Beware the perils of naive interfaith

Too often our approach is dominated by credulousness, and that is where the problems start


Ramadan lights on Oxford street in central London, UK

April 04, 2024 12:50

Last month, the government toughened up its approach to extremist organisations to ensure that it doesn’t give them credibility by engaging with them. It is to be hoped that every arm of Whitehall – and beyond – takes note.

But the problem extends far beyond Whitehall. All too often, in fact, it exists within our community – especially in interfaith work, where naivety appears to be a pre-requisite for involvement and credulousness seems to be a necessary component of participants’ DNA.

In a JC interview in January, the Chief Rabbi said that after October 7 we “needed a new shift” in our approach to interfaith. Too often, he said, we focus on what appears to unite us and ignore bigtory on Israel. He cited a phone conversation in 2021 with an unnamed British Muslim leader whom Mirvis considered a “friend”. This person told Rabbi Mirvis that Jews in Britain were “OK” because they were not like Israeli Jews. Rabbi Mirvis said: “I should have taken him up on it”, adding that now, “I would not let that pass.”

More generally, there comes a point when naivety and credulousness blend together, and that is where the problems start.

This week, for example, the JC revealed that the Aziz Foundation, the charity which paid for London’s Ramadan lights in Oxford Street, is also funding the Muslim Council of Britain’s Centre for Media Monitoring.

The government broke off contact with the MCB in 2009 over its alleged links to extremism. The MCB’s then deputy secretary-general, Daud Abdullah, signed a declaration that called for violence against Israel and condoned attacks on British troops.

Mohammed Kozbar, the current deputy chief of the MCB, has praised Hamas’s founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin as a “the master of the martyrs of resistance, the mujahid [holy warrior] sheikh, the teacher”. The Aziz Foundation also supports an “Islamophobia Response Unit” originally run by Muslim Engagement and Development (Mend), a group labelled as extremist by Communities Secretary Michael Gove in the Commons last month.

Last month’s ceremony to turn the Ramadan lights on was attended by London Mayor Sadiq Khan along with Board of Deputies vice-presidents Edwin Shuker and Amanda Bowman and interfaith activist Laura Marks. Maybe it is simply naivety, but now of all times it is imperative that our communal representatives carry out basic checks before they lend their support to organisations and events.

This credulousness appears to be a basic theme of too many interfaith engagements. It is not that these people are themselves extremists, rather that there is scant attention paid to some of the links that those engaged with have had.

Last October, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, the senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism UK and rabbi of the New North London Synagogue, stood outside Lambeth Palace with Archbishop Justin Welby and Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra as they together called for “solidarity and unity between communities in the UK”. Mogra is a former Assistant Secretary-General of the MCB – the self-same organisation boycotted by the government.

Back in 2011, Rabbi Wittenberg took part in an interfaith event run by London Citizens, along with senior members of the East London Mosque. The then-deputy chair of London Citizens was Junaid Ahmed of the East London Mosque, who had given a speech at the height of Operation Cast Lead in 2008 paying tribute to Hamas terrorists.

Rabbi Wittenberg told the JC at the time: "The Middle East has never, ever come up for discussion. We discuss what's good for citizens of London…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.” Some of us would say it is indeed simple when you are a rabbi and the second most senior person in the organisation which invites you is a supporter of Hamas.

The problem is that too many in our community take things at face value. Last December, for example, leaders of the Menorah and Hale synagogues in Manchester joined 120 people for a silent vigil for peace organised by the Altrincham Interfaith Group. “We held a dignified, uplifting, and positive period of silence as we reflected on the conflict in Israel and Gaza,” according to Menorah vice-chair Ann Angel.

One of those attending was Elinor Chohan MBE, a trustee of the British Muslim Heritage Centre in Manchester, who told the JC: “It is my sincere hope that these gatherings can serve as a guiding light for our communities to co-exist harmoniously as neighbours and friends.”

But while no one would suggest Ms Chohan is anything other than sincere, the British Muslim Heritage Centre was listed on the Muslim Association of Britain’s website, and is described as affiliated to it in a directory of mosques. Last month Communities Secretary Michael Gove told the Commons: “Organisations such as the Muslim Association of Britain, which is the British affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, and other groups such as Cage and Mend give rise to concern for their Islamist orientation and beliefs.”

In 2018 Marie van der Zyl, the president of the Board of Deputies, held a private meeting with Baroness Warsi, the former Conservative Party chair, to discuss “matters of common concern and past disagreement”. According to the JC’s sources, the meeting was held at the request of a well regarded communal figure. Although Mend was apparently not mentioned at the meeting, Baroness Warsi has long enjoyed a close relationship with the organisation, which she has said “has the potential for real change”.

While the government boycotts the MCB, the Board infamously has taken a very different stance. In the summer of 2016, under its former president Vivian Wineman, the Board released what it called an "unprecedented" joint statement with the MCB. The statement said that the Middle East conflict should not poison community relations and called for “peace and unity amongst our communities and in Israel and Palestine”. But it also condemned the "targeting of civilians" – and by omitting to point out that it was Hamas which targeted civilians and not Israel, it implied that both were as bad as each other. And guess what happened? MCB members made hay with the (false) claim that British Jews had condemned Israel for war crimes.

One could call this naïve, but that surely underplays the wilful credulousness by which the Board was ready to ignore years of evidence, to demonstrate its willingness to be part of the community of the good – which places interfaith links above almost all else as somehow meritorious and important, even if those with whom one is being “inter” are boycotted by our own government for extremism.

It is not just Jews who suffer when credulous community leaders give a hechsher to groups – it is moderate Muslims who despair that organisations like the MCB and MAB are seen as being representative of British Muslims. When will the penny drop?

This piece was edited on 5 April 

April 04, 2024 12:50

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