Our community must learn how to disagree

Forty two years ago I sat in my bedsit in Leeds mulling over a dilemma - could I find a place for myself in the Jewish community in my recently adopted country? As an American, I had come from a country where many Jewish people made their voices heard in the pursuit to create a more just world, both in the United States and beyond. For some, the impetus to do this came from Jewish teaching; for others it was simply hardwired into our DNA through a secular Judaism. Neither unanimity nor uniformity were necessary in order to be involved.

When I first moved to Britain my initial attempts to encourage similar involvement in the Jewish community were not always met with positive responses; I was dismissed as a young, naïve American who would grow out of this naïvety. Reacting to this dismissal I felt I had to make a choice - either opt out of the community or create an organisation to try to activate a communal Jewish voice which would also strengthen a more positive Jewish identity. It was in this environment that the Jewish Social Responsibility Council, now JCORE, was created.

Now 42 years later JCORE continues to provide a Jewish voice on race and asylum issues. However we do so in an environment where questioning and debate are not always seen as acceptable and the democratic space within our community seems to be shrinking.

We must deal with our differences without rancour. We must also be on guard against creating unacceptable scenarios : good Jew v bad Jew, real Jew v marginal Jew, Jews with a right to have a voice v those who do not. This is having a bad effect on the community as Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner and others have pointed out, particularly though not exclusively, on younger Jews. Living in this atmosphere of negativity is not good for us. It is also bad and counterproductive for our relationships with people and organisations outside our community.

When dealing with disagreements either within our community or outside it, the first response should not be attack but trying to understand the validity of different viewpoints. Just think of the amount of time and nervous energy which is spent in denouncing and vilifying those with whom we disagree.

We know the world faces insurmountable problems. It is surely better that we find ways of acknowledging and appreciating that disagreements are inevitable and healthy and use some of this energy to try to deal with some of these problems, such as the rise of the far right, the appalling ways asylum seekers and migrants are being treated, the persistence of antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of racism.

Dissent, disagreements and debate have always been cornerstones of our tradition – would we really want it any other way?

Published on the Jewish Chronicle website, 4th July 2018,