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?

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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