Mitzvah Day helps us triumph over hatred

December 05, 2016 00:35

In November 2005, the UK was still coming to terms with the religiously motivated murder of 52 London commuters just a few months before. It was a time of intense suspicion and distrust, of almost unprecedented tension between the diverse communities that make up modern Britain. Into the middle of all that came Laura Marks and Mitzvah Day.

It was a much-needed ray of sunshine in a dark time, showing how religious faith can be an incredible force for good and breaking down some of the barriers that had grown up between us.

Since then Mitzvah Day has gone from strength to strength, supporting a huge range of good works from Britain's Jewish community, and inspiring similar projects in other faith groups. This is no surprise. It was the Kotzker Rebbe who said he wanted "followers who are too busy doing good that they won't have time to do bad".

But it's a sentiment that's echoed by all the major religions; I certainly remember being taught similar lessons in the mosque as a boy.

And right now - whichever holy text we subscribe to, whether we worship any god or none - it seems particularly important that we live the values the Kotzker Rebbe described.

Mitzvah Day was a ray of sunshine in dark times

The year 2016 has not been a great one for community cohesion. The spike in hate crime following the European referendum has thankfully receded, but for those affected it wasn't just a blip on a graph. It left people traumatised, hurt, and fearful about the future.

For British Jews, it came after they had already experienced the second highest level of antisemitic incidents ever recorded during the first six months of the year. It's a problem I've talked about before and it's one that doesn't appear to be going away; as I write this, I've just seen the horrific images of swastikas daubed on cars and vans parked outside a Jewish school in Stoke Newington.

It's completely unacceptable. That's why the government is taking robust action to ensure the safety and security of the Jewish community, for example by investing £13 million in improved security for Jewish schools and community sites.

Our four-year Hate Crime Action Plan will make it easier to report and record antisemitic abuse, and will also hit the perpetrators with tougher sentences.

And earlier this week I hosted a multi-faith round table with the Home Secretary to see what else we can do to combat religiously motived hate crime.

As well as senior figures from all major faith groups, we also spoke to representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter about what more they can do to tackle online abuse. But, as Communities Secretary, I don't want any British community to feel it has to live, learn and worship under heavy security in order to be safe.

So while tackling the symptoms of religious intolerance is undoubtedly important, we also need to look at the causes and do what we can to nip hatred in the bud.

That's why I'm proud that my department supports initiatives like Inter Faith Week, which ran last week. And we're also funding hundreds of small projects up and down the country, from cookery clubs to coding classes, that bring together people from different religious and ethnic groups.

For example, we've seen Jewish, Muslim and Christian organisations in Leeds setting up a café where people of all faiths and none can get to know each other, while the Nottingham Liberal Synagogue has partnered with a local Muslim organisation to provide hot meals for vulnerable people.

Of course, this is exactly the type of faith-based community action that is at the heart of Mitzvah Day. So, on behalf of everyone in government, I want to thank each and every one of the countless Jewish volunteers who will be giving freely of their time this weekend.

You will be helping those in need. But you will also be building friendships across ethnic and religious divides. And, ultimately, that is how we will triumph over fear and intolerance. Not by building ever-higher walls to hide behind. But by having the courage to break down the barriers between us.

December 05, 2016 00:35

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