Useful review in the Jewish Chronicle by Simon Rocker that sets out clearly the main themes of Keith Kahn-Harris’s book But will the Jewish community want to challenge itself into finding more civil ways of talking together about Israel on the lines of the Stanmore Accords…
“I asked myself, what can someone like me do about tensions in the British Jewish community?” explained Keith Kahn-Harris at his book launch on Wednesday. “Just invite people to my home. This demonstrates effort, attention, hospitality, conviviality – civility. Doing it at home is important.” Kahn-Harris’ book, “Uncivil War: the Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community”, examines how differing opinions about Israel have led to divides in diaspora Jewry and suggests a policy of ‘civility’ as the best way of countering them.
As both a sociologist and a committed member of the British Jewish community, Kahn-Harris combines personal experience and scholarly analysis in his treatment of this difficult topic – with excellent results. To anyone who has not grown up in the midst of British Jewry, the vibrant denominational landscape and often passionate divergence of opinions can be at best baffling, at worst rather intimidating. In the introductory chapters to ‘Uncivil War’, Kahn-Harris casts some much needed light over the complex issues involved, describing the conflicts that increasingly arise out of these divergences and the ill effects that follow. But the meat of this book is in his central argument: the idea of – and need for – ‘civility’.
At the launch, he declined to give a ‘neat definition’ of the word (because he didn’t want people always saying ‘well, according to Keith Kahn-Harris….’), but he did roughly outline his thoughts on the subject. ‘Civility is a practice that doesn’t close off the possibility of a better form of relationship,’ he offered, ‘it keeps that communication open. It’s not the same as politeness, but it can involve it.’ It is a practice he argues should be employed more often in discussions between Jews, believing it facilitates impassioned debate without the sour side effects.
Nor has he stinted on ground-level research in the testing of his theory. In the climax of the book, he details ‘The Dinner Party Project’. Thirteen dinners were hosted over a two year period (Kahn-Harris thanked his wife for this) and high profile guests were invited to sit, eat and talk together. These guests included rabbis, activists, journalists, and leaders of diverse Jewish organisations: people of different views who would almost certainly challenge one another. So far, so much a massive feat of catering. The trick was getting them not to yell at each other. This chapter is fluidly and sensitively written, with great detail given about the logistical difficulties in getting so many people together and providing a forum for creative debate that stopped short of a fight. A fascinating read.
For the launch, Kahn-Harris was proud that he had got a panel together that were in no danger of simply agreeing with him – and the debate moved energetically over a wide array of questions. These included where (if anywhere) should Jews draw a red line between people they are willing to talk to and people they are not, and what it meant and should mean when someone speaks ‘as a Jew.’ Q and A followed, and the audience unpacked these issues still further. One question that turned out to be a favourite among many was what a gentleman should particularly show his young nephew on an upcoming trip to Israel following his Bar Mitzvah. Suggestions for this ranged from historic Jewish cemeteries to the ‘two walls’ (Kotel and separation barrier), and from the Knesset to the city of Hebron.
There were naturally a few comments at points throughout the evening that I felt may have been played for personal effect, rather than for the purpose of engagement. “Ah, I’m not a fan of dialogue” and “I don’t talk to idiots – I know them when I see them” were a couple that particularly stuck in my mind and notebook. But there was also a great deal of nuance at play, in both academic and humorous varieties. One memorable discussion was the idea that food facilitates civility in the Jewish world – an idea backed up by the fact that the one single row occurring during the Dinner Project had broken out when the lentil stew was burnt.
So why should you read this book? Well, it is a detailed treatise about dialogue facilitation in practice and its applicability to the British Jewish community today. It is scholarly, informative, entertaining – and it champions not only civil debate, but also good food. Enough said.