Wednesday, July 11, 2007

New Jewish Thought is now open for business

After a delay of far too long, we now have a website - http://www.newjewishthought.org
We will shortly be changing the name to New Jewish Thought and adding more content to the website.

For the moment, this blog is now closed.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Update

No we haven't gone away!

The Centre has taken longer than expected to set up, but we can now confirm that things are moving. A full website will be set up within the next few weeks.

Watch this space...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Jewish Chronicle feature

Simon Rocker of the Jewish Chronicle wrote a nice article on the Centre for New Jewish Thought, featuring an interview with Keith Kahn-Harris and Daniel Jonas.

The JC has given us permission to post the article here.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Brief encounters

As part of the Centre's mission to promote new Jewish thought, writing and commentary, here is the text of Dr. Irene Lancaster's recent ‘Thought for the Week for BBC Radio Manchester, by special arrangement. The author of "Deconstructing the Bible, Abraham ibn Ezra's introduction to the Torah", (Routledge 2003) Dr Lancaster FRSA is Research Fellow in the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester and has just been appointed to the Council of Lord Carey’s Foundation for Reconciliation in the Middle East.

Brief Encounters

Dr Irene Lancaster

I wonder if you are, like me, excited by train journeys? You get on a train and wonder who will be sitting opposite you. Will it be a ‘stranger on a train’, intent on their computer game, or will it be a true ‘brief encounter’, which will change you forever and make life seem even more meaningful than it was before?’

In the last few weeks, I have made two train journeys down south in order to do my bit for interfaith relations and world peace. But on both occasions it was the journeys down that set the mood of what was to come. On the first trip, I got into conversation with two students from Manchester University who were off to spend the Jewish Passover in Haifa, a town in northern Israel, on a project bringing Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs closer together.

On the second trip, last Wednesday, my ‘brief encounter’ was with a woman who travels the world singing in interesting places. In the course of our chat, we realised we had a mutual friend, someone I had lost touch with over the years.

Sadly, I learned from my train companion that this friend’s son had recently died in his sleep, aged only 20. Although my friend had not been Jewish, the local Jewish neighbourhood had turned out en masse to be with her in her grief during the weekly Jewish mourning ritual, called sitting shiva. This had been of enormous comfort to my long-lost friend.

This talk of death made me think of my own Israeli daughter, Kalela, who lives in South Tel Aviv, where she is also involved in the peace process. On Easter Monday, I was sitting quietly at home, enjoying the holiday restfulness and received a call from Kalela. ‘I’m OK’, she said. I was a little puzzled: ‘Great, I said’. ‘You haven’t heard, have you’? she replied. ‘Heard what?’ I asked. ‘There’s been a horrendous suicide bomb in our area, but don’t worry, I’m OK’.

I just couldn’t believe it. The terrorists had struck again and for about the 10th time in my life, my wonderful, beautiful daughter, was contacting me to let me know that she was ‘OK’. ‘Right, Mum’, she said gently, ‘I have to go back to work’, and she put down the phone and went back to her work of trying to implement part of the Middle East peace process.

And the thing is, I am so used to these phone calls that I no longer feel shock or even revulsion when she tells me that although a bomb has gone off in her street, she herself is ‘OK’.

And I was reminded of all this when on Thursday, my journalist friend, Ruth Gledhill, Religion Affairs Correspondent of The Times, told me that she had been asked to preach the sermon later tonight at Westminster Abbey. Could I give her some ideas about the passage in Deuteronomy where God tells the children of Israel why he is bringing them into the Promised Land: the Promised Land being, of course, this very same Israel which is under constant attack.

And I thought about this a while and then responded that to be ‘God’s chosen people’ is not that God chooses us, but that we make the choice to choose God. And the way we do this is by seeing the spark of divinity in all those we encounter during life’s wonderful journey, whether it be long or short. Only in this way can envy be turned into respect, hate into love and the slavery of ego into the freedom of one’s own true self.

And that is why I know that it is right for my daughter Kalela to be an Israeli and to work for peace, because in her short life she has done a terrific amount of good. And even if she dies tomorrow, I know that a life cannot be judged by longevity alone, but by the quality of its ‘brief encounters’.

Friday, April 28, 2006

About Keith Kahn-Harris

Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist specialising in two very different areas of expertise:
  1. contemporary Jewish identity and culture and
  2. contemporary music scenes and in particular the global extreme metal scene.
His engagement with Judaism is maintained by a ‘davkanik’ refusal to see his less coventional interests — extreme metal music, transgressive art, and leftist politics — as incompatible with membership in the mainstream British Jewish community. Keith works as an associate lecturer at the Open University, and as a freelance research consultant in the Jewish community. From 2001-2 he was a ‘Jerusalem Fellow’ at the Mandel School in Jersualem and he has held visiting fellowships and lectureships at universities in Australia, Finland and Sweden. Keith co-authored Beyond Belonging: The Jewish Identities of Moderately Engaged British Jews (with Steven M. Cohen, Profile Books, 2004), co-edited After Subculture (with Andy Bennett, Palgrave, 2004) and edited New Voices in Jewish Thought: Volume 2 (Limmud publications 1999). His book Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge will be published by Berg in December 2006. A more extensive publications list is available on his website at http://www.kahn-harris.org . Keith also writes a blog, Metal Jew (http://kkahnharris.typepad.com/).

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

About Daniel Jonas

Daniel is one of the founders of the Centre for New Jewish Thought. A management consultant by profession, specialising in innovation, he has an MSc in business systems analysis and design and an MBA focused in technology, strategy, innovation and knowledge. He is the founder and bandleader of the Sephardic flamenco group Los Desterrados. He is married and lives in London.

Areas of interest:
  • Interfaith dialogue
  • The music of the Sephardim and the 'Eidoth ha-Mizrah
  • Sephardic/'Eidoth ha-Mizrah cultural literacy
  • Jewish mysticism and theology
  • Liturgy and prayer
  • The present and future of Anglo-Jewry
  • Judaism and business

The Hermeneutics of Anti-Anti-Semitism

Keith Kahn-Harris

You knew where you were with the old anti-Semitism: anti-Semites hated Jews and were not ashamed to say so. They believed Jews were a cancer on the world and sought to either eliminate them or confine them so they would no longer be a ‘threat’. The old anti-Semitism was unambiguously intended and unambiguously felt as a threatening assault. Everyone knew where they stood.

Of course the ‘old’ anti-Semitism still exists. There are still individuals and organisations that come out and say they hate Jews and try their best to destroy them. But since the Holocaust, most anti-Semites have come over all coy and bashful. So unpopular have the Nazis made anti-Semitism, that few will come out and openly long for the physical destruction of the Jews. Indeed, few anti-Semites will even celebrate their finest hour, the Holocaust, preferring to hide behind outright denial.

The triumph of Zionism in 1948 has proved a boom for Jew-hatred. The pretext of confining one’s criticism to Zionism or Israel and then slyly facilitating a slippage between Zionists and Jews, allows for almost any manifestation of anti-Semitism to be explained away. Even al-Qaeda activists occasionally pay lip service to the fiction that they do not hate Jews per se. So felicitous have Zionism and Holocaust denial proved in masking anti-Semitism, it is now only the most troglodyte and ineffective of neo-Nazis who will publicly own up to hating Jews.

The contemporary refusal of anti-Semites to speak openly of their hatred of Jews has had serious consequences for those concerned with Jewish survival. There is a fear that if anti-Semites seek to hide their hatred of Jews behind seemingly reasonable arguments and coded language, then anti-Semitism is in danger of becoming more acceptable. Fighting anti-Semites requires exposing them by interpreting their coded talk. Hermeneutics – the science of interpretation – is one of the most highly prized skill of the Jewish people and it has come to be used for the defence of Jews. The problem is that if Jew-hatred now speaks in code (albeit often thinly disguised), then how should the code be deciphered? And who gets to decipher the code? And to what end?

Given the importance of Zionism as a fig leaf for anti-Semitism, the majority of the hermeneutic effort within the Jewish community has been focused on the interpretation of criticism of Zionism and Israel. This is the hermeneutic battleground on which battles over anti-Semitism are fought. The question of what constitutes legitimate criticism of Israel is heavily contested. The question of whether criticism of Zionism is acceptable at all is also fought over with equal passion.

The question of the so-called ‘new anti-Semitism’ has generated most heat of all. The argument goes that in recent years anti-Semitism has spread to the liberal intellectual elite and is manifested in a concerted attempt to de-legitimise Israel and Zionism. The new anti-Semitism is seen to be most blatantly manifested in the media. Passionate accusations and counter-accusations have flown around on this topic with great intensity. On the one hand, liberal leftists are accused of double-standards in overlooking racism towards Jews whilst defending Muslims and other groups. On the other hand, leftist critics of Israel accuse Jewish groups of attempting to use accusations of anti-Semitism to silence any kind of criticism of Israel.

What is so striking about contemporary debates about anti-Semitism is how sophisticated they are. Jewish organisations and individuals committed to fighting anti-Semitism spend their time engaged in minute analyses of language, of ‘bias’, of complex questions of historical interpretation. The question of whether an individual or article is anti-Semitic generally comes down to fine judgements that are in their turn often refuted with an equal complexity. Increasingly this process has become mired in casuistry, obfuscation and bad faith on all sides.

The nadir (so far) in the hermeneutics of anti-Semitism has been the controversy over London mayor Ken Livingstone. As a consequence of his comparison of Jewish journalist Oliver Feingold to a concentration camp guard, the Board of Deputies referred Livingstone to the Adjudication Panel for England, who found him guilty of bringing his office into disrepute. The whole incident reflects the extraordinary world of contemporary anti-Semitic controversies: not only was Livingstone’s insult bizarre in itself, it is equally bizarre to level the accusation of anti-Semitism at someone who sees comparing someone to a concentration guard as an insult. The incident became even more convoluted when, in a press release welcoming the Adjudication Panel’s findings, the Board of Deputies seemed to deny that they were ever even accusing Livingstone of anti-Semitism, saying that they ‘at no stage passed judgement on the motivation for the Mayor’s comments’ (8th March 2006). It seems that not only have discourses of anti-Semitism become so sophisticated that they are phrased in anti-Nazi terms, but that anti-anti-Semitic discourses are so sophisticated that they do not even attack anti-Semitism!

The Livingstone affair illuminates what controversies over anti-Semitism are increasingly becoming – an elite bitch-fest. So coded has the whole issue become that concern about anti-Semitism easily degenerates into score-settling and mean-spirited sideswiping. Given the overwhelming focus on the hermeneutics of anti-Semitism, and given the conviction that the hermeneutic process is complicated and difficult, concern about anti-Semitism has increasingly become an obsession of community leaders. Concern about anti-Semitism has become professionalised, embodied in thinktanks, articles, websites and watchdogs. Similarly, those who are accused of anti-Semitism are drawn increasingly from the ranks of intellectuals, the media and community leaders.

What is in danger of becoming lost in this increasingly self-referential world is the actual experience of anti-Semitism. We have to remember that hatred of Jews is designed to hurt Jews themselves. An overwhelming focus on the hermeneutics of anti-Semitism can lead to an over-estimation of the power of ‘texts’ of anti-Semitism. The contexts within which anti-Semitic discourses are produced and received can often be overlooked. At the moment the enormous concern with the hermeneutics of anti-Semitism has lead to a neglect of the sociology of anti-Semitism.

Looked at sociologically, we can have a more balanced approached that tempers panicked fears of a contemporary ‘tsunami’ of anti-Semitism (in the Chief Rabbi’s words). It is clear that in sections of the Muslim world there is rampant anti-Jewish rhetoric and holocaust denial, often thinly disguised as ‘mere’ anti-Zionism. It is clear that there has been a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the UK (Iganski, Kielinger et al. 2005). It is clear that in some places, France being the most important example, many Jews have come to feel so threatened that they have started to emigrate in serious numbers. It is also clear that significant numbers of Jewish intellectuals and communal leaders themselves feel worried and threatened about anti-Semitism. These are all significant and worrying phenomena.

What is much less clear is how far elite concerns about anti-Semitism translate into any kind of existential crisis amongst ‘rank and file’ British Jews. Certainly, my research (Cohen and Kahn-Harris 2004) suggests that British Jews seem as secure and comfortable as ever, if perhaps mildly disgruntled about perceived media bias.

It is also unclear as to how far many of those who criticise Israel and Zionism are motivated by a hatred of Jews. Even if there are many Jews who consider any opposition to Zionism as de facto anti-Semitism and even if there are many anti-Zionists who make little attempt to hide their dislike of Jews, an anti-Zionism of good faith is possible. After all, it was not so long ago that large sections of the UK mainstream Jewish community were dubious about Zionism.

A consideration of the sociology of anti-Semitism should be the bedrock of any attempt to penetrate anti-Semitic discourse. It requires research on people, Jews and non-Jews, in their full complexity. It requires intellectual openness and bravery rather than posturing and casuistry.

The best way of investigating anti-Semitism is, perhaps paradoxically, not to do so directly. Much better is to devote time and resources to research on Jews in the contemporary world and in particular to their relationships to and perceptions of non-Jews. As a sociologist myself you would perhaps be forgiven for accusing me of promoting my own self-interest. I have opinions and agendas just like everyone else, but the difference between a well-grounded sociological treatment of anti-Semitism and a hermeneutic decoding of anti-Semitism is that social research has much better procedures for dealing with, allowing for and challenging one’s own preconceptions.

Ultimately, unless those who hate Jews start to develop the courage of their own convictions, fighting anti-Semitism looks likely to remain a controversial and difficult process. Better then that the fight takes place in a spirit of fearless intellectual endeavour, rather than one of bad-tempered point-scoring.



References

Cohen, S. M. and K. Kahn-Harris (2004). Beyond Belonging: The Jewish Identities of Moderately Engaged British Jews. London, UJIA / Profile Books.
Iganski, P., V. Kielinger, et al. (2005). Hate Crimes Against London's Jews: An Analysis of Incidents Recorded by the Metropolitan Police Service 2001-2004. London, Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

What's the point of interfaith dialogue?

Daniel Jonas

Some weeks ago, observant readers of the press would have noted reports of a conference in Seville entitled “The Second World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace”. The list of attendees was an impressive list of the great and good amongst Jewish and Islamic clergy. The chief rabbi of here, the grand rabbi of there and the dayan of elsewhere mixed with muftis, qadis, imams and sheikhs. As one participant put it, “a mass of reporters and TV camera people […] just swarmed around the most exotic dressers on view”. Surely such high-profile people meeting so amicably must be a sign that religious differences can be resolved, that Jews and Muslims (not to mention Christians) can meet, greet, eat and work things out together?

Sadly, acquaintance with the world of interfaith dialogue reveals that conferences and meetings like this have been going on for a long time, sometimes for decades. The “Standing Conference of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe” has been standing for about thirty years. The “World Parliament of Religions” first met in Chicago in 1893. A plethora of bilateral, trilateral and multilateral organisations exist whose aim is to stimulate and further dialogue between faith communities around the world.

Yet despite the constant round of encounter groups, declarations and awards, mistrust continues to be pervasive and prejudice and segregation, rather than friendship, are the rule on the communal ‘front line’. Organisations give speeches about the common heritage of the children of Abraham, the sibling relationships of the ‘three great monotheistic faiths’ and display beaming photographs of their luminaries shaking hands with Prince Hassan of Jordan or the Dalai Lama on their literature and websites. But, as the Islamic liberation theologist Farid Esack once put it, “Is there life after tea?” Can we get beyond politeness to make something happen for good in the real world?

Actually, the problem is not that nothing is achieved through interfaith dialogue as presently conceived. After all, people in the dialogue world know each other extremely well. Personal relationships have been built over the years which enable channels of communication to be kept open and functional. Significant breakthroughs like the Alexandria Declaration have provided religious authority for the development of the Middle East peace process. Yet beyond the occasional success, these developments are, for the most part, largely ceremonial. The relationships are institutional. Moreover, to take an active part in this world one must have an aristocratic, political or religious title, a PhD or professorship, a directorship of an organisation or that old favourite, a large philanthropic budget. Money, power and position can always buy a place at this table. Fortunately, though, this cabal of jet-setting princes, chief executives and Nobel Prize laureates are, on the whole, likely to behave reasonably and maintain a vision of the bigger picture – after all, twenty years’ hard graft can earn you a knighthood.

This top level of dialogue exists happily in its own bubble, but it is important for the authority it provides. Without the sponsorship of senior figures, clergy and lay leaders find their hands tied. When a delegation of Catholic clergy visited Yeshiva University in 2004, according to a poll conducted by the university’s newspaper, 39% of respondents felt that this infringed the teaching of the great 20th-century halakhic authority Rabbi JD Soloveitchik as expressed in an influential article a quarter of a century previously. Even when this sponsorship is forthcoming, it can often be subverted by institutionalised prejudice and simple ignorance. In the Orthodox world, with few exceptions, the idea that Jews have anything to learn from those from other faith traditions is treated with scorn. Even in mainstream yeshivas, Christianity is routinely taught to be ‘avodah zarah. In such a climate of arrogance and dismissiveness of other faith traditions it is hardly surprising that the standard-bearers of soi-disant “Torah Judaism” should justified in making their recent misconceived and counterproductive attacks on Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ eloquent plea for mutual respect, “The Dignity of Difference”.

In Sacks’ own mainstream modern Orthodoxy in the UK, despite his own apparent openmindedness, lip service is paid to religious tolerance and coexistence. Whilst two members of his ‘cabinet’ have responsibility for Jewish-Muslim and Jewish-Christian relations and can be seen on the conference circuit, the United Synagogue’s idea of dialogue appears to be a one-way process: not so much a conversation as it is a lecture about the greatness of Judaism, Abrahamic siblinghood and other monotheistic bromides, suitable for “Thought for the Day”, but hardly an programme fit for a religion that prides itself on being action-based – quite apart from the unintentional offence occasionally caused by unwise references to tsunamis and pagans, there being nearly as many self-described ‘neo-pagans’ in the UK as there are Jews and, perhaps unsurprisingly, who tend to take these uncomplimentary remarks as being aimed at themselves.

Although interfaith dialogue training is a mandatory part of the UK Reform rabbinical programme, this wholly laudable inclusion, like the interfaith activity of the United Synagogue, does little to affect the community at large. The average dinner-party conversation is far less likely to be influenced by the circumlocutory language of inter-religious diplomacy than it is by a scandal-mongering media, political spin-doctors and popular (“everyone knows that..”) wisdom, with the predictable result that the status quo of ignorance, contempt and fear is perpetuated.

By default, then, the second tier of dialogue remains the sphere of the professionals – clergy, theology students and organisational functionaries. Whilst undeniably effective at ensuring the production of religious and academic papers, seminars and conferences it remains the province of those for whom it is part of their daily responsibilities. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of the pastoral clergy, interfaith dialogue comes a long way behind the more immediate needs of the congregation, particularly if it means going up against the received wisdom of communal security needs – and nowhere is this more true than in the Jewish community.

The amount of column inches, organisational budget and effort communal devoted to combating anti-semitism in the UK and around the Jewish world has never been greater. Debate about the nature of the problem and how to manage it goes on at all levels, both inside the community and outside it. A robust and time-tested infrastructure has developed around the reporting and escalation of incidents, together with a system of consultation and lobbying that is the envy of other faith communities and ethnic groups. During the nail-bombing campaign in the UK, the Board of Deputies provided leadership and police liaison expertise for other targeted groups not normally known for their ability to co-exist with each other, notably the gay and Muslim communities. But although this is an undeniably effective method of fire-fighting and crisis management, it is less concerned with the reduction of the intercommunal prejudices that cause tension and sometimes go on to manifest themselves emotionally, verbally and physically. It is as if the fire brigade were unaware of the significance of flame-retardant upholstery or the the importance of correct precautions for the safe transportation of petrol.

Clearly, then, there is a case for the re-envisioning of interfaith dialogue. Religious and ethnic prejudice flourish in an atmosphere of segregation, ignorance and mutual mistrust. They require the dehumanisation of the ‘Other’ and the creation of convenient groupings. How often have we heard the phrases “The Muslims want…” or “The Jews are…”? We ought to know better. Despite the aspirationally monolithic, rose-tinted and historically inaccurate language of the ‘umma and the dar al-Islam or Torah Judaism, klal yisra’el or Yidden, there is virtually no such thing as a single, unified Muslim or Jewish standpoint. The old joke (“two Jews, three opinions, four committees”) is just as true of the ‘other side’. What we need, then, is to encounter these others, to understand who they really are and how they live, love, eat, pray, argue, think and believe. Yet how many of us can count members of other faiths as our friends? Do we visit their houses and places of worship or they ours? Can we even eat with them? Wouldn’t we like to think that at that dinner-party conversation, when a sententious uncle is holding forth about the iniquitous behaviour of the Yahoods, someone is thinking to themself, or even saying out loud: “I have a Jewish friend; his name is Daniel and he’s nothing like that. What you’re saying doesn’t make sense.” If we cannot challenge stereotypes from our own experience, we are truly divided.

The purpose of dialogue activities, then, must be one of humanisation, to widen our own knowledge of and familiarity with other faith traditions. Interpersonal encounters are key – there is no substitute for personal experience. There are obvious safeguards: clearly evangelisation and intermarriage are significant concerns to everyone involved, but this hardly constitutes a problem as much as it does a shared interest. More to the point, it is invariably the case that the encounter with other religions forces us to attempt to understand who we ourselves are. Peculiarly enough, interfaith dialogue actually stimulates our desire to learn about our own religion. We are compelled to educate ourselves, to learn about our own background and traditions if we are to be able to successfully explain them. This is why dialogue is so often left to the professionals – we feel unequal to the task of teaching others about our beliefs. There is a synergy here which can help drive internal educational priorities. So what concrete action we can take to make this humanisation happen on the ground? It is certain that the first and most obvious priority must be the creation of a new tier of dialogue: that of the grass-roots.

Fortunately, there are numerous models open to exploitation. In the field of Jewish-Muslim relations, triangulation on shared problems such as employment conditions, dress codes and the use of public space has previously been a route to good relations. Ironically enough, this has been most prevalent in the ultra-religious world, where co-operation has long been occurring – the Muslim-Jewish Forum in Hackney being a good example. Even on campus, a historically antagonistic environment fuelled by the gesture politics of student unions, the dialogue organisation Alif-Aleph UK has set up encounter groups to circumvent the normal atmosphere of mutual recrimination and build a network of personal contacts. Shared interests such as the arts and music can act as platforms for dialogue, as shown by the popular festivals, exhibitions and concerts organised by the cultural organisation Cultural Co-operation. Even competitive sports can contribute to this – the Maimonides Foundation and Arsenal Football Club have run a programme of joint Jewish-Muslim training and matches for 8-12 year-old schoolchildren.

The question remains, however, as to the follow-up across the wider community. Without the mobilisation of the more mainstream community organisations and a menu of shared activities promoting interpersonal and interreligious familiarisation, the dialogue world will remain a self-perpetuating, self-selecting group of moderates and do-gooders. It would be a comparatively simple task to set up a twinning programme for synagogues, mosques, churches and (strangely neglected despite the entirely unobjectionable monotheism of Sikhism) gurdwaras, with the advantage of strengthening local links and improving the latest political buzzword, ‘community cohesion’. Even local government can be of help in this process as it is, after all, something in which its officials actually have experience, as opposed to their cack-handed ‘multiculturalist’ interventions and the clumsy official verbiage of “Winterval”.

What is needed is the allocation of time and funding, over and above the hobbies of elderly philanthropists, however clear-sighted and praiseworthy. Communal organisations need to prioritise interfaith dialogue now – with the prospect of being able to reducing their security needs in the future. In short, even if the benefits of interfaith work are not immediately self-evident and of intrinsic importance, it can be decisively argued that it is in our own self-interest in the long run. In France, legal measures against the hijab were paralleled by those against the kippa, the Sikh turban and the ‘ostentatious’ cross – in the alleged interest of even-handedness. Restrictions on one can be seen to impact all.

It is clear that the idea that “there’s nothing we need from the goyim other than for them to leave us alone” is rooted in our own sense of insecurity. It is time to treat this as a barrier, not a badge of honour.Genuine religious coexistence is in everyone’s interest, so interfaith dialogue ought to be everyone’s business. For those of us who have jobs outside the community, it is presently a time-consuming hobby – no less fun for that, but clearly not a priority for the community as a whole. Just as it was for the Sanhedrin, familiarity with other faiths – and confidence in dealing with their adherents – must not be left as an esoteric speciality of the professionals. It must become a competency for all members of the Jewish community.

About the Centre For New Jewish Thought

Who we are

We are a group of British Jews from across the entire communal spectrum and beyond, who have come together to form an independent centre to promote new thinking about Judaism in Britain and the Jewish world.

We have been motivated to come together as a response to our ongoing frustration with the quality and nature of debate in our community. All too often, we believe, the internal dialogue of British Jewry consists of the reiteration of fixed positions by various interest groups. As a consequence of this, it has become common to avoid debate between streams of Judaism, either retreating into antagonism or into an exaggerated (and often false) respect.

We believe that a fundamental part of the strength and vitality of Judaism has always come from its diversity. But whilst we seek to cultivate this diversity, we reject unthinking, relativistic models that would restrict different schools of thought to mutually uncommunicative ghettoes.

By contrast, we believe passionately in the value of dialogue and non-hostile confrontation between Jewish points of view. We also believe that such discussion and debate requires vulnerability, openness – and the willingness to revise one’s opinions – from those who engage in it. We seek to cultivate such open-ended discussion with the aim of provoking the British Jewish community to engage with the full complexities of Judaism today. We are committed to engaging with the full range of Jewish possibilities – ethnic, religious and cultural.

We aim to provide ‘conceptual leadership’ that will influence new policies and new directions in British Jewry. Whilst the core of our concern is British Jewry, we engage with it on many levels: as citizens of the UK, as part of the Jewish world, as part of the diaspora, as people interested in Israel and the Middle East, as an ethno-religious group interested in positive contact with other such groups and as individuals with specific interests and skills – consulting, academic, innovation, technological, religious texts, philosophy, arts and culture.

We will seek to create new metaphors and symbols for the renewal of Jewish life. We will search for new paradigms and new models of being Jewish from communities, industries, religions and countries.

We seek to reach out to everyone who finds Judaism most valuable and rewarding when it is difficult and challenging. We seek to provoke people in different sections of the community to leave their comfort zones and question their fundamental assumptions.

We seek to include people from diverse backgrounds and with diverse skills in our discussions – academics, professionals, artists and interested lay individuals. We are also commited to including non-Jews in debates on the nature and future of the Jewish people.