2:16 am - November 16th 2007
As website titles go, Liberal Conspiracy is pretty damn good: eye-catching, ironic, but not so ironic as not to contain a grain of truth. Of course the liberal-left conspiracy is a figment of the fevered imaginations of the Richard Littlejohns and Peter Hitchens of this world. Yet at the same time, the word conspiracy applies quite nicely to certain aspects of political action.
Any attempt to gather a group of like-minded people and to create change is conspiratorial, even if the word tends to applied most often to nefarious forms of action. So, in principle at least, there’s nothing wrong with being part of a conspiracy. The problem is, how do you balance such sectarian forms of politics with other kinds of politics that require listening, convincing, drawing people in?
This question has haunted me throughout the last year or two. I am a sociologist by profession and, whilst my work has always been politically-oriented in that I have always tried to raise issues of power and authority, I have had little involvement in the more direct and confrontational forms of politics. Much of my recent work has taken place in Anglo-Jewry, where I have had to show considerable acumen as to how to articulate my own leftist views (on Israel and much else) in the context of an often conservative community.
Over the last couple of years I’ve been increasingly frustrated with the discretion I’ve continually tried to show. I’ve wanted to intervene more directly in the political arena; to write for an audience broader than both academia and the Jewish community.
So I’ve started to dip my toe into the choppy waters of public debates. Last year I signed what I thought was a reasonable worded declaration pointing out that Anglo-Jewish communal institutions do not speak for everyone on the question of Israel. The declaration formed the basis for the launch in early 2007 of the group Independent Jewish Voices. The storm of controversy that followed was extraordinary. The declaration was treated as an act of treachery by some and even in more progressive Jewish circles it was condemned as an attack on the community by secular Jews who only identify as Jews to criticize other Jews.
There was something to these criticisms – after all, it’s pretty rich for signatories like Harold Pinter to claim that they are being silenced. Nonetheless, I was unprepared for the personal consequences that followed the publication of my name with the other signatories: A conference on Jewish music that I was organizing fell through as one of my co-organisers refused to work with me; leaders of a major Jewish organization intimated that I would not receive cooperation in the research I was undertaking if my name was associated with the declaration; leftist academics I respected castigated me in personal terms.
But the biggest problem that my signing the declaration caused me was that it endangered the existence of a group I have been involved in setting up called New Jewish Thought. It is intended to be a group dedicated to nurturing dialogue and respectful relations between Jews. By publicly aligning myself with a group that was seen (however unfairly) as attacking the community, I jeopardized the survival of a group intended to create better relations within the community. Reluctantly I decided to withdraw my signature from Independent Jewish Voices.
This whole episode forced me to confront some difficult issues on the whole question of the politics of communities. On the one hand, change is stimulated and perpetuated by sectarian groups and personalities who drive forward their agendas. Elites and entrenched vested interests are an inevitable part of any community and at times they have to be confronted. But at the same time, if you really care for a community you shouldn’t want to split it irrevocably apart. Change can also be produced through subtle, quiet processes of dialogue and community building.
Of course I’m perfectly aware that there’s a long history of leftist debates about whether to be inside or outside the ‘system’, but I don’t think that what I am talking about is exactly the same thing. What I am talking about is how to change a community without killing it in the process; how to be politically principled whilst still seeing those who don’t share your politics as part of the same enterprise; how to balance passionate ideological commitment with dialogic, respectful solidarity between people.
What I’ve come to realize is that dialogic, respectful, solidarity between people is worth working for precisely as it guarantees a genuine political process. The problem in the Jewish community is not that political questions lead to bad-tempered debates that lead to bad communal relations; the problem is that the dominant tendency in the community is to avoid and even to suppress politics.
In research I’ve conducted on ‘moderately engaged’ Jews, it was striking to note just how much many of my respondents hated talking about Israel in anything other than the blandest tones. Jewish communal organizations try to create ‘solidarity’ with Israel and to take up a position that is ‘apolitical’. What results is anger with people who politically engage with Israel, less because of what they argue, but because they argue at all. The fear of communal division results in a fear of politics.
Addressing this fear requires dialogue and community-building. So in my work for New Jewish Thought what I am doing is trying to create the conditions for politics to take place. I’ve published on our website here an exchange with the person who earlier this year would not work with me. We still don’t agree, but at least we have a basis to build a relationship on.
In writing for Liberal Conspiracy, I want to try and explore these issues further and to see how they apply outside the Jewish community. Balancing political conspiracies with community building isn’t just a task for Jews, it’s a task for anyone who thinks that politics should be about more than student debating society-style point scoring.
Keith Kahn-Harris is a research associate at the Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths College and the convener of New Jewish Thought.
Keith Kahn-Harris is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is a research associate at the Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths College and the convener of New Jewish Thought. Also at: Metal Jew and www.kahn-harris.org
· Other posts by Keith Kahn-Harris
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