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Gagged - or just challenged?

'Independent Jewish Voices' have mistaken vigorous criticism for an attempt to suppress their views.

In the Jewish war of words about Israel there's an adage: Jews close ranks to defend the Jewish state, even when Israel's conduct is indefensible. Organised Jewry does this best: to get away with their inexcusable political stance, Jewish organisations silence critics through the powerful arm of their establishment, their lobbies, and their influence.

Most vociferous in making these arguments are usually other Jews, usually intellectuals, who present themselves as victims of a Jewish establishment intent on silencing them. In fighting back, they argue that organised Jewry is not representative - presumably they are; and that their decision to "break ranks" and express "dissent" is a courageous act against group-think and censoring tendencies of the establishment. This is one thing that Tony Lerman's, Brian Klug's and Lisa Appignanesi's posts have in common.

This is peculiar because all three are not really denouncing schemes to muzzle them as much as they take issue with vigorous efforts to criticise their views. Take Tony Lerman's complaint that senior Jewish figures asked for his resignation. Is that trying to gag him, or just vigorous criticism? The Economist wrote not so long ago that Mr Berlusconi was "unfit" to be Italy's prime minister. Was that gagging or criticism? After all, Lerman's views, by his own admission, are radical. Radical comments invite radical responses. Lerman's, Klug's, Appignanesi's right to their own views should be defended. So should their critics'.

Besides, claiming novelty for Independent Jewish Voices is plain false. Klug's views have been voiced for as long as Israel existed, and even before. Organised Jewry does not stifle such views, it simply argues about them or against them. Accusing those who disagree with you of trying to silence you just because they exercise their own right of free speech is hardly an act of heroic courage and of breaking ranks. It is intolerance disguised as victimisation.

Anyone who knows the Jewish world knows that such debates occur inside the Board of Deputies, synagogues and the Jewish press. Jews routinely debate Israel and other issues in any forum they wish, Jewish and non-Jewish. When Jews do not like available fora, they create new ones, as Klug & Co just did. Nobody stops them from getting their message across. Klug's argument appeared in the Guardian, not in an underground Samisdatz publication. Many of the IJV's signatories hold prominent positions, they are intellectuals who regularly ejnoy free and unfettered access to the public sphere. Their arguments about the Middle East are mainstream in European societies.

So what's at stake here? The issue is not free speech, but representation. For better or worse, the British Board of Deputies in the UK, as well as other umbrella Jewish bodies across Europe are representative because, like PM Ehud Olmert and the government of Israel and unlike Klug & Co, they are elected.

As a fan of democracy, Klug will surely appreciate that people are representative not by virtue of holding a PhD. They are representatives because someone chose them through debate, discussion and election.

Klug and his friends do not like what the Board of Deputies of organised Jewry stand for? They should persuade fellow Jews to elect them to speak for the community, instead of posing as martyrs. They are in the minority not because they are persecuted, but because most Jews, even after vigorous debate, still disagree with them.

Considering that Anglo-Jewry is roughly 300,000 strong and Klug's troops are about 150, Klug & Co count for 0.02%. Very much like the Neturei Karta rabbis who attended Iran's Holocaust denial conference but are not representative of Judaism, Klug & Co only represent and speak for themselves. Their self-righteous posturing as the new prophets of Israel hides the embarrassing fact that they are out of touch with the Jewish mainstream and the traditions they purport to uphold.

There is something appealing in the idea of a Jewish antinomian as the epitome of what being Jewish is all about. Klug writes that the IJV endeavour is a return to authentic Judaism and the tradition of its prophets. Yet, by saying so he only proves to have no idea what the prophets say. They were anything but the advocates of a policy of mercy and human rights vis-à-vis Israel's neighbours. They were not exactly pacifist either.

Take the oft-cited Isaiah. If this is the prophet to whose tradition Klug & Co refer to, they might prefer to ignore the fate he augurs on Babylon, then "multicultural" capital of the orient:

Therefore, shall heaven be shaken - And earth leap out of its place, - At the fury of the Lord of Hosts - On the day of His burning wrath. - Then like gazelles they are chased, - And like sheep that no man gathers, - Each man shall turn back to his people, - They shall flee every one to his land. - All who remain shall be pierced through, - All who are caught - Shall fall by the sword. - And their babes shall be dashed to pieces in their sight, - Their homes shall be plundered, - And their wives shall be raped (Isaiah, 13:13-16).

Isaiah may have had plenty good reasons to be angry at the Babylonians, but Klug's policies seem hardly in line with this thinking. Putting the two together smacks of more than just arrogance and self-righteousness: it is plain ignorance. No wonder Klug and Co are hardly representative.

One thing only then is truly Jewish about Klug's and his companions' plea: They kvetch. And that, it seems to me, is hardly a new contribution to finding a solution to Middle East problems.

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Ottolenghi is right on the money. And as Dan points that Lowenstein, Salbe, Rothfield and their ilk are given too much exposure and when they are challenged, they call foul, claiming they are being gagged (apologies to Ottolemghi or his sub-editor). Avi P.

Posted on 2007-02-17 12:10:19 GMT

Ottolenghi is so right.The independant Jewish voices are great at kvetching. And if they are allowed to say what they think,well so can everyone else!

Posted by Fiona on 2007-02-15 08:44:54 GMT

Good point Dan, that this mountain of defensive criticism is making it hard to highlight anti-Semitic behaviour even when it does exist. Ottolenghi is an important and rare voice in the UK, and wrote a good expose of Jacqueline Rose and her ilk a while back. called "Bearing False Witness": Also, an article called 'Anti-Zionism is anti-semitism':,3604,1095694,00.html

Posted by MT on 2007-02-14 08:32:19 GMT

Australians will know Antony Loewenstein has constantly insisted he's "silenced" in spite of a massive amount of mainstream press exposure. The simple conclusion, is that he is an attention seeking liar, unable to accept that the absolute bulk of the population disagree with him. A more complex problem is detailed here: which notes: "Ironically, the charge of anti-Semitism is now being used not so much to stifle criticism of Israel but to silence Israel's defenders. I read several newspapers every day, and I cannot recently recall anyone charging a critic of Israel with anti-Semitism unless that criticism actually was blatantly one-sided or based on a clear and demonstrable distortion of the facts. What I do read about and hear quite often are critics of Israel complaining that every time they open their mouths somebody is calling them an anti-Semite."

Posted by Dan Lew on 2007-02-14 08:13:35 GMT