Laura Marks

Interfaith dialogue is far more than 'tea and samosas'

Calling interfaith dialogue 'faithwashing' only strengthens our resolves to build bonds between communities

September 01, 2022 10:22

It is often said – disparagingly - that interfaith is about Tea and Samosas. Indeed, interfaith events are often that rare opportunity to meet people from a different community. That’s ‘Interfaith 101’. But as the Jewish Chronicle report on the Palestinian Forum of Britain revealed, interfaith has a sinister side which is bullying, personal and vicious. It illustrates why an online interfaith Ramadan event by the Jewish Muslim women's network Nisa Nashim this year was targeted so aggressively.

Just days after the event, an attendee’s undercover ‘documentary’ appeared on Iran state-funded Press TV. It presented a patronisingly, charmingly all-male panel of Chris Williamson (ex MP), David Miller of Bristol University fame, and Massoud Shadjareh, founder of the discredited and Charity Commission-investigated Islamic Human Rights Organisation. They proceeded to vilify Nisa-Nashim, the Jewish Muslim women’s charity as “working covertly for the British intelligence to promote Zionism and Israel and undermine pro-Palestinian activities.”

Then, following a now well-worn, deliberately misconstrued, and sinister narrative, they explained how Nisa-Nashim, its founders, trustees and funders are ‘ardent Zionists’, else Muslim counter terrorists, funded by the secret propaganda department of the Home Office and controlled by British intelligence agencies. Our aim, they patronisingly explained, is that by building relationships with non-Jews (particularly Muslims) Nisa-Nashim and its ilk ensure that people are less critical of the illegal occupation, the apartheid and brutality of the Zionist State. Who would have thought?

A similar example was in 2018 when young Jews and Muslims gathered at the East London Mosque. It was part of a Mitzvah Day project aiming to make gallons of nutritious chicken soup for homeless people. The venture soon came under attack from websites such as 5Pillars, Middle East Eye and Prevent Watch, with this short and simple good deed labelled a part of the UK Government’s ‘counter extremist strategy’. Each of the Jewish organisations involved was linked (negatively) to Israel including a claim by Middle East Eye that BBYO served to “legitimise Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian lands.”

Prevent Watch still has this story on their website four years on, whilst holding themselves up as bastions of society. They even gave evidence recently to a Council of Europe commission on Islamophobia. I cannot fathom why an organisation such as this can be considered an authority on racism, whilst peddling conspiracy theories about Jews. Like other websites, this encourages and fuels antisemitism by deliberately conflating Jews with hateful narratives about Israel.

It would be funny if not so damaging and pernicious. Underlying any stereotype is the possibility of some truth. So yes, most Jewish people do have an emotional tie to Israel, but it does not follow that all Jews engaged in interfaith are intent on harming the Palestinian cause. That is offensive nonsense.

Interfaith groups must discuss the challenging situation in the Middle East but when these conspiracy-based models are promulgated, conversations become even more difficult and are often avoided. Similarly, many interfaith organisations have a relationship with government which encourages social cohesion initiatives.  That, however, does not make interfaith activists instruments of a secret Home Office plot.

Naming people, delving into their lives, adding one and one to make three, are all designed to ensure people stay away. I frequently see organisations, potential funders and good, thoughtful people, distance themselves from interfaith activities fearful of the onslaught from the likes of Williamson and Miller. As someone who has lived with this for years, it makes me more determined, not less, to continue to build a more cohesive civil society.

This act of bringing people together who don’t normally meet, and strengthening social cohesion, is what interfaith is all about – breaking down barriers, accepting difference and celebrating what we do well, giving back to and enriching society. This is my motivation – and it’s not a secret plot.

This is not limited to Jews and Muslims. There are numerous examples of faith communities where trust has broken down, often based on international conflict. Here, on our own British streets, we need and want to live together, and we have agency. The peddlers of conspiracy theories know and fear our success.

Last Passover, at an on-line Nisa-Nashim event, we made charoset. Women laughed and chatted, sharing stories and anecdotes. The next day the WhatsApp lit up as Hifsa, Nisa-Nashim’s chair of trustees, presented her deep-fried charoset filled samosas.

This was PhD Level ‘Tea and Samosas.’ Hifsa had masterfully shared rituals with respect, understanding and with tongue firmly in cheek, the approach of a true friend. We won’t let the conspiracy theorists tear us apart – the work is too important and way too much fun.

September 01, 2022 10:22

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive