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The Communal Gadfly: Jews, British Jews and the Jewish State—Asking the Subversive Questions, by Geoffrey Alderman. Brighton: Academic Studies Press, 2009. 282 pp. $35.00.
There is something in Geoffrey Alderman’s book, The Communal Gadfly to irritate everybody, which is quite as Geoffrey Alderman would like it. This book, comprising selected columns written for the British Jewish Chronicle, provides an overview of both Alderman’s and British Jewry’s main interests from about 2002 to 2008. Although some of the columns are dated, they are a pleasure to read, educational and opinionated, when dealing with the subject of British Jewry and of British politics. It is when he raises his eyes from these local affairs to the Middle East that his critique deserts him and his articles become a drumbeat of orthodox Zionist clichés, which not even the author’s inimitable style can rescue. The distinction between the two is sharp and perhaps reveals the limitations of what can and cannot be said in good Anglo-Jewish company.
In discussing British Jewry, Professor Alderman, who wrote its history over a decade ago, comes from a conservative but never dull vantage point. He certainly has much material to work on and does it with unseemly glee at times—analyzing, dissecting and ruthlessly disposing of many of the guiding myths of the Jewish “community.” One of his main theses, running like an arrow through the analysis of British Jewish foibles is that there is no such thing as a unified British Jewish community and the sooner that Jews realize this, accept it, have their institutions reflect it, and move on, the better for all.
It is hard to disagree with Professor Alderman in this. The main trend in British Jewry over the last fifty years has been the decline/collapse of Central Orthodoxy as the main guiding point of British Jews and the fragmentation of the Jewish community into diverging movements. Jews in Britain, as elsewhere, are divided by religion and politics, and misrepresented by those communal leaders who pretend otherwise.
One can see the best part of this book as a contemporary chronicle of a fragmenting Anglo-Jewish field, be it Masorti (Conservative) Jews opposed to Orthodox “outreach,” liberal Jews abandoning their attempts to be accepted by the Orthodox, or the splintering of Orthodox Jews. Many of the situations he analyzes have their analogies in the U.S., and readers will perhaps go through these sections with a sinking sense of déjà-vu.
Alderman is scathing of those with pretensions to speak for an increasingly mythical Jewish community. Thus, in the first section of the book, the Board of Deputies of British Jews who purportedly represent the community are treated as a bunch of bumbling idiots and the Jewish Leadership Council as a group of secretive undemocratic plutocrats—the “funding fathers” in Alderman’s memorable put-down. In this criticism, Alderman is probably voicing the opinions of most British Jews.
There is an entire section devoted to the hapless Orthodox Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, although “devoted” may be the wrong word to use here. Amidst the often very funny criticism, Alderman is making a serious point—as mainstream Orthodox Jews become less and less interested in religion, the organs of Orthodox Judaism are increasingly taken over by hardline religious leaders, and have become subservient to the diktats of Ultra-Orthodoxy. Although the chief rabbi has been notoriously inept at dealing with these tensions, exhibiting breathtaking displays of bad faith, one wonders if anyone else would have managed any better, given the systemic nature of this crisis. In any case Sacks’ kowtowing to the strictly Orthodox is grist to the Professor’s mill, since of the many things he disdains, he is particularly disdainful of the hypocrisies of strictly Orthodox, or what he calls ultra-Orthodox Jews (indeed, the one time when Alderman will criticize Israel, it is over the growth of ultra-Orthodoxy). This criticism is rooted in the fear that, as a column of October 2008 has it, “The extremists are taking over.” Alderman’s fears here can be seen as analogous to Samuel Freedman’s take on U.S. Jews in Jew vs. Jew.
When Alderman moves to discuss British politics he remains interesting and irritating, supplementing his conservative views with nuggets of political information which educate, irrespective of one’s position. He is in his element in the short section “Exposing Myths,” where he disposes of Maimonides as a racist, the famous battle of Cable Street (where London Jews fought alongside dockworkers to prevent a fascist march in 1936) as counterproductive, and the organs of British Jewry as historically supine. Whether one agrees or not, the arguments are interesting. Geoffrey Alderman is fulfilling his gadfly role.
All changes when it comes to Muslims and Israel, where far from asking “subversive questions,” the author mouths the customary communal pieties. In relation to Muslims, he exhibits a depressing depth of paranoia and dislike, along with, it must be said, tepid calls for a certain degree of toleration. This antagonism is one time when Alderman is in complete synch with his despised Board of Deputies. Ditto for Israel, where Alderman rigorously stays within the conventions of right-wing Zionism. It is not simply a matter of the reader disagreeing with Alderman on Israel and Palestine, as one might elsewhere. It is the glum certainty of knowing in advance what he will say. Settlements—not a problem, discrimination against Arabs—nothing to see here, Rachel Corrie—an idiot who bought about her own death. And so on.
The critical distance he shows in relation to British Jews is effaced when facing Israel. Or rather it is replaced by invective against those whom he sees as the enemies of Israel. It is a familiar dreary litany, from the dangers of liberal do-gooders to the perils of Islam. This includes the expected snapping at the heels of those Jews who, unlike Alderman, defy communal orthodoxy and criticize Israel’s policies towards Palestinians.
When reading Alderman’s articles on British Jews, one marvels that he has managed to retain his weekly column at The Jewish Chronicle, so trenchant are some of his criticisms. When reading his writings on Israel and Islam, one understands why. Geoffrey Alderman represents the limits of acceptable dissent. This is as revealing as anything in his articles; in showing these limits Alderman illustrates the lineaments of mainstream Anglo-Jewry, a place where one is given carte blanche to criticize pretty much anything about a fragmented local community so long as one shows unremitting support for Israel’s actions.
Department of Sociology