Turbulent Times

Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today

by Keith Kahn-Harris and Ben Gidley

 Compelling discussion of transformations within British Jewry in recent times.

  • Imprint: Continuum
  • Pub. date: 23 Sep 2010
  • ISBN-10: 1847144764
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847144768

248 Pages, paperback. Also available in:  hardcover/eBook.

Read an excerpt at Amazon.


The first book-length study of contemporary British Jewry , Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Todayexamines the changing nature of the British Jewish community and its leadership since 1990.Keith Kahn-Harris and Ben Gidley contend that there has been a shift within Jewish communal discourse from a strategy of security, which emphasized Anglo-Jewry’s secure British belonging and citizenship, to a strategy of insecurity, which emphasizes the dangers and threats Jews face individually and communally. This shift is part of a process of renewal in the community that has led to something of a ‘Jewish renaissance’ in Britain.Addressing key questions on the transitions in the history of Anglo-Jewish community and leadership, and tackling the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’, this important and timely study addresses the question: how has UK Jewry adapted from a shift from monoculturalism to multiculturalism?

Table of Contents

Introduction 1. Jewish Community, Jewish Leadership 2. Insecurity and the Problem of Jewish Continuity 3. Conceptualizing Jewish Continuity 4. Practising Jewish Continuity 5. Re-imagining Anti-Semitism 6. Combating the New Anti-Semitism  Conclusion: Towards a Dialogic Jewish Community  Bibliography  Index


Keith Kahn-Harris, Keith Kahn-Harris is Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society at Birkbeck College, University of London, UK, and the convenor of New Jewish Thought (www.newjewishthought.org). His website is http://www.kahn-harris.org

Ben Gidley, Ben Gidley is Senior Researcher at the COMPAS Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, Oxford University.


“There is a paradox at the centre of Jewish life in modern Britain. On the one hand Jews are arguably the most successfully integrated ethnic minority in Britain today. On the other, they feel marginalized and – still – unwelcome. Drs. Kahn-Harris and Gidley offer us the first scholarly dissection of this paradox. Their conclusions – based on the exhaustive examination of written and oral sources – will surprise many. But these conclusions could also offer the blueprint for a renewed engagement between Britain’s Jews and the British state.” – Geoffrey Alderman, Michael Gross Professor of Politics & Contemporary History, University of Buckingham, UK

The study provides a wealth of information on an important topic. – Jewish Book World

A book well worth reading! – Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter

The authors are a pair of talented men of academia and beyond… fair-minded, serious, and usually cautious in their assessments. They value calm discussion and seek to broaden the dialogue with Jews of all stripes, whether affiliated or not… Provides a wealth of information on an important topic. – Jewish Book Council

Links: On Keith’s website

Buy on  Amazon.co.uk /  Review in Journal of Modern Jewish Studies volume 12, no.2, 2013 / Review in Jewish Socialist magazine, summer 2011 / Review in the Jewish Quarterly by Tony Lerman, Winter 2010/2011 [download a scan here] / Review in the Jewish Chronicle by Miri Freud-Kandel, December 1 2010 / Interview with the authors in the Jewish Chronicle, July 28 2010 / Short article in British Religion in Numbers, July 2010 / Article promoting the book by Keith Kahn-Harris in Ekklesia, July 2010 / Review in the Jewish Journal of Sociology, volume 53, 2011 / Review by Geoffrey Alderman in The Journal of Modern Jewish Studies / Review by Heather Miller Rubens in the Journal of Religion / Review at Jewish Book Council / Google Scholar citations /  Google Books

 By Simon Round, July 28, 2010
Keith Kahn-Harris and Ben Gidley

Keith Kahn-Harris and Ben Gidley

Look at Britain’s Jews from the outside and you will see a shining success story. An influx of poverty-stricken refugees a century ago has evolved into a middle-class community with superb educational facilities, vibrant cultural life and outstanding achievement in many fields.

However, from the inside, it looks very different, say Keith Kahn-Harris and Ben Gidley. The two academics have written a book entitled Turbulent Times, an analysis of the Jewish community over the past 20 years. British Jews, they claim, are worried about their shrinking numbers, are riven by religious divisions and by a growing rift over Israel, and are scared by what is perceived as a new and virulent form of antisemitism. But Kahn-Harris and Gidley do not paint a gloomy picture of the community today. On the contrary, they argue that the fears and insecurities faced by Jews over the past 20 years or so have encouraged a period of renewal and re-assessment which has produced a far stronger, more vital community.

Gidley explains that an important part of the change the community has undergone emanated from a belated acceptance of Britain as a multicultural society. He explains: “Our community developed in a mono-cultural society in which we were told to identify as loyal, white British subjects. This model was so successful that we were lagging behind other communities in adapting to multiculturalism, and didn’t really get a place at the multicultural table until much later. Finally, in the 1990s, this did happen. ”

This process of Jews acquiring self-confidence and expressing pride in their identity resulted in a cultural flowering which Kahn-Harris attributes in great part to the contribution of the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. “It might be seen as controversial to say this in certain quarters, but we are relatively positively inclined towards Jonathan Sacks, although the office of the Chief Rabbi cannot be seen as anything other than anachronistic. In the 1990s he raised an agenda which had to be raised and he raised it in very public and almost a brave way. He was not the only one responsible for the changes that occurred but he was a major factor in turning around the supertanker.”

This agenda manifested itself in concern about assimilation and inter-marriage and provoked the formation of Jewish Continuity, an initiative aimed at answering the question: “Will we have Jewish grandchildren?” as well as the concept of renewal of the community.

There is an irony, says, Kahn-Harris, in the fact that these initiatives led inadvertently to the growth of anti-establishment and subversive movements such as Jewdas. “The Chief Rabbi and Jewdas are connected. Even if both abhor each other, they are both connected to a more general trend that the Chief Rabbi set in motion. It shows that sometimes things can have unintended results. Even if the Chief Rabbi had in mind the idea of halachically Jewish people doing 100 per cent halachically Jewish things, his renewal set in train something much wider.”

Kahn-Harris and Gidley argue that the cultural flowering of new institutions, movements and organisations, the most striking of these being Limmud, might have been partly in response to the Chief Rabbi’s initiative but evolved separately from the community hierarchy which was slower to adapt. Says Kahn-Harris: “Neither the Chief Rabbinate, the United Synagogue nor the Board of Deputies has changed radically in the past 20 years but the community is more vibrant. This shows what is possible within the existing structures. But it also shows how much creativity has gone into bypassing these structures – not perhaps with the intention of destroying them. Limmud certainly doesn’t intend to replace the Chief Rabbinate or the Board, but rather to bypass them and create a kind of reverse takeover.”

So are the official community structures becoming irrelevant amid this political and cultural flowering? Gidley thinks not. “Within all communities there are centrifugal tendencies of creativity on the margins and there are also centralising tendencies. Without the community organisations there would be no community and without marginal voices like that of Jewdas there would be stagnation.”

One of the other significant changes in the community dates from the beginning of the 21st century with the identification of a new kind of antisemitism coming from Islamist groups. Kahn-Harris claims: “Unlike inter-marriage and assimilation, the problem of antisemitism is hugely controversial. It feeds into the issue of Israel which is increasingly a source of discord. There is among mainstream organisations an acceptance that there is something called the new antisemitism but this is not a consensus shared across the community.”

However Gidley is convinced that this new form is something we should all fear. “The numbers are clear. Antisemitic incidents are up and its nature has changed – the old-fashioned enemies of the far right have been replaced by a new threat. However, although we are right to take precautions to protect ourselves, it needs to be dealt with in a measured way.”

While the religious divide between the various denominations remain as wide as ever, the real rift in the community comes from elswehere, says Kahn Harris. “Since the Stanmore Accords in the early 1990s, there is not the same outward conflict. Everyone knows where they stand. People have bypassed these divisions and tried to make them irrelevant.” The same cannot be said of the issue of Israel, where pro-Palestinian movements such as Independent Jewish Voices have provoked serious hostility from those who have maintained their support for Israel.

However, the future, say the pair, is bright as long as the community continues to tolerate discussion between its various wings. As Kahn-Harris says: “We should be celebrating our diversity, and be open to this cultural renaissance. Let’s hope the vibrancy of contemporary British Jewry is not a flash in the pan.”

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