On Sunday August 9, a marriage ceremony took place in London’s East End. The bride was an investment banker and her groom the director of a training company and there were around 800 guests.
By all accounts (and there have been many accounts, since the wedding to which I refer was reported across the national press and on radio and television), this was a glitzy, upper-middle-class affair.
But sometimes you can invite to your simcha just one guest too many. And so it proved on this occasion. The bride’s father had extended an invitation to the local MP and when that MP — Jim Fitzpatrick (Labour, Poplar and Canning Town) — observed that men and women would be seated separately, he took his wife, a doctor, and walked out of the proceedings.
What is more, not content with walking out of the proceedings, he opened his mouth to the local press, blaming an apparently “hardline” faction within the community for imposing separation of the sexes at wedding ceremonies.
Not to beat about the bush, Jim Fitzpatrick went out of his way to spoil what ought to have been a day of unblemished happiness for groom and bride. And the reason he went out of his way to spoil this great day was (I am sorry to say) entirely political.
This could of course have been a Jewish wedding. There are a number of functioning synagogues in the area. Does anyone reading this column believe for one moment that Fitzpatrick would have walked out of a chuppah at, say, Bevis Marks? Or at the Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue (closed in 2007 but now happily functioning once more)? Or at Nelson Street Synagogue?
Of course not. The accusations of anti-Jewish prejudice would have followed thick and fast. And they would have been well-aimed. His leader, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, would have summoned Mr Fitzpatrick, who is in fact the farming minister, to his presence and would have ordered him to apologise, publicly, abjectly and at once, on pain of immediate de-selection.
But this was not a Jewish wedding. It was a Muslim one. It took place at the London Muslim Centre, adjacent to the East London Mosque (which, as it happens, is itself adjacent to the Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue).
I need at this point to re-emphasise that Fitzpatrick is the local MP. Roughly one third of his constituents are adherents of Islam. I cannot believe that Jim Fitzpatrick is ignorant of this fact. On the assumption that he is very well aware of it, it beggars belief that he is ignorant of Islamic wedding customs. If he is — or was — so ignorant, he cannot be doing his job as local MP properly.
Then there is the question of common decency. If Fitzpatrick had been doing his job, he would have known about the separation of men and women at Muslim wedding ceremonies. He would then have had a choice: politely reject the invitation, or show a modicum of respect by adhering to ceremonial custom. Far from displaying such respect, Fitzpatrick spurned the chance to return to the wedding to a table at which non-Muslims of both sexes were allowed to sit together.
Some Muslims of my acquaintance tell me that the segregation of the sexes — at least at weddings — is not universally observed by all branches of Islam. That may well be so, but it is hardly relevant. Segregation of the sexes is not universally observed at Jewish weddings. But where it is observed (and it certainly was at mine) it should be respected in any society that calls itself civilised and tolerant.
At my wedding, there were many non-Jewish guests, including fellow academics of more or less radical persuasion. All observed the segregation rule. No one walked out, or made a hostile comment (let alone to the press).
So now we come to the kernel of this sorry affair. To walk out of a wedding is one thing; to run to the press and make a wholly fatuous statement (“We are trying to build social cohesion in a community but this is not the way forward”) is quite another.