In defence of Martin Bright

If you’ll permit the intrusion of a shegetz into the controversy attending the Jewish Chronicle‘s reporting on London Citizens, I’d like to add a few thoughts.

London Citizens is an alliance of community groups based in the capital that brings together representatives from all the major faiths to be found in Britain. Hitherto known for campaigns on the minimum wage and other sociopolitical issues, the ‘community organising’ collective has attracted criticism for the alleged presence in its ranks of individuals with questionable associations and unsavoury things to say about Jews, Israel and terrorism. Junaid Ahmed, deputy chair of the organisation, allegedly gave a speech praising Hamas terrorists during Operation Cast Lead. ‘Every single resistance fighter is an example for all of us to follow,’ he is reported to have said. The JC also reported that a mosque involved with London Citizens had invited controversial speakers including a radical cleric who had made antisemitic pronouncements.

It is also a group in which leaders of the London Jewish community play a significant role. Rabbi Wittenberg, of New North London Synagogue, defended his attendance at a London Citizens event and, although he described Ahmed’s alleged views on Hamas as ‘abhorrent’, he insisted he didn’t ‘seek to confront people with a record of difficult views’.

Martin Bright, the astute political editor of the Jewish Chronicle, authored a series of articles on London Citizens, its alleged radical elements, and the question of Jewish leaders being involved with this organisation. The scrutiny upset supporters of London Citizens, as did a term deployed to describe Rabbi Wittenberg. Bright referred to Rabbi Wittenberg as a ‘useful idiot‘ for his failure to challenge Ahmed’s alleged opinions. The phrase caused genuine offence amongst some members of the Rabbi’s congregation and mock offence amongst those who simply don’t like Bright’s politics. I would not have used such a phrase – insults are no substitute for rational criticism and anyway should be avoided when discussing a man who has dedicated his life to his faith and community – but Bright stands by the description.

One objector fleshed his criticisms out into a full-blown critique of the JC‘s journalism and editorial policies. Keith Kahn-Harris wrote a piece – commendably published by the JC – condemning the paper and Bright in particular for its coverage of London Citizens and, more broadly, for its focus on antisemitism, Israel, and Islamist extremism.

The principal thesis of Kahn-Harris’s argument is that there are two kinds of politics at work here: the ‘politics of engagement’ and the ‘politics of exclusion’. He divvies up the moral bonus points thus:

New North London Synagogue and other Jews involved in London Citizens are exponents of a ‘politics of engagement’ that prizes dialogue, cooperation and community above all.

Whereas:

The JC under Stephen Pollard and Martin Bright is an exponent of a ‘politics of exclusion’ that prioritises principle and ideology and seeks to marginalise anyone that crosses certain ‘red lines’.

Kahn-Harris believes editor Stephen Pollard is not ‘interested in much of what goes on in the Jewish community’ and intones darkly about ‘the turn that the JC has made under Stephen Pollard’s editorship’. Moreover, he contends:

This apparent lack of concern for Jewish community is also embodied in the JC’s tolerance for uncivil and abusive language. Martin Bright’s use of the term ‘useful idiot’ to describe Rabbi Wittenberg is symptomatic of an editorial regime that does little to encourage more measured language.

As noted above, I would not have used the term in question but one ill-advised ad hominem does not an ‘editorial regime’ make, and certainly not an ‘uncivil’ and ‘abusive’ one at that. To read Kahn-Harris, one would be forgiven for thinking Pollard had turned over the political brief to Pamela Geller rather than the thoughtful, respected, and impeccably progressive Bright. (Footnote: Anyone who calls for a writer to use ‘more measured language’ almost invariably means, ‘I don’t like what you’re saying; please shut up’.)

The JC, we are to believe, has become a sort of right-wing rabble-rouser, pushing a hardline political agenda that provokes when it should inform and confronts when it should analyse. For Kahn-Harris:

A narrow range of ideological issues and a desire for controversy have been foregrounded with little or no regard as to what the consequences will be. For sure today’s JC is always lively – Stephen Pollard is a gifted controversialist and his willingness to publish this piece is certainly a point in his favour – but it is often destructive entertainment.

Narrow? Ideological? Controversy? Destructive entertainment? Does he read the same paper as the rest of us? I must have missed that special giveaway of ‘I [HEART] AVI LIEBERMAN’ t-shirts with every copy of the paper. This is a version of the JC that exists only in the minds of Comment is Free readers.

There is also an undercurrent to Kahn-Harris’s criticism of Bright that leaves a slight metallic taste in the mouth. Perhaps I am reading too much into his words – at least, I hope I am – but there seems to be a subtext that Bright, as a non-Jew, is not really in a position to be writing about these issues. For example, Kahn-Harris claims that Bright’s ‘knowledge of the politics of the Jewish community is limited and – more disturbing – he does not appear to be aware of his limitations’. He doesn’t appreciate ‘where those within the shul are coming from’. ‘Synagogues and communities are not the same as political parties,’ he offers, more than a little archly, ‘and it takes time to understand how they work.’ Then comes the sucker-punch:

The fact that Bright is not Jewish is irrelevant – like a good policeman a journalist has to take the time to understand his ‘beat’.

One is compelled to ask: Why, if Bright’s non-Jewishness is irrelevant, does Kahn-Harris feel the need to bring it up? Does he not realise that, even if not hostile in intent, such phraseology risks making non-Jews feel unwelcome in debates within the Jewish community and on related subjects? One might call it, to borrow a phrase, the politics of exclusion.

Kahn-Harris eventually gets to what appears to be the cause of his consternation, namely the ‘dominance’ of Israel and antisemitism in the JC‘s news pages.

Bright’s limited understanding of the community has been encouraged by the turn that the JC has made under Stephen Pollard’s editorship. The front pages are dominated by Israel, antisemitism and Islamism – important issues but not the only ones that impinge on British Jews.

It’s rather as if I wrote to the editor of the Catholic Herald and asked him to stop banging on about this abortion business.

Newspapers which serve a select community must strive to provide content that interests and entertains the greatest number of members of that community, both as a civic duty and, perhaps more pressingly, as a commercial imperative. In the JC’s case, that means covering fundraising dinners for cash-strapped shuln as well as anti-Israel student groups inviting extreme speakers to give lectures on campus. Bar and Bat Mitzvah announcements can and must and should share space with investigations into antisemitism.

If there is an appetite out there for a Jewish newspaper that limits its coverage of Israel, antisemitism, and the threat from Islamist terrorism, let Kahn-Harris raise the capital and set it up.

Were Bright and Pollard using the front page of the JC to advocate Israeli annexation of Judea and Samaria, to champion the Grunis Bill, or to campaign for one Israeli political party over the others, I would agree that it had strayed from its remit and purpose. As things are, Bright and Pollard are fulfilling an important role: providing a community-centred news outlet that covers common interests and concerns in the UK and around the world while also opening up the paper, the subjects it covers, and the Jewish community to a wider audience.

If the greatest military threat to Israel is a nuclear Iran, and the most pressing terrorist menace Hamas and Hezbollah, the preeminent moral hazard is the severing of the connection between the Jewish state and the Diaspora. Israel and her advocates (Jewish and non-Jewish) face an unprecedented wave of hostility, malice, and falsehoods. That requires journalists of good conscience to ask awkward questions, confront lazy thinking, and, above all, tell the truth. I became a reader of the JC after Bright’s appointment because I regarded his journalism very highly and admired his firm (and, sadly, rare in left-wing circles) stance against Islamist extremism and terrorism. If the JC were to become a sanitised newsletter for a narrow left-wing viewpoint that ignores those areas where Jewish community concerns intersect with broader concerns, there would be less of a reason for readers (Jewish and non-Jewish) to bother picking it up. That, rather than Pollard and Bright’s informative reporting and incisive commentary, would represent a real ‘disturbing trend in the paper’s relationship to the British Jewish community’.

Although I bow to Kahn-Harris’s superior knowledge of the Jewish community, I can’t help but feel that his broadside against the JC is really a plaintive cry for the paper to keep its head down and stop causing trouble. The liberal consensus offers comforts that moral clarity cannot. His proposal would leave the JC more modest, less relevant, and muted on questions of crucial importance to the Jewish community and its friends at the very time that these questions are gaining prominence in national and international public discourses.

I fully support Jewish community leaders, and leaders from all faith groups, in their efforts to work across religious and cultural divisions in pursuit of good causes. But one must always consider the ethics of political association: appearing on a stage with people of intemperate outlook, whether intentionally or otherwise, confers legitimacy on that outlook, making it seem less intemperate and more socially acceptable. I don’t know enough about London Citizens to pass judgement on it. It might very well be an entirely wholesome endeavour, and certainly there is much praise to be found for the work it does. But that shouldn’t shield it from criticism when it is perceived to have erred.

Nor is the JC above criticism. Editorials are too short, as are op-eds. I’d like longer features, more in-depth obituaries, and more space given over to the arts. The website could do with a redesign, could be updated more often, and a few new bloggers wouldn’t go amiss. The JC should seek to expand by looking outwards, towards a wider audience of Jewish and non-Jewish readers, and not recede into a tame parochialism which benefits neither the JC nor the Jewish community.

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