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It's not only conflict between faiths that must be faced

November 24, 2016 23:18

David Baddiel's musical - The Infidel - is based on his film of the same name and tells of a Muslim who discovers he is a Jew. That initial shock about his own identity is then compounded by confusion when realising that Jews are transformed from being "the enemy" to being machetonim. His new Jewish relatives undergo a similar emotional somersault.

Baddiel's storyline may be fictional, but the sharp intake of breath is true of many a Jewish household today when a son or daughter tells their parents that they are dating a Muslim. Once upon a time, that would have been unthinkable, but Jewish-Muslim relationships are rising and an increasing number are attending the annual "I'm Jewish, My Partner Isn't" seminars at the Sternberg Centre.

In some ways, it should be no surprise. Intermarriage has been happening for centuries in England, but the rate then accelerated in the 1950s, while estimates today hover at 50 per cent. Until recently, it had to been to Christians, whether religious or nominal, or to those without any faith. However, the latter still came from a Christian cultural background, so issues such as "what to do at Christmas?" may have been difficult, but at least were familiar.

In recent decades, however, many within the Islamic community have been integrating into British society. There might be more burkhas on the streets than before, but there are also a growing number living and working outside Muslim circles. So Jews and Muslims now meet at the office or gym or coffee shop. But if the couples fall in love, will their families feel the same?

One obvious problem is the mutual misperception. For some Jews, Muslims are seen as suicide-bombers or, lately, beheaders. For their part, some Muslims view Jews as Uzi-toting Zionists who terrorise Palestinians and bomb their children.That is not a happy image to take to a wedding reception. In some cases, the chasm is too vast to bridge; in others, actually meeting a real live Jew or Muslim melts the stereotypes away.

Do marriages between Jews and Muslims work?

There is also a status issue: Judaism goes through the mother's line and Islam through that of the father. So, if Sarah marries Mohammed, both sides will claim the child, while if Hymie weds Fatimah, then it is less clear. Either way, there is potential for the bringing up of children to become a religious battleground.

In other respects, Jewish-Muslim unions are much easier than those with Christian partners: they don't involve the couple going through the trauma of deciding what to do about circumcision, with many of the latter objecting on the grounds that it is "barbaric" or "mutilation". There is also much less angst over what is and is not acceptable to eat. So there are no fights over bacon and eggs for breakfast, ham sandwiches for lunch and pork chops for dinner. It's very convenient not to have thrice-daily arguments.

Another "advantage" is that it is members of two minority groups marrying - so they share a similar perspective on wider society, respect each other's identity, and avoid the danger of being swallowed up into the majority culture.

Do Jewish-Muslim marriages work? It all depends on two factors. First, how much the couple have discussed in advance the issues they will face. Second, whether their respective families are hostile or helpful.

What attitude should the Jewish community take? As with all mixed-faith marriages, the issue is not "is this desirable?"- because, in today's open and pluralist society, a certain percentage of such marriages is inevitable. Instead, the question is: "how do we react?"

On an individual level, being welcoming is more likely to keep the Jewish partner Jewish and secure the next generation. More generally, an unintended consequence may be that the increasing Jewish-Muslim households will help bring the two communities closer together.

November 24, 2016 23:18

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