Jewish Voices statement sets out some admirable general principles concerning human rights, the right to peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians, international law, and racism. But when it gets to naming obstacles to and contraventions of these principles, the traffic is all one way:
The battle against anti-semitism is vital and is undermined whenever opposition to Israeli government policies is automatically branded as anti-semitic.Not a word about other sources of anti-Semitism, like the hatred deliberately and daily fostered in the Arab world. Not a word about the obstacle to peace in the region that non-recognition of the Jewish people's right to national self-determination has been for going on 60 years now. 'These principles are contradicted when...' followed by a short list of Israeli-Jewish delinquencies, and that's it. Such is the independence of these independent-minded Jews. They draft a statement, as Jews, about one of the most intractable conflicts known to the modern world, and this is the kind of balance they achieve on the contradiction of their stated principles.
These principles are contradicted when those who claim to speak on behalf of Jews in Britain and other countries consistently put support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of an occupied people. The Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip face appalling living conditions with desperately little hope for the future. We declare our support for a properly negotiated peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people and oppose any attempt by the Israeli government to impose its own solutions on the Palestinians.
One may also note, given their admirable commitment to open discussion free of vilification, that Klug and the other courageous resistance fighters of Independent Jewish Voices do not see any need to comment on the campaign for an academic and cultural boycott of Israelis. Doesn't this campaign pose an obstacle to the principle of free discussion? In talking about 'a climate', they are apparently unmoved, too, by the increasingly strident rhetoric of anti-Zionism deployed against those who insist on Israel's right to exist, even while criticizing its policies, and who oppose the fashionable 'liberal' consensus on the Middle East. Their concern about the atmosphere of free argument is strikingly selective.
It all goes to show you: self-proclaimed independent-mindedness is no guarantee of anything.