Laura Marks

Jews and Muslims should unite in fight against racism

Lack of contact between the two communities fosters negative misconceptions

March 28, 2018 12:10

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis spoke out bravely last week about antisemitism in a way which he alone could do.  But the issue he raised, of Muslim clerics not speaking out, is complex and the issue can’t be understood in isolation.

Antisemitism is, as we know, on the rise with the Community Security Trust reporting their highest figures to date. The far right, traditional racists and antisemites, are gaining ground, particularly but not only in Europe and, crucially, targets not only Jews, but Muslims, all immigrants and of course many other people who are "different" too. 

This is a key area of similarity with our Muslim neighbours and countering the rhetoric of hate from the right is a joint challenge which I have seen tackled collectively. 

While antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred have their similarities, they are different too. Anti-Muslim hatred is out there on the streets every day. I haven’t met a Muslim woman (particularly in a hijab) who hasn’t been abused verbally or even physically here in the UK, often on the bus or the tube, going about everyday life.  Most of them don’t report it as it seems to have become "normal", but we can hardly imagine the effect that fear of this type of abuse must have on the lives of Muslim people and it helps explain why the Muslim community often feels the need to hide behind "barriers".

We can identify with this. Each time an extremist, claiming to act in the name of Islam, strikes, anti-Muslim attacks increase against wholly innocent people living here in our midst.  The Punish a Muslim letter, posted to Muslims around the country, was a truly terrifying campaign, calling on people to physically attack their Muslim neighbours on a particular day in April.

Antisemitism, however, is more nuanced; sometimes it is in a general agreement that Jews somehow rule the world, the markets, government and of course, the media.  It may also been manifested through overt denial or more often, pernicious undermining of the facts about the Holocaust. 

In addition, we live with, and are regularly terrified by evidence of vociferous hatred of Israel which often spills over to hatred of Jews. Antisemitism also, unlike anti-Muslim hatred, manifests itself in left-wing politics at a very senior level which seems so inconceivable to many people, Jews and others, as to be easily brushed off as scaremongering.

The biggest challenge of all seems to be calling out antisemitism within the Muslim community or indeed, anti-Muslim hatred within the Jewish community.  I have seen both – the former was well documented by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research last year, and we know the second, while not as clearly substantiated, exists within our own community; the Golders Green Islamic Centre being a recent and embarrassingly uncomfortable example.

There are, thankfully, Muslim leaders who speak out on antisemitism but they risk backlash from people in their own community who genuinely don’t recognise antisemitism exists, who choose not to recognise it, or who dismiss these leaders as supporters of the demon Zionist state. Those who do stand up against antisemitism are brave – and I am proud to know and work with several, including some magnificent women, through Nisa-Nashim, the Jewish-Muslim network, with 30 local chapters nationwide.

The specific issue of clerics speaking out is also uncomfortable because we like to believe that faith leaders are more tolerant, respectful and generous of spirit than the rest of us. Sadly, not all clerics, indeed of any faith, are the moral leaders we crave and also, like anyone, clerics are part of their faith community and live within its social, political and financial pressures.  Even the most morally exemplary ministers don’t always stand up to be counted, preferring instead to hide away inside their own communities.

And this retreating into our communities is where, I believe, we can all play our part. There is clear evidence cited by the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at the University of Coventry in a report for Mitzvah Day, that positive interactions between people who don’t normally meet can help break down prejudice. Jews and Muslims often have powerful negative misconceptions about one another and the lack of contact between the two communities, at a local, grass roots level where we all actually live, is a pattern into which we retreat so easily. These negatives, challenged best through local activity, lie at the heart of the problem. 

Yes, for sure, we need more Muslim leaders to speak out about antisemitism but to facilitate this, we can all play a part in breaking down the ignorance that exists about the Jewish community, and indeed that exists about Muslims. Both communities are suffering in challenging times, and the time is right to acknowledge that, surely, together we are stronger.  

Laura Marks is a commentator and activist

March 28, 2018 12:10

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