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On (not) celebrating Jewish diversity

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There’s a kind of discourse in which ‘diversity’ and ‘celebration’ go hand in hand together. So I wasn’t surprised when a local newspaper feature on What does a Jew look like? – the collection of portraits of British Jews that I worked on with the photographer Rob Stothard – was headlined as follows:

After all, what other motive could there be other than celebrating diversity? I am clearly not an antisemite and, as the interview showed, I clearly have a passion for highlighting the diversity of British Jewish life.

Still, ‘celebration’ made me cringe a bit. I am, after all, the person who wrote this in my 2019 book Strange Hate: ‘If you’re celebrating diversity, you are doing it wrong.’

That was me being polemical and a bit cheeky, but the point I was making was serious: As I argued in the book, diversity also means political diversity. To live in a diverse society doesn’t just mean street fairs and ethnic food stalls, it also means living alongside people with radically different political commitments to your own. When ‘non-Jews’ discover the fact that Jews are politically divided – particularly over Israel – all too often they end up treating Jews to whom they are politically opposed as ‘bad Jews’ and treating those they politically support as the ‘good’ ones. This leads to what I call ‘selective anti/semitism’, part of a wider phenomenon of ‘selective anti/racism.’

What does a Jew look like? was born out of a frustration with the ubiquitous use of stock photos of Haredi Jewish men (usually taken from the back) to illustrate stories about Jews in the British media. Rob Stothard, the (non-Jewish) photographer I collaborated with, was responsible for one of the most over-used stock photos and was as uncomfortable with this as I was. We worked together to capture a heterogeneous set of Jewish portraits, accompanied by a ‘self-portrait’ in the subject’s own words:

As one would expect, there are many kinds of diversity visible in the collection: Ethnic (Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrachi), religious (orthodox, progressive, secular etc) gender and sexuality (straight, gay, cis, trans, etc) as well as the manifold other differences that mark us all out as individuals.

Politics is the difficult one though, particularly when it comes to Israel. From the very start of the project I wanted to ensure that at least some of UK Jewry’s political diversity was represented. Naturally then, the final book includes Jews who are Zionists (from right to left, and all points in between), anti-Zionists, non-Zionists, as well as Jews for whom self-definition with regard to Israel is simply not a pressing question.

This seems like a natural thing to do in a book devoted to representing diversity. The problem is that inclusion is sometimes mistaken for validation. To include a far-right Zionist or a left anti-Zionist can be misconstrued as sly legitimation by those who wish to see it that way: The inclusion of those with whom one is sympathetic becomes a smokescreen for the ‘real’ agenda, which is to force the inclusion into the Jewish community of those whose politics is anathema to any moral-minded Jew. Or, at least, I worry that that is how it will be seen by critics.

One of the reasons why I worry is because the UK Jewish community is small, intimate and fractious. Many of the Jews portrayed in the book will be known to Jewish readers (or will be one or two degrees of separation away from them); indeed, many of the Jews in the book will know, or know of, other Jews in the book, perhaps personally or perhaps by reputation. There is always the possibility that being included in the same book as someone with whom one has a difficult relationship, might feel claustrophobic to say the least. As the Introduction puts it: ‘We do acknowledge…that some of those included in the book may find their proximity in its pages to other sorts of Jews a little challenging.’ It is to their great credit that none of the subjects of the book placed any conditions on who else could appear in it.

There are also risks in how non-Jewish readers might see the book. So deep does selective anti/semitism run that there is always the possibility that some might see the book as a kind of ‘catalogue’; a buffet where you can choose the kind of Jew you like. Even worse would be if antisemites saw the book as a handy ‘know your enemy’ guide. There are always risks when Jews represent themselves (or are represented by others) in the public sphere. However much we worked with the subjects of the book to produce portraits that reflect how they wish to be seen, none of this is completely under anyone’s control.

While this book has a very simple premise, its implications are complex and its dilemmas difficult to resolve. The only way that I could feel comfortable in corralling such diversity in the book is by not framing it as a celebration of diversity. It would indeed be a terrible imposition on the subjects of the book if they were forced to participate in the celebration of forms of Jewishness that they cannot agree with. Instead, the book confines its ambitions to representing Jewish diversity as an unavoidable fact. In that sense, this is an ‘amoral’ book; one that takes no position on what Jews should be.

In another respect though, this book does celebrate something: The wonderful idiosyncrasy of individual Jewish lives. While I might have deliberately chosen for inclusion as wide a selection of Jews as possible, using demographic and sociological criteria – age, gender, politics, denomination etc – that does not necessarily mean that that is how the subjects defined themselves. Indeed, on more than one occasion, the subjects of the book subverted my intentions, by downplaying what, for me, was the most significant thing about them Jewishly-speaking. And that was all to the good. As I write in the introduction:

By placing the subjects in their preferred context and by allowing them to define their Jewish lives in their own terms, they cease being representatives of anything but themselves. They become Jewish people, not generic Jews.

The reason we managed to make this transformation into Jewish people, was because I didn’t actually take the photos! I am not a photographer and, in most cases, I didn’t attend the photo sessions. Rob is the professional, not me. Crucially, he isn’t Jewish and didn’t have an axe to grind other than producing a set of beautiful portraits. That allowed him to see every subject as an individual, not a demographic.

The book is a celebration then, but not the kind of celebration that people often mean when they talk about celebrating diversity. It’s a celebration of the force of individual personality that undermines attempts to put people in categorical boxes. What does a Jew look like? shows how Jewish diversity means much more than we think it means.

What does a Jew look like? will be published on 12 April 2022 and launched with an event at JW3 on 11 April 2022.

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Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College, runs the European Jewish Research Archive at the IJPR and is an Honorary Fellow of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College. His most recent book is Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity (Repeater 2019).
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