Max Fararr

This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on From multiculturalism to muscular liberalism? Faith and the future of integration

Max FararrIsrael offers a lesson in the complexity of what passes for multiculturalism. A nation united by religion and national identity – but divided by class – the UK’s constant soul-searching about national unity could be informed by studying it in more depth. As David Cameron argues for a tough-minded liberalism, the multicultural, muscular Israeli state reminds us that hard-edged approach to difference and inequality can be dangerous.

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Sitting in our open-air campsite in the early evening at Har Amasa, our host David Benshabat said: ‘I think of myself as a Hebrew, rather than a Jew. Of course I respect Abraham, but it’s Moses who is my real guide’. Our group had just spent a week in the West Bank and was infused with compassion for Palestinian rights; we were to spend a week in Israel to try and understand the other side.

In this short article I will explain how our recent experience in Israel and Palestine might be related to the controversy in the UK over multiculturalism and the notion of ‘muscular liberalism’. The more visible expression of Islam has provoked the accusation that British multiculturalism has ‘gone too far’. In Israel the antagonism to people who might be Muslims is visible at every checkpoint. As David Cameron argues for a tough-minded liberalism, the multicultural, muscular Israeli state deploys armed and uniformed men and women on every corner.

MML MF1I had never been to Israel or Palestine before and much of what I’d read had to be modified with each new experience during this trip. David Benshabat presented me with the new idea that ‘Hebrews’ can be distinguished from ‘Jews’. In a state supposedly rooted in the Jewish religion it was instructive to hear from a man who had served in his government’s war in Lebanon that ‘Jewishness’ was, for some, an unsatisfactory identity. Later I found that ‘orthodox’ Israeli Jews can be as politically radical as ‘reform’ Jews are in the UK: Judaism became more complex for me each day.

We were in the Middle East to volunteer for a few days at The Tent of Nations, near Bethlehem, in the West Bank, and at Har Amasa, once a kibbutz and now a co-operative of families who want to live simply, within sight of Mount Hebron and the Negev desert. Volunteering – mainly digging the hard, dry earth – was combined with hiking sections of the trail being established by Abraham’s Path – a US-based non-profit – and visiting places of interest in Jericho, Bethlehem, Hebron and Jerusalem. There was a series of educational talks by our guide Daniel, colleagues of his in Israel and Palestine, and by friends of David.

‘Everywhere in Jerusalem Jewish religious identity is signified visibly, and Christian tourists are equally assertive’

In both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv Israelis are diverse, in terms of countries of origin and appearance, but otherwise they could be cities in two quite different countries. Everywhere in Jerusalem Jewish religious identity is signified visibly, and Christian tourists are equally assertive. But my friend Mark, who’d left the UK ten years ago because he was sick of the ‘routine anti-semitism’ he experienced in London, did not mark his identity. In Tel Aviv only when I was hugged by a young American man on a ‘Birthright’ course did ‘Jewishness’ come to the fore.

Israel is a lesson in the complexity of what passes for multiculturalism. Public debate in the UK usually (and wrongly) assumes that multiculturalism is a simple matter of ‘many cultures’ living together, and that these cultures are today increasingly separate. In Israel, however, it seemed that religion trumped skin colour, but class divisions remain ethnically marked: black African Jews clean the hotels and the streets. A nation united by religion and national identity, but divided by class. Britain’s soul-searching about national unity – always erasing class – could be informed by studying Israel.

At Har Amasa another type of unity narrative emerged. Eldon told us of the genetic and linguistic congruence of all the Semitic peoples in that region. David talked of the friendly relationships his family had had with Muslims in Morocco, his country of origin, and of the joint work he does with Palestinians in Israel, exploring wind energy and growing grapes.

MML MF2Hagit, another member of the Har Amasa community, told us of role of the (free) Israeli health service in tackling the high infant mortality rate among the Arab Israelis (about 20 per cent of the population). David cried as he recalled the efforts made to save the life of a Bedouin child. Perhaps the boundaries between Muslims and Jews are more porous than we had been told about while in the West Bank, just as ethnicity in the UK is more fluid than multiculturalism’s critics imagine?

Our group was a diverse crew assembled by the UK Friends of Abraham’s Path (UKFAP)[1] and Leeds Metropolitan University’s (LMU) international volunteering office. In their different ways, both UKFAP and LMU are committed multiculturalists. Most of our group were students or recent graduates, some with a Christian background, some atheists and two Muslims. Two of us were around 60 and two were in their 30s. We had done our best to attract people of all faiths in order to stimulate the widest possible debate among our group; unfortunately, our one Jewish recruit had to drop out.

As a co-organiser of the trip, I called it ‘experiential learning’. I have learned as much about multiculturalism by living and working in the mixed communities of Harehills and Chapeltown in Leeds as I have from books. Higher education in Britain remains too ‘ivory tower’, just as too many religious congregations and policy wonks stick too closely together and fail to learn from wider sources.

In particular, my daily life in the multicultural inner city had taught me how volatile and emotionally laden are the relationships between the various ethnic groups in the UK. This was particularly evident as I worked with people of African descent in the ‘Black Power’ period of the 1970s, and emotions were almost as high when Islamic identifications grew during the 1990s after the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. But, however fraught, experiential learning must complement library learning if we are to help form a new generation of people equipped emotionally as well as intellectually for our hyper-diverse, globalised world.[2]

Since the conflict between Israel and its neighbours, particularly the Palestinians, is one of the most important global issues it seemed right to offer this learning journey to young people. Mistakenly, I thought my knowledge of multicultural Britain might help me in the Middle East. I am a Board member of UKFAP and I had taken students along Abraham’s Path in Jordan, guided by Daniel, in 2008. Walking and talking about the Middle East, and helping to develop the infrastructure in remote villages for ‘responsible tourism’ had seemed like a good idea ever since. But this recent journey proved far more problematic.

Experiential learning engages our emotions. It pulls words off the page and into people’s mouths. It can turn calm situations into hot reality. As one of the students wrote after the trip:

It was interesting to notice how aggressive and angry I got (especially on that day in Hebron) …  I was really mad at those [Isreali] soldiers in Hebron and I had to think about how would I be if I was actually living in that kind of reality?

Another, currently training to be a school-teacher, wrote:

I was surprised at how emotional, complicated and deep the trip was for me – so much so I still have a lot to process and think about having come home.

Of course emotions can flare in a university seminar. But when they erupted in a group trip like this one, passions are less easy to absorb. Since learning is best consolidated in calm reflection, too much excitement can be a problem.

A sign at the entrance to the ‘Tent of Nations’

We spent three days at the farm called Tent of Nations just south of Bethlehem in the West Bank. Its 100 acres, owned by the (Christian) Nassar family since 1916 on the top of a low, green hill could be idyllic, with its olive trees, grapes, almonds, figs and animals. But it is in Area C, with four settlements on each of the four adjacent hills, each one hungry for the family’s land. These are brand-new, beautifully designed and constructed townships that glow with electric light each night.

The Tent of Nations has been in court since 1991 resisting Israeli efforts to take over their land. Its historic road to Bethlehem has been blocked. The family is refused passes to visit Jerusalem. It is denied access to piped water and electricity and forbidden to construct any buildings on the land. (We slept in tents; the family and long-term volunteers sleep in shelters called caves.) Solar-powered electricity – courtesy of German volunteers – had arrived only three years ago. Every drop of rainwater was collected in underground cisterns and carefully rationed. It was a tough ask of our young long-haired women to refrain from washing their hair. But they did. As one of our recent graduates wrote, ‘The experience has also made me appreciate having running water, electricity and overall freedom of movement’.

Class divisions, material inequality, are significant drivers of the divisions in Britain that are ascribed to the ‘problem’ of multiculturalism. Far more people are residentially segregated by income than they are by ethnicity. Conflict over housing allocation is more a matter of ‘free-market’ malfunction than it is of country of origin. So it was instructive to see that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is also as much to do with resources as it is with religion.

Although we didn’t witness military support for the settlements[3] near us, I’d seen the award-winning documentary ‘5 Broken Cameras’[4] so I knew how violent the Israeli forces can be when Palestinians demonstrate against the increasingly demanding settlers. The Nassar philosophy is simply to hold their land, using the courts and mobilizing world opinion, without any form of demonstration that might result in violence. The family won the hearts and minds of our group. Their warmth, good humour, resilience and hospitality would surely win over the hardest Israeli? Isn’t that the multicultural way? Dialogue and mutual understanding?

In Israel, Har Amasa’s material issues came to the fore again. While we heard about their work with local Arabs and the creation of an ecologically sound environment, the community had running water and no-one seemed to worry how much was used. We knew their water was the result of the Israeli government sequestrating most of the River Jordan. Our group enjoyed washing their hair, but felt guilty and outraged at the water-injustice.

Discussion of the plight of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and possible political solutions never got off the ground in Har Amasa. There were distinctly uncomfortable private conversations about the alleged Muslim threat in the UK, echoing the ‘They want to kill our children’ mantra we got from the Israeli security officials. Misinformation about different cultures is clearly as prevalent in Israel as it is in Britain. Dialogue is not as simple as we’d thought.

MML MF3Our conducted tour of the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem was designed to impress the group with the historic fact of mass killing in concentration camps that had propelled the agreement in 1947 to draw the national boundary for Israel on the land historically known as Palestine. Shlomo Sand[5] has explained that the Jewish people and its nation, like all other peoples, are a social and political construction. But there is something – attempted genocide – very specific about the invention of Israel.

I thought I’d already absorbed all the Holocaust horror from photos, films and books. But Yed Vashem tore me apart all over again. Our group, however, was hardly moved. This was partly because our guide, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, was just too good at her job. Everyone hates feeling manipulated, even in a good cause. But other factors were at work.

One was the oppression of the Palestinians. One of the group put it like this in the discussion we had that evening: ‘Of course the Holocaust is unforgivable, but it doesn’t justify the Israelis’ treatment of the Palestinians’. In a written reflection, another said: ‘Unfortunately, when we visited Israel I didn’t feel that the Israelis had much compassion for the Palestinians’. The museum was read not as the record of a world-shattering abomination but as PR for a heartless, armed state. My deeper fear was that a residue of anti-Jewishness, with its 3,000-year history, was circulating in our group.[6]

A Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Leeds

I should have been more thorough in investigating this possibility with the group. I knew that ‘the Jew’ has always been, as Zygmunt Bauman put it, ‘the prototype and arch-pattern of all nonconformtity, heterodoxy, anomaly and aberration’.[7] In my own research I noted that Chapeltown in Leeds, where successful Jews settled from the 1920s onwards, was described as ‘a little Israel’, ‘loyal to the age-old doctrines, precepts, customs and beliefs of the race [sic]’[8]

My failure to properly investigate this with the group reminds me that our discussion of multiculturalism in the UK fails to fully address religious prejudice. Just as we are wrongly assumed to be ‘post race’, we are unable properly to discuss antagonism to ‘the Jews’, except to denounce the far-right. That very denunciation functions to position ‘us’ as without fault.

In my experience, however, there are worryingly large numbers of Christians and Muslims in the UK who are hostile to Jews. While I can have a private argument with them, I cannot recall any public debate about this.[9] (Similarly, Hindu fundamentalist antagonism to Muslims is largely ignored in the UK.)

The possibility of such a debate is further eroded by the (quite proper) legitimization of a nation called Israel, whatever the aberrations of its government. That multicultural state, which works so effectively to secure national unity among the 80 per cent of its members who are Jewish, with many of the attributes of a liberal democracy in the social sphere, is unique among Western-style societies in it ubiquitous deployment of fit, strong, youthful men and women in uniform. I was continually reminded that I was in a very strong state. It made me think again about David Cameron’s circulation of the term ‘muscular liberalism’.

David Cameron espoused this notion in a 2011 speech on ‘radicalisation and Islamic extremism’. He said:

We need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism.  A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone.  It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them.[10]

He then set out values which I have no doubt the large majority Israelis and Britons agree with: ‘Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality’. (On sexuality, of course, all religious fundamentalists of all denominations disagree with the Prime Minister.)

Being ‘muscular’ about those values seems, for Cameron, to mean being less tolerant of those who disagree with them, and more active in their pursuit. In an earlier speech, however, he said that the threat of terrorism ‘demands an effective and unyielding security response’.[11] This is the language of proponents of the strong state. Cameron’s ‘muscular’ remarks came in the context of an attack on Islamic extremism which was widely read as an attack on Muslims. Since he blamed ‘state multiculturalism’ – almost hegemonic in the UK in the 1990s – for the emergence of this extreme form of Islam, Cameron’s remarks both divided the nation where he sought to unite it, and alarmed liberals who prefer a softer, nurturing form of state.

Our trip to Israel and Palestine reinforced my sense that the more muscular the state, the more divided is your society. Israeli Arabs feel themselves to be excluded and second class within their own country. Palestinians find their land occupied by a hostile power with a monopoly of violence, and find their rights abrogated in much the same way that the British occupied and controlled the peoples of its colonies. Like the British, the Israelis have constructed an ‘other’ and used it to justify their domination, just as ruling elites and their allies have constructed the Jews, and used them for the same ends.

Our group learned a lot about ‘hope’ – it was actually the name of one of the Nassar family. Both Israelis and Palestinians live in hope of a better future. All of Britain’s diverse populations do too. However forlorn that hope seems today in the Middle East, there is every reason to believe, if we hang on to the ideals of multiculturalism, we can make progress in the UK.

Roy Jenkins, while Home Secretary in 1966, set out his vision of ‘integration’ as ‘not a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’.[12] Tolerance does not mean agreement, and perhaps we have celebrated diversity when we should have spent more time negotiating diversity, but being ‘muscular’ about difference is counter-productive.

Max Farrar is a sociologist with research interests in ‘race’ and ethnicity. In 2009 he retired from Leeds Metropolitan University where he was Professor for Community Engagement. In that role he developed the university’s local and international volunteering activities, which included forming a partnership with the Abraham’s Path Initiative in the USA. www.maxfarrar.org.uk

[1] UKFAP is a British charity that promotes Abrahamic values, mainly by facilitating walking in the Middle Eastern countries to which we have access (currently southern Turkey, Jordan, Palestine and Israel). Full information can be found at: http://abrahamspath.org.uk/.

[2] See Max Farrar, ‘How Can We Meet “the Demands of the Day”? Producing an Affective, Reflexive, Interpretive, Public Sociology of “race”’, Ethnic and Racial Studies (forthcoming 2013). Available also at http://maxfarrar.org.uk.

[3] I had never understood the Israeli settlements. How could the government sponsor building that is deemed illegal by most of the rest of the world? I learned that the Palestinian Authority (PA) had somehow agreed that some parts of the West Bank, designated Area C, could be run by Israel, thus the PA had no response to the continual building around The Tent of Nations. (Area B is jointly run by the PA and Israel. Area A is the diminishing part of the West Bank run by the PA.) No-one had a good word for the PA.

[4] 5 Broken Cameras (2012), a 90 minute documentary directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, is reviewed by Philip French here http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/oct/21/5-broken-cameras-review Accessed 24.7.13

[5] Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People (London & New York: Verso, 2009).

[6] David Roth reviews David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (2013) here http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-roth/review-of-david-nirenberg_b_3175416.html Accessed 23.7.13.

[7] Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Polity, 1989)

[8] Max Farrar The Struggle for ‘Community’ in a British Multi-ethnic Inner-city Area (Lewiston, Queenston & Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2002).

[9] David Cameron’s 2008 speech to the (Jewish) Community Security Trust has been brought to my attention by the PublicSpirit editor. Cameron eloquently condemns anti-semitic attacks (including Jewish visitors to Brick Lane in east London being bricked by hooligan ‘local youths’). But the only press commentary I can find on this speech is in the Jewish Chronicle. The speech is available here http://www.conservatives.com/News/Speeches/2008/03/David_Cameron_Speech_to_the_Community_Security_Trust.aspx Accessed 7.8.13

[10] PM’s speech at the Munich Security Conference, 5 February 2011, available at

https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pms-speech-at-munich-security-conference accessed 23.7.13.

[11] Significantly, this remark was in a speech which praised the Community Security Trust’s deployment of young men and women outside Synagogues in case of attack. Cameron also said that Pauline Neville-Jones (now Minister of State for Security and Counter Terrorism) was to visit Israel to learn more about their security system. Delivered on 4.3.08 and available here

http://www.conservatives.com/News/Speeches/2008/03/David_Cameron_Speech_to_the_Community_Security_Trust.aspx  Accessed 7.8.13

[12] Roy Jenkins, ‘Racial Equality in Britain’ in Essays and Speeches (London: Collins, 1967).

The image of Jerusalem is included courtesy of Shmuel Spiegelman and is are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license. The image of the Tent of Nations is included courtesy of Gied ten Berge and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The image of the Jewish cemetery in Leeds is included courtesy of Betty Longbottom and is licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

One Response to “Walking-talking-volunteering”

  1. Rose Berl

    After attending your talk at St.John`s University on October 17th, I was interested to read your written reflection on your visit to Israel and Palestine. As we briefly discussed after your presentation, there is a danger of the iron-fisted Israeli government being chosen as the representative of all Israelis, even of all Jews, as Islamic fundamemtalists such as the Taliban are sometimes chosen as representatives of all Muslims. I wouldn`t want other peoples to judge me by our present British government!


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