The English Defence League professes support for Israel but has been condemned by Jewish groups. Photograph: Getty Images
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We need Muslim-Jewish unity against the far right

How can religious divisions be overcome in order to fight racism?

We know that a racist far right is rising across Europe. We know that it is doing so directly, through elections, and covertly, by pushing a hateful doctrine into national conversations. We also know that far-right politics has shape-shifted; it isn’t OK to be showily anti-Semitic and so the focus has moved to Muslims, who, apparently, are a more acceptable target for scapegoating and abuse.

Jews and Muslims would no doubt benefit from uniting against this threat. But in the UK that isn’t happening enough, and not enough of what does take place is on a large scale. Ask why not and the obvious answer is that deep affiliations to opposing sides in the politics of the Middle East cause rifts between British Jews and Muslims, making the very thought of unity unpalatable. One perennial hold-up of the Israel-Palestine conflict also sours Muslim-Jewish relations in Britain: a failure of leadership to step up, or to act with courage.

But let’s not charge in with negative assessments. There are numerous healthy ventures – we just don’t hear much about them, partly because “Muslims and Jews get along” isn’t a story deemed to be worth writing at the moment.

“It is not bleak, empty and hopeless by any means,” says Jonathan Wittenberg, senior rabbi of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues. “There is awareness that racism is the enemy of both and there is alertness to Muslim-Jewish relations, to the huge importance of this work.”

This awareness shows up in pockets across the country, at Muslim-Jewish forums and anti-racism conferences, through university campus activities and various other projects – the joint-faith creative crews Alif-Aleph and Muju, or the Joseph Interfaith Foundation and dialogue group, or the Coexistence Trust, which works with Jewish and Muslim students. It shows up when Muslim and Jewish groups work together over challenges such as security around religious venues, or dietary requirements – in the case of halal/kosher meat, there is unity in the face of potential bans. It shows up when English Defence League rallies in the East End of London are faced down by Muslims and Jews marching together, as happened in September last year. And it was there in the 2010 UK elections, when multi-faith groups urged caution over the far right.

Raw emotion

The biggest block to connection is the Israel-Palestine conflict – such an emotional, identity-defining issue that, as one interfaith worker
put it, “people aren’t prepared to park it”. Campaigners trying to get the two groups together, however, say that it must be parked – not ignored (that is impossible) and not proscribed (as some people are attempting to insist happens on UK campuses), but set aside.
“We can’t treat a whole group of people on the basis of something that is happening elsewhere, crucial though that is,” says Julie Siddiqi, of the Islamic Society of Britain. “Our focus has to be Britain: this is our home; how do we make it better?”

If Muslim and Jewish groups are to succeed in tackling anti-Semitism and Islamophobia together, anti-Israel or anti-Zionist views cannot be dismissed automatically as anti-Semitic. To do so undermines attempts at joint discussion. “Almost invariably, you can tell when anti-Zionism is becoming anti-Semitic because you will find the usual tropes of anti-Semitism,” says Antony Lerman, a British writer and former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. “You can have a fine ear to that and make a logical case against it.” Lerman believes that laying down such ground rules may help counter a growing tendency among British Jews and their community leadership to define anti-Zionism as necessarily anti-Jewish.

Jewish leadership and media in the UK have stalled matters further by attempting to police the conversation. The Jewish Chronicle last year lambasted both a liberal rabbi and a Jewish family foundation for talking to Muslims it deemed extremist. In 2009, the Board of Deputies of British Jews advised the Labour government: “Any future engagement with umbrella groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain must be contingent on them representing a greater range of views than those of the Islamists.”

Vivian Wineman, president of the board, says that his organisation is “willing to engage in dialogue but not with people who hold racist
or anti-Semitic views”. He cites Daud Abdullah, a former executive of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), as an example. In February 2009, in a personal capacity, Abdullah signed a declaration in Istanbul that condemned Israel’s “malicious Jewish Zionist war over Gaza”. Critics alleged that the so-called Istanbul Declaration supported violence against Israel and condoned attacks on British troops, should they assist in the blockade of Gaza. “We have to put a marker down,” Wineman says.

Abdullah maintains he is not an anti-Semite, and clarified reports by saying he has never condoned violence against the Jewish community. Farooq Murad, secretary general of the MCB, states: “We have written again and again to the Board of Deputies to say we are open to debate. The MCB is not anti-Semitic – we should be talking about the subject and they would find we can be partners in challenging anti-Semitism.”

Muslim interfaith workers say gatekeeping goes on in their communities, too. A British campaigner speaks of instances where any discussions with Jewish organisations that self-define as “Zionist” are ruled out, an approach that excludes a majority of British Jews.

While Jewish groups can conflate “Muslim” with “Islamist” and be blind to the divergent shades of political Islam, British Muslims can be equally oblivious to the spectrums of Judaism and Zionism and the constant debates about both. Leaders may talk of sharing cups of tea and common causes, but the imposition of “red lines” – topics that cannot be discussed openly – has stopped people who might want to have frank conversations from doing so, because they fear repercussions from their respective communities.

Crossing the line

Muslim and Jewish campaigners are trying to counter this effect. “My political tradition is not with a scared Jewish leader who is not sure if they should meet someone who three weeks ago met with someone who doesn’t like all things Jewish,” says Alexander Goldberg, the Jewish chaplain at the University of Surrey, who is also an international interfaith activist. “Rather, as Jews, we should enter into dialogue and where necessary challenge misconceptions and worse, not bury our heads in the sand.”

Goldberg warns that too much talk of conflict could exacerbate the problem. “Portrayal is an important part of this,” he says. “If you say again and again that there is a problem between Muslims and Jews, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

At this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony, Dr Shuja Shafi, the current deputy general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, was asked to light one of the commemoration candles. This ended an excruciating period during which the MCB had refused to attend the memorial, claiming that the event wasn’t sufficiently inclusive. Rokhsana Fiaz, executive director of the Coexistence Trust, says more British Muslims are criticising the failures of an established leadership. “The whole debacle [over the Memorial Day ceremony] was stupid and there was no need for it,” she says. “It led to a deepening of a fault line and understandable nervousness on the part of the Jewish community. It was a serious impediment in terms of us being able to progress with this work.”

Fiaz has concerns that the approach by what she calls the “established Muslim leadership” to Muslim-Jewish unity has been “at best naive, cack-handed and inexperienced, and at worst has wilfully framed the debate in terms of particular ideological terms that serve no purpose for the whole community”.

In December 2010 Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right Freedom Party, the third-largest political party in the Netherlands, made one of several visits to Israel, where he met with the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. The two men had a “long and good” conversation and Wilders gave a speech in Tel Aviv in which he talked of Israel as the front line of the far right’s counter-jihad ideology. “[Israelis] are fighting our fight . . . If Jerusalem falls, Amsterdam and New York will be next.”

Wilders was not the only far-right politician Israel was hosting; in the same week, Heinz-Christian Strache of Austria’s Freedom Party and Filip Dewinter, a leader of the far-right Vlaams Belang in Belgium, toured the West Bank and voiced their support for settlers.

Thanks to far-right parties’ association with anti-Semitism, they have long found it difficult to enter the political mainstream. Vidhya Ramalingam, a programme associate at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which has researched the rise of the radical far right in Europe, says such movements are now actively trying to canvass Jewish support in order to soften their image. “We see leading [far-right] figures visiting Israel and saying positive things while keeping Islamophobic statements alive,” she says. “Far-right groups pick on polemical, divisive issues between Jews and Muslims. If they tap into something that resonates with someone’s personal identity, it can have a powerful impact, acting on latent Islamophobia.”

A small Jewish faction of the EDL exists within the UK, but the Board of Deputies and the Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-Semitic incidents in the UK, have urged British Jews not to fall for it. They have condemned the EDL’s open use of Israeli flags at demonstrations.

Small wonder that a lot of the unity work happens only quietly. It is exasperating, exhausting and often frightening to stand on this scrap of a rug of coexistence when bullying voices are shouting from all directions, and when are people determined not only to pull the rug from under your feet but to unpick all its threads and burn it, too. The unity conversations continue to take place informally, sometimes between individuals whose official position is not to talk, yet to keep such discussions off-radar may be counterproductive.

“Those already comfortable with this topic need to be finding each other and bringing the conversation to the centre,” says Julie Siddiqi. The rise of the far right, she argues, is the great challenge of our time. “Jews and Muslims have to be coming together. As uncomfortable as it may be, we need to see above, see beyond. We have to do it.”

Rachel Shabi is the author of “Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands” (Yale University Press, £10.99)

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?

ALEXEI FATEEV/ALAMY
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The Catalan cauldron

The prospect of the break-up of Spain poses yet another challenge to Europe.

As Britain prepares to mark the centenary of the bloodiest battle in the First World War, the Somme, in July, Spain is bracing itself for an even more traumatic anniversary. In July 2016 it will be 80 years since the start of a civil war that tore the country apart and continues to divide it today. In the four decades since the return of democracy in the mid-1970s, Spaniards slowly inched towards rejecting the extreme violence of the Francoist right (and elements of the opposing left) as well as acceptance of various federal arrangements to accommodate the national sentiments of the Basques and Catalans, whose aspirations Franco had so brutally suppressed. In recent years, however, this consensus has been called fundamentally into question, with severe potential consequences not only for the unity of Spain, but the cohesion of the European Union.

On 27 October 2015, after the Catalan elections, the new parliament in Barcelona passed a declaration requesting the start of a formal secession process from Spain, to be in place in 18 months. The immediate reaction of Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was to announce that the state was entitled “to use any available judicial and political mechanism contained in the constitution and in the laws to defend the sovereignty of the Spanish people and of the general interest of Spain”. The preamble to the constitution proclaims the Spanish nation’s desire to “protect all Spaniards and the peoples of Spain in exercising their ­human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions”. Probably the most disputed articles are 2 and 8, which state, respectively, that “the constitution is based upon the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, common and indivisible patria of all Spaniards” and that “the army’s mission is to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain, to defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional set-up”. Rajoy’s implication was clear: the unity of the country would be maintained, if necessary by military means.

It was Madrid, however, that broke with the federal consensus some years ago and thus boosted secessionist sentiment in Catalonia. José María Aznar’s government (1996-2004) failed to respond to demands for greater autonomy for Catalonia, at a time when secession was not even mentioned. This led to an increasing awareness among Catalans that the federal transfer system within Spain left them with an annual deficit of 8 per cent of Catalonia’s GDP because of the financial arrangements established by the Spanish state, an issue aggravated by the effect of the global financial crisis. Catalan nationalism thus became a matter of not only the heart, but also the pocket. Even more important was the Spanish legal challenge to the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia 2006 and its subsequent dilution, after it had been sanctioned by the Catalan parliament, and by both the Spanish congress of deputies and the senate, not to mention the Catalan people in a legally binding referendum.

According to the Spanish high court of justice, some of the statute’s content did not comply with the Spanish constitution. This outraged many Catalans, who could not understand how the newly approved statute – after following all the procedures and modifications requested by Spain’s political institutions and constitution – could still be challenged. Four years later, the Spanish high court finally delivered its verdict on 28 June 2010. It removed vital points from the Statute of Autonomy 2006 and declared them non-constitutional. All this led to a revival of Catalan nationalism, culminating in a symbolic, non-binding referendum in November 2014, which was boycotted by opponents and produced a majority of 80 per cent in favour of independence.

The roots of this antagonism go deep, to the civil war that broke out on 17-18 July 1936 when some sectors of the army rebelled against the legitimate government of the Second Republic. The rebels rejected democracy, the party system, separation between church and state, and the autonomy of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. Their primary objective was to re-establish “order” by eliminating all vestiges of communism and anarchism, then quite strong in some parts of Spain.

High on the list of General Franco’s targets was Catalan nationalism, which had been growing since the late 19th century. The industrialisation of Catalonia and the Basque Country left the most economically developed parts of the Spanish state politically subject to the less prosperous Castile. By the end of the 19th century and influenced by German Romanticism, la Renaixença – a movement for national and cultural renaissance – prompted demands for Catalan autonomy, first in the form of regionalism
and later in demands for a federal state.

Catalan nationalism did not emerge as a unified phenomenon. Diverse political ideologies and cultural influences gave rise to various types of nationalism, from the conservative nationalism of Jaime Balmes to the federalism of Francesc Pi i Margall, to the Catholic nationalism of Bishop Torres i Bages and the Catalan Marxism of Andreu Nin, among others. Catalonia enjoyed some autonomy under the administrative government of the Mancomunitat or “commonwealth” from 1913 onwards. This was halted by the 1923 coup d’état of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. Autonomy was granted again during the Second Spanish Republic from 1931-39 – but abolished by Francisco Franco’s decree of 5 April 1938.

Franco’s victory led to the suppression of Catalan political institutions, the banning of the Catalan language and proscription of all the symbolic elements of Catalan identity, from the national flag (the Senyera) to the national anthem (“Els Segadors”). In February 1939, the institutions of the autonomous Generalitat went into exile in France. In 1940 the Gestapo arrested the president of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, and handed him over to Spanish officials. He was interrogated and tortured in Madrid, then sent to Barcelona, where he was court-martialled and executed at Montjuïc Castle on 15 October 1940. The most important representatives of the democratic parties banned by the regime went into exile, or were imprisoned or executed. The authoritarian state designed by Franco crushed dissent and used brute power to suppress the historical nations included within its territory. The regime’s aim was to annihilate the Catalans and the Basques as nations.

***

After almost 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship, Catalonia recovered its government, the Generalitat, in 1977 – before the drafting of the Spanish constitution in 1978 – and sanctioned a new statute of autonomy in 1979. The 2006 statute was expected, at the time, to update and expand Catalans’ aspiration for further devolution within Spain: never secession.

At present, a renewed nostalgia and enthusiasm for Francoism can be found among some sections of the Spanish right. One of the main challenges of the newly democratic government from the mid-1970s onwards was to get rid of the symbols of Francoism that had divided Spaniards between “winners” and “losers” in the civil war. It was only in 2007 that the then prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, guided the Law of Historic Memory through parliament with the aim of removing hundreds of Fascist symbols reminiscent of the Franco era from public buildings. It also sought to make reparations to victims of the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship.

There still exist hundreds of other references to the Fascist regime, however, with streets, colleges and roads named after Franco and his generals. The most controversial of these is the Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”), near Madrid, commissioned by Franco as his final resting place. It supposedly honours the civil war dead, but is primarily a monument to the general and his regime, housing the graves of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange political party. Roughly 450,000 people visit it every year, and while most of them are foreign tourists, groups of Falangists and supporters of the old regime who come to pay tribute to the dictator have frequented it. Nostalgics for Francoism, though still a small minority within modern Spain, are becoming vociferous. They find common ground with far-right-wing conservatism, particularly in their shared aversion to federalism.

On 3 August last year Artur Mas, the then president of Catalonia, called an extraordinary parliamentary election after all attempts to negotiate and agree on a legally binding referendum with the Spanish government failed. Supporters of independence immediately announced that the forthcoming Catalan elections would be regarded as a plebiscite on independence.

On a turnout of more than three-quarters of the electorate, supporters of outright independence gained 48 per cent of the vote, while those backing a unitary state secured 39 per cent. On 9 November 2015 the Catalan parliament formally declared the start of the process leading to building an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic. It also proclaimed the beginning of a participative, open, integrating and active citizens’ constituent process to lay the foundations for a future Catalan constitution. The Catalan government vowed to move forward with its secession process. Immediately, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the Catalan law setting out a path to independence and warned that defiance could lead to criminal charges.

Worse still for Madrid, secessionism is gaining strength not only in Catalonia but also in the Basque Country, whose premier, Iñigo Urkullu, demands a “legal consultation” on the northern region’s future in Spain. He supports a new statute for the Basque Country and defends its status as a nation in the EU. Similarly to Catalonia, the Basque Country has a distinct language and culture, and benefits from the so-called concierto económico, an advantageous financial deal with the Spanish state.

***

The Spanish government’s refusal to engage constructively with Catalan nationalism contrasts markedly with London’s more relaxed and ultimately more successful response to Scottish nationalist aspirations. The “Edinburgh Agreement” between the British Prime Minister and the then first minister of Scotland to allow a binding referendum on Scottish independence stands in sharp contrast to the Spanish government’s outright opposition to a similar vote in Catalonia. Basques and Catalans find deaf ears regarding further devolution and binding referendums on self-determination. This highlights the distance between various conceptions of democracy that coexist inside the European Union, rooted in the diverse political cultures of nations with varying historical backgrounds.

All this matters, not only to Spain but to the EU, because it is part of a broad trend across the continent. In mainland Europe, demands for self-determination are running strong in Flanders as well as parts of Spain. In turn, tensions between Italy and Austria over control of South Tyrol (Trentino Alto Adige, to the Italians) remain high, as do demands advanced by the South Tyrol­ean secessionist movement. Bavarian regionalism is critical of the present German (and European) political order. Further to that, modern Venetian nationalism and its long-standing demands for independence have prompted a renewal of Venetian as a language taught in schools and spoken by almost four million people.

Matters are now coming to a head. Catalonia and Spain are in flux following two inconclusive elections. In January, after a prolonged stand-off, the sitting Catalan president, Artur Mas, made way for a fellow nationalist, Carles Puigdemont. He was the first to take the oath of office without making the traditional oath of loyalty to the Spanish constitution and the king. Felipe VI, in turn, did not congratulate Puigdemont.

The new president has announced that he plans to draw up a constitution, to be voted on in a referendum “to constitute the Catalan Republic” at the end of an 18-month consultation process. Puigdemont’s strategy envisages not a dramatic unilateral declaration
of independence, but a more gradual process of disconnection in constant dialogue with the Spanish government and Catalan political parties. Let no one be deceived by this “softly-softly” approach: it is designed to culminate, in a year and a half, perhaps sooner, in a vote on establishing a separate, sovereign state of Catalonia.

Meanwhile, Spanish politics are in flux. The elections to the Cortes on 20 December 2015 resulted in a victory for Conservatism, but also the most fragmented Spanish parliament ever and, as yet, no government. Almost the only thing the Spanish parties can agree on is opposition to Catalan independence, yet even here there are divisions over whether more autonomy should be granted and what response to make to unilateral moves by the Catalans.

The stakes are high for both sides. By pressing too hard, too early, Catalan nationalists may provoke Madrid. This would be a mistake. Strategy is important and recent events in Catalonia will weaken the Catalans’ democratic, peaceful and legitimate desire to hold a referendum on independence. Likewise, a heavy-handed response from Madrid will not only destroy the residual bonds between centre and periphery in Spain, but put the central government in the dock internationally. A confrontation will also cut across the only possible solution to this and all other national conflicts within the eurozone, which is full continental political union. Full union would render the separation of Catalonia from Spain as irrelevant to the functioning of the EU, and the inhabitants of both areas, as the separation of West Virginia from Virginia proper in the United States today.

In a nightmare scenario, radicalisation and unrest could emerge in Catalonia, with division between Catalans and memories of the Spanish Civil War coming to the fore. In this context, it might become very difficult to prevent violence.

This is the last thing that Brussels wants to hear as it grapples with the euro crisis, Russian territorial revisionism, Islamist terror, the migrant question and the prospect of Brexit. A meltdown in Catalonia will create dilemmas for Europe, starting from problems with Schengen, and raise questions about continued membership of the EU. It will also work against Catalans’ expectations of receiving EU support in their quest for independence, as turmoil in Europe will prompt nation states to close ranks. The EU will not be expected to intervene, because this scenario would – at least initially – be defined as an “internal affair of Spain”. Conflict between Barcelona and Madrid would shatter one of Europe’s biggest member states.

In that event, the peninsula will become the hottest point in an emerging “arc of crisis” across the southern flank of the EU, stretching from Portugal across Spain, an Italy struggling along with everything else to cope with the flow of migrants, the troubled Balkans, to Greece, which is perpetually perturbed. This highlights yet another flaw in the EU. It has no institutional framework for dealing with Catalan demands to become a nation within the Union, or those of other populations. Merely insisting on Spanish state sovereignty will not make the problem go away for Brussels, or for Europe as a whole. This is a potential matter of life and death not only for Spaniards and Catalans, but perhaps for the EU itself.

Brendan Simms is the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge and president of the Project for Democratic Union Montserrat Guibernau is a visiting scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge and a member of the Forum on Geopolitics

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater