It’s not necessarily good to talk

In 1906 a portentous meeting took place between Chaim Weizmann and the Conservative leader Arthur Balfour. Weizmann expounded to a shocked Balfour the broad principles of Zionism. Balfour was shocked because these unashamed nationalistic aspirations did not reflect the views he was accustomed to hearing from the highly assimilated Anglo-Jewish establishment whose company he enjoyed. Weizmann admonished him, bluntly: he had been meeting "the wrong kind of Jews".

I was reminded of this reprimand as I pondered the remarks of Baroness Warsi on the subject of anti-Jewish prejudice amongst British Muslims. Warsi, who is currently minister for faith and communities in the coalition government, was the guest of honour at the recent opening of an exhibition celebrating the work of "Righteous Muslims" who saved Jews during the Holocaust. An adherent of Islam, Warsi used the occasion to speak frankly about Islamic antisemitism. And she pointed out that anti-Israel sentiment "can sometimes be a cover for antisemitism". She added with remarkable candour that the relationship between Britain's Muslim and Jewish communities was "not an easy subject to tackle".

This was not the first occasion on which Warsi has addressed this most sensitive issue. In November 2011, speaking at a lecture at the House of Commons, she drew the attention of her audience to anti-Jewish utterances that had been mouthed by an Anglo-Islamic group subsequently banned by the Home Secretary. "If you can't live by our values (she declared), get off our island."

Warsi is by no means the only British Muslim courageous enough to confront - publicly - the reality of Islamic-inspired anti-Jewish prejudice. Last February the JC reported on a debate that had taken place at Friends' House, asking "Interfaith Dialogue: Does it work?" Martin Bright, who chaired it, subsequently reported: "Heated doesn't come close to describing some of the exchanges. But the most moving account of the evening came from Dr Muhammed Al-Hussaini, a fellow in Islamic studies at Leo Baeck College, who had been urged by some Muslims not to attend."

Al-Hussaini is certainly not your average Anglo-Muslim. He used the occasion of the Friends' House discussion to condemn the "interfaith industry," claiming that on the Muslim side its private purpose was merely to provide the cloaks of respectability to interests that seek political influence rather than genuine interfaith dialogue. In 2009, in an essay in the Middle East Quarterly (a highly respected peer-reviewed journal published by the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum) Al-Hussaini argued that the Arabic text of the Koran suggests that the Almighty awarded the Holy Land to the Jews in perpetuity. "Although the Jews come in for severe criticism in the works of Muslim apologists and theologians (he explained), there are no grounds in [Muslim] religious law to entertain the conceit that God's promise to the children of Israel has been broken, and none to support the view that Israel is now the property of the Muslims."

My inexpert guess is that Al-Hussaini's challenging interpretation of the Koran is not shared at all widely (to put it mildly) within the world of Islamic theology. But that's not why he interests me. According to one member of the Friends' House audience (blogging at Point of no return) he "reduced the audience to tears as he threw away his prepared statement and talked with emotion about how his very appearance on the panel had exposed his family to threats and harassment. Interfaith dialogue, he claimed, was an industry funded by petrodollars whose function was to manipulate genuine people of good-will for 'PR advantage' and confer legitimacy on extremists."

This accusation must be taken seriously by all those in leadership positions within Britain's Jewish communities. To take one example, I have from time to time debated in the media with spokespersons from the Muslim Council of Britain. The MCB is a body whose relations with the British government have blown hot and cold. Three years ago senior Jewish communal leaders reacted furiously to the government's decision to restore a dialogue with the MCB, which both the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council rightly condemned for its "deep-seated ideological Islamist bias".

Should we not, therefore, be concerned that the self-styled "authoritative" Council of Imams & Rabbis is supported by the MCB, and is the recipient of its official hechsher - conferred, apparently, as recently as March 2012? Or, to revert somewhat a-historically to Weizmann's caution, are we talking to the right kind of Muslims?

    Last updated: 10:45am, May 7 2013