On December 1, a church in central London hosted an anti-Israeli Christmas concert. On the pavement outside, a participant in this event mouthed appalling anti-Jewish sentiments, which you can see and hear on a video posted on the JC website. What did the Board of Deputies of British Jews do? Nothing.
The following day, the website of the Jerusalem Post published graphic film of a Palestinian Arab stabbing a Jewish soldier at a West Bank checkpoint. What was the reaction of the Board of Deputies? There was none.
But I will tell you what the Board of Deputies did do that day, Wednesday December 2. A few days earlier, the citizens of Switzerland had been given the opportunity to vote in a referendum on whether any more minarets should be permitted to be erected in their country. The outcome was a decisive vote to ban such construction.
On this occasion, the Board, in a press release headed, “Promoting and defending the interests of British Jews since 1760”, expressed “grave concern” over the outcome of the Swiss minarets ban.This ban, the Board explained, was likely to alienate Swiss Muslims rather than ease their integration into Swiss society: “Swiss Muslims should be made to feel at home in Switzerland, just as we hope that Muslims, Jews and other minorities in this country should be allowed to practise their faiths freely and without restraint.”
When the Swiss referendum result was announced, I was in Sarajevo, the historic capital of Bosnia. There are plenty of minarets in Sarajevo, there are plenty of churches and there is even a synagogue.
Sarajevo is recovering from the brutal assault on it by Serbian fascists. The Bosnian government is extraordinarily philosemitic and pro-Zionist. Sarajevo itself is a truly cosmopolitan city. But I did not come across any Bosnian Muslims (“Bosniak” or “white” Muslims, of Slav origin) who regarded the outcome of the Swiss referendum with “concern”, let alone “grave concern.”
One prominent Bosnian Muslim explained to me something that I had not previously realised: that minarets are essential neither to Islam nor to mosques.
In the days before loudspeakers. I was told, minarets were built simply as an aid to calling the faithful to prayer. You can have a fully functioning church without a belfry, however imposing. You can have a fully functioning mosque without a minaret, however impressive.
The minaret, my informant continued, is a piece of cultural baggage. The banning of a minaret, while perhaps regrettable, could not possibly be compared with the banning of churches (to say nothing of synagogues) in and by many Muslim societies.
Indeed, the banning of the construction of synagogues and churches does undeniably constitute an assault on freedom of religious worship, whereas the banning of minarets constitutes no such thing.
Readers of this column will know that I am no defender of the Swiss. Swiss complicity in the Holocaust is now undeniable, thanks to the painstaking and courageous work of the great Swiss historian Jean-François Bergier, whose death just two months ago we all need to mark and whose life, and life’s work (a masterly, no-holds-barred 27-volume dissection of the Swiss relationship with Nazi Germany), we all need to celebrate.
And the Swiss ban on the shechitah of cattle and sheep is well-known.
I once strayed across the border from France into Switzerland by mistake (this was in the days before sat-navs). I shall take care never to make this distressing mistake again.
But on the matter of their recent referendum on minarets it does seem to me that the Swiss are being unfairly and unjustly pilloried.
As for the decision of the Board of Deputies to join in these denunciations, while I am happy that it should defend the religious rights of British Muslims (as I did at a Foreign Office conference on Tuesday), I do have to ask what the referendum result has to do with “Promoting and defending the interests of British Jews.”