A laughable interfaith initiative

By Geoffrey Alderman, March 5, 2009

Although we shall not be celebrating Purim until next week, some Jews have decided that the revelries associated with this most anarchic of festivals should actually commence as soon as the month of Adar has been ushered in.

This was the suggestion made to me by a senior communal rabbi after reading a press release issued by the Board of Deputies on February 25 — the first of Adar. He thought it could only have been intended as a Purim spiel – and, frankly, so did I, until the Board confirmed that we were wrong.

The press release was headed “Board Looks Towards Better Muslim-Jewish Relations.” Under the auspices of the Board, a meeting was held of “Jewish groups with a particular interest in interfaith work.” Some of those present (the press release explained) had commented “that whilst the Gaza Action had posed a serious challenge to [Muslim-Jewish] relations and that some interfaith activity had been affected, a number of fruitful dialogues were continuing, and that many British Muslims were still receptive to engagement… In addition, participants suggested that the shared threat of racism could represent a good rallying point for all faiths, including Muslims and Jews… During the meeting, participants shared ideas about potential and current initiatives…. In particular, the Board plans to develop a synagogue/mosque twinning project in the coming months, with the assistance of other organisations working in this field.”

It was at this point that my rabbinical friend collapsed into a fit of laughter. “A synagogue/mosque twinning project? This cannot be serious.” And he proceeded to make some ribald comments which (as Purim is practically upon us) I see no reason why I should not share with you.

The Satmar yeshivah in Stamford Hill could (he suggested) appropriately twin with the Finsbury Park mosque, since both share a similarity of outlook towards women, democracy, modernity and freedom of speech. The Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Bevis Marks should twin with the Woking mosque because they are, respectively, the oldest surviving, purpose-built Jewish and Muslim houses of worship in the UK. Obviously, the St John’s Wood (United) synagogue would twin with the nearby Regent’s Park Mosque, but only if it (the mosque, that is) refused absolutely to have anything to do with the equally nearby Liberal Jewish synagogue.

Would rabbis and imams swap pulpits? And why stop there? In these hard times, why not cut running costs by amalgamating mosques with synagogues and even churches, so that running costs can be shared?

Yes, we both had a good a laugh. Then, figuratively speaking, we both had a good cry.

What the Board deigns to call “the Gaza Action”— Israel’s response to repeated breaches of a ceasefire on the part of Hamas and other anti-Jewish paramilitary groups operating from Gaza — did not, of itself, pose any sort of a “challenge” to Muslim-Jewish relations in this country.

The fact of the matter is that a variety of Anglo-Muslim groups (who certainly do not represent the totality of opinions among British Muslims) chose to react with varying degrees of hostility towards British Jewry.

Anti-Jewish incidents in this country far outnumber anti-Muslim incidents, even though Muslims far outnumber Jews. And the worrying increase in the incidence of attacks both against British Jews and British-Jewish property is demonstrably attributable to Anglo-Islamist propaganda.

It was the Muslim Council of Britain that, quite voluntarily, pulled out of Holocaust Memorial Day in January, even though HMD had nothing whatever to do with — and was certainly not a celebration of — “the Gaza Action.” The MCB’s excuse — that the event would be used to “silence criticism of Israel” — was fatuous.

If there has been a noticeable drop in grassroots participation among both Muslims and Jews in interfaith projects in recent weeks, it is the Muslims who are the losers, not the Jews.

My own continuing contacts with British Muslims (primarily in relation to the defence of religious slaughter regulations) suggest to me that the more moderate Muslim elements have commendably not been seduced by the outpouring of anti-Jewish rhetoric that accompanied “the Gaza Action”.

Jewish-Muslim relations in Britain are always sensitive. But they have certainly not reached the stage at which we need to reach for a solution of sloppy rhetoric and cheap gimmicks.

Last updated: 3:10pm, March 5 2009