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What we fight about when we fight about Israel

Diaspora communities are addressing their internal conflicts through a Zionist lens

Few people would dispute that the US, UK and other Diaspora Jewish communities now contain serious divisions on the Israel question. While most Jews remain supporters of the Jewish state, increasingly diverse views are expressed on Israel’s current political course within the Zionist majority, and the non-Zionist camp is also increasingly vocal. The old consensus that Diaspora Jews should never publicly criticise Israel is eroding rapidly as new groups like J Street spring up.

This growing diversity is often seen as a problem. For those who still hold to the old (but still influential) consensus, the problem is this diversity per se — particularly diversity on the left of the political spectrum — which is seen as undermining Israel. Increasingly though, what worries many Jews is the bitterness and anger that accompanies debates on Israel.

In my just-published book Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community, I have tried to explain how Diaspora divisions over Israel emerged and why they have become so difficult to navigate. I argue that the key symptom of the problem is a widespread lack of civility, a difficulty in finding ways of communicating with others with whom one disagrees over Israel.

Why this incivility? It’s worth reminding ourselves that the existence of different views does not necessarily lead to conflict and incivility. After all, everyday life in complex modern societies ensures that we are constantly confronted with the existence of rival views.

Why then is this kind of difference so hard to handle? Why do Jewish divisions over Israel almost invariably lead to conflict? In my book I put forward a number of reasons, but here I want to emphasise one reason that is often overlooked:

This is not just about Israel. In fact, it’s sometimes not about Israel at all.

This was brought home to me as a result of my experiences running confidential dinners at my home in London, to which Jewish leaders and opinion formers from across the political spectrum were invited to discuss their differences on Israel. Conversation flowed freely at those dinners (there was no set agenda), but what was striking was what we didn’t discuss: the settlements, the status of East Jerusalem, the Palestinians, the Arab minority in Israel etc etc.

So what did we discuss? The topics that came up most regularly concerned British Jewish community, British Jewish identity and British Jewish politics. Yet this doesn’t mean we weren’t discussing Israel, rather that ‘discussing Israel’ in the Diaspora often means discussing how Israel impacts on Jewish life in the Diaspora.

So the divisions over Israel that have become such a feature of Diaspora Jewish life are only partially a result of different views on Israel’s future and current reality. The differences that are overlayed on top of these divisions are frequently the ones that spark the most emotions.

These differences stem from different answers to perennially difficult questions: What should the boundaries of Jewish community be? Who gets to set those boundaries? Who represents Jews? How far does division endanger us? What causes anti-Semitism? And many more…

These are questions that do not impact on Israeli Jews as they do on Diaspora Jews. In fact, it is these sorts of questions that Zionism was designed to answer, principally through mass immigration to the Jewish state. But as long as Jews remain in Diaspora communities, difficult questions won’t go away.

For better or worse then, fundamental questions about what being a Diaspora Jew should be are being addressed through the lens of Israel. This perhaps explains why the resulting debates are often so angry and uncivil: they aren’t about some far-off land but about one’s everyday reality. This is particularly the case in a relatively small and tight-knit Jewish community such as the British Jewish community. The bitterest conflicts often occur between people who know each other, who may have grown up together, who probably know many people in common. As is widely recognised, family conflicts are the most difficult to handle – and conflicts among mishpocha are not much easier.

In my experiece, many Israelis view Diaspora conflicts over Israel with bewilderment or wry amusement: ‘Why are Jews around the world so invested in a place they’ve chosen not to live in? They aren’t the ones in the frontline!’ Zionism appears to have been totally successful in at least one respect: even if Jews don’t live in Israel, they understand themselves through the frame of Israel.

So while developments in Israel do impact directly and indirectly on Diaspora Jewish life, the divisions in Diaspora Jewish communities over Israel are not simply a mirror of differences in Israeli society. That’s why they cannot be managed from Israel: even when Diaspora Jews are engaging with Israel, they are doing so inside a very different context to Israel. For that reason, it is up to Diaspora Jews to manage and alleviate the Israel conflict in their own communities themselves.

Click to read an excerpt of Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community

About the Author
Dr. Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and writer based in London, UK. His books include Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today (2010), Judaism: All That Matters (2012) and, most recently, Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community.