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

October 1, 2009

Some things live to be ephemeral: morning glories, cabbage white butterflies and newspaper columns. So it was with apprehension that I faced this collection of op-ed columns from The Jewish Chronicle written by the trenchantly opinionated Geoffrey Alderman. I need not have worried. These are, for those of us who also enjoy the subversive for its own honest sake, factually fair, mostly cleverly balanced, and, at times, although I must apologise to Professor Alderman for this subversion, whimsical.

Not that I agree, nor would I expect anyone else to agree, with many of his views. They are idiosyncratic, and he owns (and owns up to) them. But that is not the point. The point is - is the book worth reading, or should these pieces have been left to die a chip-wrapper death, left as bits of swirling newspaper in vacant lots?

What is most attractive is the tone of Alderman's natural voice. He has a rare ability to float above stylistic expectations, producing a fluid textual mix of the academic, the idiomatic, the conversational and the Yiddish. He is master of the mot juste and the Parthian shot. As a final sentence to a piece on the Danish cartoons that aroused such ire in the Islamic world he writes, "as a symbolic token of my slight unease at the decision of Jyllands-Posten to publish them, I urge Jews the world over to join me in boycotting Danish bacon". The added acerbity of that "slight unease" is balsamic vinegar.

Naturally, he has a stable of hobbyhorses, as do all self-described subversives. His favourites appear to be the Board of Deputies of British Jews ("a purim spiel"), the Charedim ("fearful of their own moral weakness"), the Masorti movement ("survivalist ambitions"), Islamic Judaeophobia ("visceral prejudices"), Islamophobia ("as corrupt as Judaeophobia"), and, more surprisingly, sex ("it is not a sin to visit a prostitute").

Alderman has a great deal to say about sex, most of which shows a tolerant sensibility, extending to Mr Gay Israel, although homosexuality, in his yes-but, no-but acceptance, is perfectly fine, provided that it is not expressed physically, nor allowed access to rights-protecting "marriage", nor given access to the adoption of children. Back to the closet, then?

Then, his betes noires - Jonathan Sacks and Ken Livingstone. Britain's Chief Rabbi becomes Jonathan Henry Sacks, and the former London Mayor becomes Kenneth Robert Livingstone, the names under which they might appear on charge sheets or in court appearances. The trope tells us all we need to know about Alderman's views. It brought to mind the riposte I heard, in a university debate, in which the president of the Socialist Society asked one of his interlocutors: "Are you accusing me of being unbiased?"

But there are unexpected betes blanches. Who would have thought a Jewish subversive could embrace Tony Blair, as Alderman does? Yet he explains his reasons, shedding light on the part played by Lord Levy and the late Dr Henry Drucker in the bridge-building between new Labour and British Jewry.

Alderman's is an illuminating intellect, demonstrated not only in his writing, but also in the selection of these particular columns that enables themes to emerge strongly in a natural timeline, without the subject matter becoming too repetitive.

It is educative, and, yes, worth preserving in this format because good writing should not be ephemeral. It is more colourful and meaty than a cabbage white butterfly. It is not the mere morning glory of a lox breakfast bagel at Pret A Manger. It deserves longevity, possible appreciation and critical brickbats from a wider audience of its peers.

Subversion should be played dangerously.

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

By Geoffrey Alderman. Academic Studies Press 256pp, £29.50. ISBN 9781934843468. Published 1 July 2009.

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