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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In the heartlands

What does visiting Wallasey, Pontypridd and Islington North reveal about Labour’s future?

Islington. It’s the idea, as much as the place itself, that the right hates: an enclave of wealthy people who have the temerity to vote against right-wing interests. The real Islington, and Jeremy Corbyn’s patch of it in particular, is not all like that. Although parts of his constituency do resemble the cliché of large townhouses and overpriced flat whites, Labour’s 78-year hold on the seat is founded not on the palatial houses around Highgate Hill but on the constituency’s many council estates.

It’s a place I know well. As a child, Islington North was the place next to the edge of the known world, or, as I would come to call it later in life, Barnet. After going to church in Bow, my mum and I would take the bus through it to choir practice, where I sang until my voice broke, in both senses of the word.

Today, austerity is making Islington North look more like its past. Not the Islington of my teenage years, but of my childhood: grimy streets and growing homelessness. Outside the Archway McDonald’s an elderly woman points out the evidence of last night’s clubbers and tells me that today’s teenagers are less considerate than I was or her grandson is. She’s wrong; I once vomited in that same street. But street-sweeping, particularly at night, has been one of the first things that councils have cut back on under constraints from decreasing local authority budgets.

As for homelessness, that, too, has come full circle. Tony Blair’s government was the first to count the number of people sleeping rough, and by the time Labour left office it had been reduced by two-thirds. In the six years since David Cameron first came to office, the homeless figure in England more than doubled from 1,768 estimated rough sleepers to more than 3,569 today. This is the world that Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters want to fight against. These are the effects of Conservative rule that make Labour activists yearn for an anti-austerity champion.

***

Demolishing the stereotypical views of Islington and elsewhere is vital if we are to understand the currents flowing through ­Labour. This summer, there have been three main characters in the soap opera (or farce) that has played out in the party – the beleaguered leader, Jeremy Corbyn, of Islington North; the leading rebel, Angela Eagle, whose constituency is in Wallasey; and finally, the eventual challenger, Owen Smith of Pontypridd. I visited all their constituencies in a whirlwind week in the hope that it would illuminate the leadership race and the wider challenges for left-wing politics in Britain.

In all three places, the easy assumptions about Corbyn’s appeal were complicated by the facts on the ground, but a common thread united them. Outside the Holloway Road Odeon, I heard it first: “Jeremy is a nice guy, but he’s not a leader.” The trouble was that even those who questioned Corbyn’s leadership had little faith in those challenging him.

On 4 July, during a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Neil Kinnock talked about “the supermarket test”: how people in Tesco or Lidl would say “I want to vote Labour, but I can’t vote for Ed Miliband”. He urged Labour’s representatives in the Houses of Parliament to “apply the supermarket test for Jeremy Corbyn and see what answer you get”.

In reality, they had been applying it for months. That was the spur to the attempts in late June to oust Corbyn as Labour leader. For the 172 MPs who said they had no confidence in him – and the 41 per cent of Labour members who told YouGov that they thought Corbyn was doing either “fairly badly” or “very badly” – he is an obstacle on the road to saving Britain from the Tories. Idealism didn’t create a minimum wage, set up Sure Start centres, or bring in civil partnerships: assembling a broad enough coalition to elect a Labour government did.

The minority of MPs who support him, and the thousands of members who say they will vote for him again, feel differently. For them, Corbyn’s demise would feel like a capitulation. It would feel like ­accepting that neoliberalism, capitalism and austerity have won the day, that the role of the Labour Party is to ameliorate rather than oppose them.

When I visited Islington North, Labour’s leadership election was only just starting to get under way and Angela Eagle was still in contention. Her tough performances deputising for the leader at PMQs have made her popular at Westminster but that enthusiasm has not made it as far north as Islington. “To me, I can’t see Angela Eagle as a prime minister either,” said Mike, one of the regulars at the Coronet, a Wetherspoons on the Holloway Road. “What are they running her for?”

The same sentiment prevailed in Wallasey, the Wirral constituency that Eagle has represented since 1992. There, too, were a few pockets of Corbynmania. There was also a sense that Labour is heading for defeat as long as Corbyn remains in place – but little faith in Eagle’s ability to alter that trajectory.

Wallasey is of less long-standing Labour vintage than Islington North. It remained steadfastly Conservative even between 1945 and 1966, and Eagle first won the seat in 1992. Although she is now in possession of a 16,000-vote majority, her neighbour Margaret Greenwood took Wirral West seat back from the Conservatives by a margin of only 400 votes. Tory strategists still eye the Wirral hungrily.

Wallasey is home to New Brighton, the seaside resort commemorated in Martin Parr’s 1985 series The Last Resort. A popular tourist destination for most of the first half of the 20th century, New Brighton was hurt by tidal changes in the River Mersey, which stripped most of its sand, and by the closure of its pier, but it remains a favoured destination for retirees and day trippers. In times past, Liverpool families that did well for themselves crossed the Mersey, bought a home – and promptly started to vote Tory. Wallasey, and the Wirral as a whole, is still where Scousers who have made it good set up their homes, but nowadays their politics usually survives the river crossing unscathed.

Yet there is still a vestigial sympathy for Conservatism in the leafier parts of Victoria Road and Seabank Road, one that is largely absent from Islington North. Perhaps Theresa May’s diligence in dealing with families affected by the Hillsborough disaster, which was mentioned frequently when I asked people for their opinion of the new Prime Minister, is sufficiently well regarded here that it is beginning to erode the Thatcherite taint still hanging over the Tory rosette on Merseyside.

However, it is not just Labour politics that is proving increasingly capable of weathering the journey across the Mersey. In Westminster, the chatter is that Militant – driven out of Labour in the 1980s, though most of its members continued to live and work on Merseyside – is back as a force in the city’s constituencies, and that many of its members have moved out and retired to New Brighton. Their influence is blamed for the series of damaging stories that slipped out of Wallasey in the days after Eagle declared her candidacy.

“There’s a reason why they’re so good at getting themselves on the national news and in the papers,” one MP tells me. “It’s that they’ve done all this before.”

***

The perception that Eagle “lost control” of her local party, as well as a disastrous campaign launch, led to support from fellow MPs ebbing away from her. It went instead to Owen Smith, the MP for Pontypridd, a little-known figure outside Westminster, but one who has long been talked of as a possible Labour leader inside it.

Smith’s great strength, at least according to some of his backers, is that he is a blank canvas. Certainly, as with Corbyn in Islington, there was a widespread perception in Wallasey that Eagle was not cast from the material from which leaders are made. Smith at least had the advantage of introducing himself to voters on his own terms.

His slim hopes of defeating Corbyn rest on two planks. First, the idea that a fresh face might yet convince wavering members that he could win a general election. A vote for him rather than Corbyn can therefore be seen as a vote against the Conservatives. Second, he is willing to call for a second European referendum. Among Labour Party activists, who backed staying in the European Union by 90/10 per cent, that is a compelling offer.

In Islington and Wallasey, both of which voted Remain (and both of which still have  houses flying the flag of the European Union when I visit), that message also has wider appeal. But in Smith’s own seat, a second referendum is a tougher sell. The Valleys voted to leave by a near-identical margin to the country at large. No one to whom I spoke was enthused about replaying the referendum.

Smith’s status as a “blank slate” will only be useful if he manages to write something appealing on it over the course of this summer. It is also possible he could just remain largely unknown and undefined.

Travelling around the country, I became accustomed to explaining who he is. Even at my hotel in Cardiff, which borders his constituency, the name “Owen Smith” was met with blank looks.

Unfortunately, the habit proved hard to break once I was in Pontypridd, resulting in an awkward scene in the back of a taxi. “I know who my MP is,” my driver said angrily, before launching into a lengthy diatribe about the arrogance of London-based journalists and a London-led Labour Party. The accent had changed, the setting was more confrontational, but the story remained the same as in Islington and Wallasey: he was convinced of neither Jeremy Corbyn’s nor Angela Eagle’s ability to fight and win an election. “That voice? In a room with Putin?” he said of Eagle. Then he said something unexpected. “But I’ll tell you what – they need a change from Jeremy Corbyn – and why not Owen Smith?”

“Why not Owen Smith?” As much as they might wish to deny it, that is the message with which Corbyn’s critics will try to take back control of the Labour Party. It is a message that feels unlikely to move or inspire. As I catch the train back to London, I reflect that those who want to convince Labour activists to give up Jeremy Corbyn – and what they feel he represents – need to offer them something compelling in return. No one puts “Vote for the lesser of two evils” on a banner.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue