Are Muslims and Jews destined always to be enemies?

An initiative seeks to promote interfaith harmony.

Tomorrow the Exploring Islam Foundation (EIF), which organised the "Inspired by Muhammad" poster campaign last year ("I believe in women's rights. So did Muhammad", etc), launches a fresh initiative. "Missing Pages" – the website is due to go live in the next 24 hours – aims to "challenge the misconceptions surrounding the relationship between Muslims and Jews by highlighting historical good practice and examples of peaceful coexistence", says the EIF.

The campaign hopes to "shed light on largely unknown accounts of solidarity and compassion between Muslims and Jews. Through this we hope to build a greater bridge of understanding and harmony, and hope these stories will become a beacon of hope for our future."

Part of this will involve stories of Muslims aiding Jews during the Second World War, such as that of Dr Scarlett Epstein, who was saved from the Nazis by Albanian Muslims. Another element will be to highlight "Quranic and Prophetic principles of coexistence, shared heritage between Islam and Judaism", and "messages of support from the leading members of the Muslim and Jewish communities, including the Chief Rabbi".

No doubt there will be some who wish to dismiss the enterprise from the start. Is anti-Semitism not rife in the Muslim world? Yes, it is. Is it not true that if you hold an Israeli passport you cannot even enter some Muslim countries? Yes, sadly that is so. But what this new campaign might be able to help stress is just how recent this attitude is.

Here is what the distinguished religious scholar Karen Armstrong had to say about it in Muhammad: a Biography of the Prophet: "In the Islamic empire Jews like Christians had full religious liberty; the Jews lived there in peace until the creation of the State of Israel in our own century." Indeed, this guarantee goes all the way back to 622, with Muhammad's proclamation of the Constitution of Medina, which laid down the rights of the Arab and Jewish tribes of the city (then known as Yathrib).

In the past decade or so, however, many have claimed this supposed tolerance is merely a myth. Particularly pernicious has been the use of the word "dhimmi", which refers to the status of Jews and Christians under the caliphate, but understood entirely through the negative prism associated with the writer Bat Ye'or, who popularised the term "dhimmitude" and who is also responsible for that other helpful word, "Eurabia". (See here for a very sensible debunking of Bat Ye'or and her cheerleaders by Johann Hari in the Independent.)

But dhimmi actually means "protected". As Armstrong continues: "The Jews of Islam never suffered like the Jews of Christendom." And it is not only Armstrong – a figure, I am aware, considered to be an apologist for religion in general by some – who argues that "anti-Semitism is a vice of western Christianity not of Islam" that was "introduced into the Middle East at the end of the last century [the 19th, that is] by Christian missionaries and . . . usually scorned by the populace".

The historian and renowned scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis agrees with her. When I interviewed him last summer Lewis told me he thought that "Jews in Islamic lands did have problems", describing the attitude of, for instance, the late Ottomans towards Jews as being one of "amused contempt". But, he said to me, "you would not call that anti-Semitic".

That, he concurred with Armstrong, is a view that came from Europe. Lewis, by the way, is not only Jewish but is suspected in some quarters of being an ultra-Zionist responsible for inspiring American bellicosity in the Middle East. If that is so, why would he state that modern anti-Semitism in the Muslim world is not only a new phenomenon, but one that came from the west?

None of the above, of course, excuses the deplorable and widespread anti-Semitism in Muslim countries that does exist today. The Exploring Islam Foundation's last campaign laudably tried to challenge non-Muslim perceptions of Islam in the UK. It is to be hoped that this one will open the eyes of Muslims who have forgotten that Christians and, in this case, most particularly Jews, are also "people of the Book".

If they, as members of the same Abrahamic faith family, do all believe in the one God, then enmity should be a very last resort, not the default position. There are better examples to follow than the warmongers and hate-spreaders on both sides of the Palestine-Israel conflict.

A reminder of the centuries when greater harmony prevailed between Muslims and Jews is timely and useful, and for many may be the first they hear about a history of which they are not aware – even though it is their own.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.