Keith Kahn-Harris
The Guardian (Opinion)
December 16, 2009 - 1:00am

Last Sunday's Observer finally broke a story about which rumours had been circulating for a while: Professor David Newman, a British-Israeli geographer at Ben Gurion University, Israel, received an astonishing couple of emails from Michael Gross, a British-Jewish businessman, philanthropist and member of the university's board of governors, threatening to "use whatever influence I have at BGU to have you thrown out" and, even more extraordinarily, saying "I hope you perish" and "the sooner you are removed from BGU and the face of the earth, the better."

Gross was furious at Newman's appearance on the recent Dispatches programme on the British Israel lobby, which had attracted heavy criticism by Jewish leaders for what they considered its insinuations of undue and secretive influence on government. Newman was in fact not a major presence in the documentary and in his regular Jerusalem Post column he criticised the programme and said he regretted taking part.

This though apparently wasn't enough for Gross for whom even the association of an Israeli academic at "his" university with the programme was enough to put him entirely beyond the pale.

Superficially, the whole affair seems to be prima facie evidence of another attempt to suppress critical Jewish and Israeli voices. Blogs such as MuzzleWatch and groups like Independent Jewish Voices complain loudly at the ways in which the Jewish establishment intimidates criticism of Israel. These complaints are often justified and indeed Israeli academics who are critical of Israeli policies and of Zionism, including Newman's colleague at Ben Gurion University Neve Gordon, have often been in the target of vociferous attacks, calls for them to be marginalised, and accusations of being "collaborators" with those out to destroy the Jews.

I don't think though that Gross's attack on Newman is an example of a pro-Israeli attempt to suppress dissent. For one thing, Newman's colleagues have rallied round in support and other UK-based supporters of Ben Gurion University have distanced themselves from Gross. Rather, the whole incident is an example of something much more prosaic and pathetic, but ultimately no less worrying: Gross's hate-fuelled emails were symptomatic of the ways in which debates about Israel seem to cause some people to lose all self-control. Gross was so blinded by anger and fear that he lost his sense of proportion and sense of dignity.

So it is that much of the time the "sinister" machinations of pro-Israel activists tend in fact to be ill-thought through explosions of anger caused by a terrible sense of vulnerability. The conviction that Israel is the only way that Jewish survival in a hostile world can be assured; the belief that Israel is currently under serious existential threat; the fear that western intellectuals are legitimising genocidal Islamism under the cover of pro-Palestinian activism: all these anxieties are real and very difficult to live with. It is no surprise that for those who hold these opinions, the sight of Jews collaborating with "those who are out to destroy us" is not only enraging – it is terrifying.

This is not just a problem among supporters of Israel. Jewish critics of Israel are every bit as capable of losing control. The anger amongst Jewish pro-Palestinian activists at being marginalised and insulted by pro-Israeli activists is very real. The fear that what it means to be a Jew is being perverted by occupation and oppression is genuinely held.

The vulnerability and the sense that one's very being is under assault is shared by Jews across the spectrum of views over Israel. I have been to many public meetings about Israel within the Jewish community and invariably there will come a time when a speaker from the platform or from the floor will stand up trembling with anger at the remarks of someone else attending. People who are civil and capable of calm debate in every other area of their life, often "lose it" when Israel is discussed.

I run a project called New Jewish Thought that attempts to improve the civility of debate within the Jewish community. Over the last couple of years I have been bringing Jews from across the spectrum, including communal leaders, together in attempt to develop a different tone in disputes over Israel. One of the things I've learned is how hurt people on all sides of the debate over Israel are. Michael Gross's hate mails to David Newman are further evidence of this.

We need a "peace process", not just between Israelis and Palestinians, but within the Jewish community itself. When grown adults behave like children, it's time to question whether there is another way for people to express themselves.


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