Rabbi defends his London Citizens involvement

By Jessica Elgot, December 22, 2011
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Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Senior Masorti rabbi, Jonathan Wittenberg, has robustly defended his participation in last week's London Citizens multi-faith event, which was also attended by senior members of the East London Mosque.

Rabbi Wittenberg maintained that had he not attended "there would be no Jewish voice at all. There are people in this country who never hear a Jewish voice. The face of the Jew is very easily demonised."

He acknowledged that he had never directly challenged the views of London Citizens' deputy chair, Junaid Ahmed of East London Mosque, who gave a speech at the height of Operation Cast Lead paying tribute to Hamas terrorists.

Rabbi Wittenberg said he did not realise which members of the ELM would be at the London Citizens event in a Hackney church last week. He did not and had never intended to go on the "multi-faith peace procession" with the mosque's chairman, Mohammed Abdel Bari, and had only attended the service afterwards, where he gave a short talk on Chanucah and lit a candle.

He said he did not "seek to confront people with a record of difficult views" like Mr Bari or Mr Ahmed, but would challenge abhorrent views if he were presented with them directly.

"The Middle East has never, ever come up for discussion. We discuss what's good for citizens of London.I am cautious. I have boundaries. I do not, consciously, share platforms with people who preach hate. That might even include fellow Jews. It happens, because occasionally, I am confronted by something I don't expect, and then I consider it my duty as a Jew to challenge it. To hide away also has its dangers."

Of Mr Ahmed's views on Hamas, Rabbi Wittenberg said: "I was not involved in following that up, but nor did I at any point endorse his views, I certainly do not. I find them abhorrent."

But he added: "The difficulty comes when you are invited to be somewhere, you don't know who else will be there. At what point do you say no? It's not a simple question.

"Do you say: 'I won't come because in the place where somebody else worships, a year ago, something bad was said'? My view is sometimes one has to take risks, but should never do things that undermine the integrity of Judaism."

Some members of Rabbi Wittenberg's New North London Synagogue have spoken in favour of his involvement. Micah Gold, who is also a member of the Citizens Group, said: "The East London Mosque is a legitimate Muslim community serving and supporting thousands of Muslims struggling to get on in the poor East End of London - some of our families know what that was like."

Last updated: 12:46pm, December 22 2011