About 3 or 4 years ago I attended a fascinating day conference hosted by the Joseph Foundation (which works for dialogue between Muslims and Jews) on fighting Islamaphobia and Anti-Semitism. The speakers were excellent and the level of engagement and passion from all was clear. There were issues we could all work together on and common struggles for both communities. There was a shared issue, however, that didn’t get a mention, and I think it is an important one to name, even if it is uncomfortable to do it when we are together.
That is that some, but not all of the Jewish community are, at times, Islamaphobic, and that some, but not all of the Muslim community are, at times, Anti-Semitic. If we are going to consider fighting prejudice and discrimination in the world, we must also acknowledge our own hatreds, and, where possible, challenge the language of intolerance and phobia where we hear it. I know both Muslims and Jews who do go out of their way to defend each other within their communities, but there is a long way to go.
These issues are of course complicated by the politics and troubles of Israel and Palestine. A large proportion of my interfaith work has been an attempt to bring Muslims and Jews into trusting relationships so that conversations can be held in which the pain and trauma felt by both sides can be named, without it destroying the conversation. If we do not name it, it is the elephant in the room, present with us anyway, and while I might lament the fact that what happens a long way away in a different place of the world affects our conversations here, it is a reality that cannot be ignored. There is a long way to go.
But many of us, within the Jewish and Muslim communities, are working towards making these goals a reality. I have heard Jews bemoan the fact that they never hear the so-called ‘moderate majority’ of Muslims condemning terrorism or anti-Semitism, and I am glad to be able to show them where this is happening, and why it is rarely reported! Likewise I know Muslim friends struggle to convince family and friends that all Jews do not bear an innate distrust and fear of their Muslim neighbours, and that they do not control the world or the banks. But interfaith work is often a very slow project, which takes time to build, and works best when numbers are intimate and encounter is therefore made more real. How will we communicate as a tiny Anglo Jewish community of only 260,000 that many of us do want to meet in understanding, support, friendship, similarity and difference. That we do wish to fight Islamaphobia, and have our Muslim friends fight Anti-Semitism (for how much stronger is the fight when one does not need to defend oneself). This communication is made that much harder when the voices of discord and extremism are so much more newsworthy (again, a phenomenon I know many Muslims struggle against too). We all know that voices like Pamela Geller’s, for example are more interesting to print than reporting a successful Jewish Muslim women’s dialogue group, just as the murder of a soldier by 2 British Muslims will be far more widely reported than Muslim’s hosting neighbours and Jews for Iftar.
If Jews heard the voices of Muslim’s who challenge Anti-Semitism, and vice-versa, this would go some way to allaying the fears that ultimately lead to prejudice. Sadly much of this prejudice on both sides comes down to ignorance and a lack of encounter. When we do not know each other, it is far too easy to demonise one another. When I first saw the film ‘The Infidel’ in which Omid Djalili plays a Muslim who discovers he was adopted and was actually born Jewish, I was utterly depressed by it. It just seemed to re-iterate all the stereotypes and caricatures that both Muslims and Jews struggle against. Yet maybe it was important to have them laid out in front of us, so that in naming those prejudices (which of course are not universally held) we can begin to tackle them in both communities.
There are Jews and Muslims working together to do this, but until we can raise a generation of children who are comfortable with difference and confident in their own identities, we will inevitably find communities that build identity in fear of each other. Let’s work together to do this, and make sure our children are not strangers.
Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, Community Educator, Movement for Reform Judaism