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Building bridges between Britain’s Jews and Muslims to build community cohesion

Submitted by on 23 Nov 2010 – 15:52

By Mark Gardner, Director of Communications at Community Security Trust, the body responsible for monitoring anti-Semitism across the UK

Discussing the relationship between British Muslims and British Jews is a delicate task, requiring nuance, context and linguistic precision. The absence of these factors facilitates a one dimensional, and ultimately racist, mindset, towards either or both communities.

Regrettably, the discussion risks reinforcing the notion that both communities are homogenous, and should be treated by politicians and media as if they were opposing images of one another. In reality, both communities are far more politically and socially diverse than normally portrayed. Furthermore, representative bodies of both communities have complex internal dynamics, largely unseen and inadequately considered by external observers.

When discussing communities, our attention is drawn to the noisy extremes and the silent majority is overlooked. Most Jews and most Muslims appear content to keep their heads down and get on with their lives. Dig a little and you may well discover fear, prejudice, or even outright contempt and hatred for ‘the Muslims’ or ‘the Jews’.  However, if there was significant conflict between the two communities then it would be perfectly obvious to all of society.

There is, however, a very real and enduring conflict between Israel and the Palestinians over which British Jews and Muslims have three choices: they can ignore it, they can import it here, or they can mutually set an example of how Jews and Muslims can live in peace and harmony.

Good news stories seldom make headlines. Typically, there was little coverage when a large range of British Muslim leaders and scholars issued a condemnation of attacks on British Jews during the unprecedented surge of anti-Semitism in January 2009, at the time of the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Many other groups and individuals in both communities are constantly working to break through the negativity that surrounds perceptions of Jews and Muslims within their respective communities. Some mosques and synagogues have purposefully made links between their leaders and congregations, meaning they pull together rather than apart at times of overseas tension.

The Co-Existence Trust and Aliph-Aleph are two joint Jewish-Muslim organisations dedicated to bridge-building; but there are many representative bodies and campaigning groups from both communities on the lookout for collaborative opportunities.

For example, my own organisation, CST, is regularly cited by police and politicians as Britain’s leading example of responsible community self-defence and security. The Muslim community faces both far right terrorism and Islamophobic street demonstrations, and lacks a unified internal system for the reporting of anti-Muslim attacks and threats. My colleagues and I have therefore participated in many meetings and conferences with Muslim groups and representatives, advising how they can develop the necessary infrastructures. We have also strenuously advised Jews not to fall for the Islamophobic scapegoating of the BNP and others.

All these activities humanise and normalise the perceptions that Jews and Muslims hold towards one another. It is vital and urgent work, as both communities have become polarised since the 9/11 attacks; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the invasions and conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq; and the 7/7 bombings.

Judaism predates Islam and therefore has no particular religious instruction about it. (The story of Isaac and Ishmael is invoked to portray the origin of Jews and Arabs respectively, but not specifically regarding Muslims.) Politically, however, the ongoing Middle East conflict has led too many Jews to regard and fear Muslims as being an anti-Semitic and pro-terrorist monolith.

Islamic religious discourse concerning Jews is mixed, with the negatives being rooted in the Jewish rejection of Mohammed and the modern establishment – and actions – of a Jewish state in what is regarded by Muslims as their land. Politically, belief in Jewish conspiracy theory (often expressed as Zionist conspiracy, and ironically of European origin) appears to be worryingly widespread, with “Zionists” being sincerely blamed for the 9/11 attacks; anti-Muslim media scrutiny; the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; and dozens more local and global political, economic, diplomatic and media phenomena.

This rhetoric is often pushed by British and UK-based followers of pan-Islamist groups, including the influential Muslim Brotherhood. It is bad, stupid politics that blames everything upon a fictitious, infinitely malleable and invisible enemy. To the extreme concern of British Jews, such propaganda can now be heard within the Palace of Westminster itself, where it is tolerated – and occasionally even echoed – by a small number of vocal MPs and Peers.

It is desperately sad that in modern Britain we still have to stress that there is no such thing as a Jewish conspiracy, not even a “Zionist” one. Fulminating against a non-existent “Zionist” target only deepens frustration and incites hatred, which suits extremist goals of fostering anger against Israel and “the West”, but represents a dead end for British Muslims and Jews alike.

The sooner these lessons are learnt, the quicker we can get on with building a better Britain for all of its citizens.