The Communal Gadfly: Jews, British Jews and the Jewish State-Asking the Subversive Questions

By Landy, David | Shofar, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

The Communal Gadfly: Jews, British Jews and the Jewish State-Asking the Subversive Questions


Landy, David, Shofar


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. …

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