A Difference of Opinion

MOST READERS will already know that Tony Lerman has relinquished the editorship of the Jewish Quarterly—especially since his decision to do so was followed by a long exchange of letters in the correspondence columns of the Jewish Chronicle. Whilst this is neither the time nor the place to delve into the minutiae of the controversy, it is pertinent to comment upon some of the fundamental issues that have been raised: namely, the right to the free expression of opinion within the Jewish community and the freedom of the Jewish press.

To question and to debate are integral to a free society. They are also part of Jewish tradition. If they were not, the Jews would have ceased to exist long ago. To challenge accepted wisdoms—and not just within our own community—is a healthy sign of commitment, not disengagement.

It is also a tradition, unfortunately, that in the official institutions of our community, words often speak louder than actions. A verbal benevolence often masks a distinct lack of tolerance—a malaise in the Jewish world in general—not only for minority views, but also for differing majority ones that run counter to perceived truths. Indeed, in certain areas, there prevails a preference to exalt veiled stagnation as a virtue, rather than face the prospect of change. Those who seek to question, to dissent and to innovate, can find few forums in Anglo-Jewry in which to express their views. It is for this reason that intellectuals and many young people do not involve themselves in communal affairs.

Perhaps it has always been the burden of the bearer of new thoughts to grapple with the forces of narrowness and prejudice. Yet there was a period when the art of polemics was considered in a positive light. Some twenty years ago, in an editorial in the Jewish Quarterly, Jacob Sonntag considered the place of the Jewish intellectual in the community. He wrote:

There was a time when even to pose the question would have appeared odd. The intellectual and the community were one, in the sense that the former fully identified with his people and the latter looked upon the men of the spirit as their guides and leaders.

It was a time when learning and education, though by no means universal, were held in high esteem and men of letters considered themselves the spokesmen of the community, expressing the needs and reflecting the hopes of ordinary people.

Today, the chasm between the communal leadership and the Jewish intelligentsia is wide indeed, if not unbridgeable. Anglo-Jewry is educated to feel comfortable with programmed formulae for, amongst other things, Zionism, anti-Semitism and Soviet Jewry. Issues are projected as simple and clear-cut, black or white. This is one consequence of a situation in which ordinary members of the community receive information about Jewish issues through public relations techniques—approaches which are often aimed at the non-Jewish world. Clichés seem to have supplanted factual statement, and propaganda seems to have replaced informed discussion.

WHAT is required is not a grey, uninspiring uniformity, often sloganized misleadingly as the “unity of the Jewish people”, but a dynamic diversity of thought. This is clearly apparent in Israel and was reflected in the Diaspora during the course of the war in Lebanon. Who can say today, three years on, in the light of a plethora of facts, that stating one’s opinion—no matter how unpopular—was unimportant. Some would insist that such actions were the saving grace of Israel’s democracy.

The Jewish Quarterly exists as an independent forum of free expression for all the community. Its very existence is a declaration of commitment to open and responsible debate. However, it would appear that its independence and willingness to publish well-argued views has become a threat to those who bow down before the icons of shallowness and conformity, to those who have renounced and obfuscated the tradition of polemic and discussion. Today, the Jewish Quarterly occupies a unique position within Anglo-Jewry because of its independence. Jacob Sonntag understood this fundamental point only too well. At great personal cost, he refused to surrender the magazine’s independence to outside interests and pressures. In one sense, this is, perhaps, his greatest bequest to his successors.

Why then do some communal leaders resent unorthodox opinion? Surely it is not simply a question of being imprisoned by their reputations and the imagery of high office. The reasons for this situation are numerous and complex, but an important factor is that we continue to live in the shadow of the Holocaust.

Earlier this year, Elie Wiesel received the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement at the White House. He told President Reagan:

When I write, I feel my invisible teachers standing over my shoulders, reading my words and judging their veracity. And while I feel responsible for the living, I feel equally responsible to the dead. Their memory dwells in my memory.

This is not just true of Jewish writers, but for all who are involved in Jewish affairs. It is embedded in our consciousness. It is at the very roots of our emotions. It marks out a different pattern of behaviour. But Elie Wiesel also told Reagan that he belonged to “a traumatized generation. And to us .. . symbols are important.”

THIS begs the question: what of the generation—”one generation after”—which did not live through the epoch of Amalek? Are they less traumatized? Is there a different reality for those whose experience of Belsen is through incarceration or liberation and those whose sensitivity is based on reels of celluloid? The answer must surely be yes.

The trauma of the Holocaust is therefore a psychological watershed between the generations, and it often manifests itself in different approaches to contemporary issues. Judgement of the present can be coloured by the horrors of the past, but the succeeding generation often appears more selective in its choice of “symbols”. Many who lived through those terrible years of persecution agreed with Mr Begin when he spoke of Arafat in his “bunker” in Beirut. Some older Soviet Jewry activists—and a number of younger ones too—see the Soviets as a reincarnation of the Nazis. Strict regime labour camps in the USSR, with their vicious instruments of repression, are transformed into “concentration camps” minus crematoria. These symbols endorse and superficially rationalize the motifs of conformity which are offered to Diaspora Jews. A state of siege is not necessarily the result, but clearly those with different views seem to confirm feelings of insecurity and are not welcomed. When such people are young, there is almost an obligation by communal leaders to talk about building for the future whilst in reality shunting such individuals into the sidings of inaction. Despite enthusiastic press publicity that “new blood” was being pumped into the arterial system of the Board of Deputies following this year’s elections, very few young people were, in fact, elected to committees. The average age of the Israel Committee, on published data, is sixty-eight, whilst that of the all-important Executive Committee is not much less.

In this psychological milieu, where insecurity reigns, it is easy for less principled individuals to conjure up demons where none exist and to utilize highly emotive issues such as Zionism and anti-Semitism for dubious ends. Many readers asked if they had missed the “offending” article and editorial in the spring edition of the Jewish Quarterly. When the pieces were pointed out, they realized that they had not, in fact, overlooked them at all. It was only then that many began to comprehend the full absurdity of the so-called “communal response”. There was no avalanche of

angry epistles, no indignant telephone calls and no mass cancellation of subscriptions. Our readership which ranges from Jewish drop-outs to Jewish ministers of the Crown apparently did not feel threatened by different views of the Jewish world. In fact, there was only one letter of complaint. The rest—to put it mildly—is history.

SUCH a blinkered view of the Jewish community bears no relation to reality as is evident from the blossoming in recent years of independent groups and organizations. In essence, a decentralization of communal activity. Whether it is the study of Jewish history, religious education, peace activities, feminist collectives, Jewish theatre and music—the common thread is a wonderful sense of creativity. And in order to maintain such creativity, these groups must work in a free environment. This means the preservation of independence and, very often, the rejection of accepted norms. Indeed, if 1985 has been the year of the Festival of British Jewry, then, without doubt, it could also have seen a Festival of Jewish Alternatives of considerable richness. Moreover, these groups have been very successful, satisfying a demand and attracting thousands. They have also brought forth many talented people, fulfilling the midrashic dictum that office seeks out the man who runs away from office. The ferment on the periphery is a commentary on the intellectual weakness at the centre. From the lack of cultural departments attached to Jewish organizations, it is clear that communal leaders do not place cultural and intellectual endeavour on even a visible rung on the ladder of priorities. The Garbacz report, an inquiry into how the financial resources of the community are distributed, which was published earlier this year, showed that only 2.6 per cent of communal resources were allocated for the running of cultural activities.

STEPHEN SPENDER once wrote that “the insistence of poetry that actuality is the language of the human spirit which can be translated into universal terms of human experience, means that poetry can restore order to the symbols of men’s minds and, ultimately, this may mean actuality.” It is a sentiment which the Jewish Quarterly as a whole has aspired to in a Jewish context in the past and will continue to do so in the future. The Jewish Quarterly has an important role to play in the life of the organized community, in addition to reaching out to those who remain outside. Jacob Sonntag used to say that if someone had something worthwhile to contribute, then it should be published in the Jewish Quarterly. It was not an easy path for him, and one accompanied by many trials and tribulations, but it is one that we shall also confidently tread.

Jewish Quarterly Autumn 1985


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