Jews and Muslims in Manchester have created a shining example of communal co-operation. The Muslim Jewish Forum has spent a decade cementing ties between the two groups in the city. Such are its achievements that it was recently recognised with a national award.
But ask its members what the secret of its success is, and the answer is very simple — “Don’t mention the Middle East”.
Not talking about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is “the key to creating good relationships between Jews and Muslims,” said the forum’s company secretary Heather Fletcher.
“Why should we discuss issues which may divide us — that would defeat the object of the forum in bringing the two communities together? We want to create strong social ties between the two communities in Manchester.”
The forum holds 10 or more events a year where Muslims and Jews get to know each other.
We’ve put an end to Jews and Muslims living separate lives in Manchester
Mrs Fletcher said: “We want to challenge the stereotype that Muslims and Jews don’t get on. The purpose is to increase connections between the two groups. We believe people learn better through social interaction.”
Co-chair Mohammed Amin agrees that, for the communities to co-exist, the subject that normally divides them has to be off-limits.
“There is no reason to expect Muslims and Jews in Manchester who are co-operating, or who have become friends, to agree about the Middle East. Neither group is in any position to change circumstances in the Middle East.”
Concentrating on what unites Muslims and Jews has reaped huge benefits, he believed. “We share the experience of being an immigrant community surrounded by a larger host society. Religion is an important part of our lives. We share observances such as circumcision, and eating kosher or halal food.
“Our events emphasise these connections, but we don’t focus on theology, but rather upon activities with much wider interest, such as food. We do a kosher meal out, networking events, and Eid parties, which people love.”
With more than 500 members on its mailing list and up to 100 people attending events, the approach is working.
Mrs Fletcher says lasting friendships between the two communities have been created. “We have put an end to Muslims and Jews living separate lives in Manchester.
“I knew of Afzal Khan [the forum’s other co-founder] because we were both solicitors and rivals for divorce work. But, through the forum, we’ve become friends.
"As for Amin and his wife Tahara, and the novelist Qaisra Shahraz - I would never have even met any of them without the forum and now they are my close friends and regular holiday companions.”
Jackie Harrison says she, too, has made “loads of Muslim friends” over the eight year she has been a member. “When Muslims and Jews are together socially you realise we all get along and that is important,” she said.
Qaisra Sharaz, a Muslim writer, says being part of the group has given her “a better understanding and respect for the Jewish faith,” and she has “eagerly learnt about its customs and rituals and have found that there are more similarities than differences between the two faiths.
“Together we are passionate in our commitment to tackling Islamophobia and antisemitism.
“I have even written a story about the Holocaust, called Train to Krakow, to raise awareness about the suffering of the Jewish people.”
The forum was awarded the Spirit of Britain prize at the British Muslim Awards 2014 in January, beating the much larger Quilliam Foundation and the Christian Muslim Forum. It has also been shortlisted for a Manchester Jewish Community Award.
“It is nice to win things,” said Mrs Fletcher, “but the best thing is seeing a change in atmosphere in the city. People are more tolerant.”