We need Muslim-Jewish unity against the far right

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

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

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)