Avoiding the trap of hate

On CiF, Asim Siddiqui and Adrian Cohen say this:

The past week has witnessed a surge in antisemitic incidents across London, anti-Israel daubings on synagogues and other Jewish communal buildings and antisemitic graffiti in areas known for their Jewish communities, hate mail sent to Jewish organisations and communal leaders and, more seriously, an arson attack on a synagogue and a mob shouting anti-Israel and antisemitic slogans on the main road in Golders Green. Jewish Londoners have good reason to feel anxious. Events in the Middle East are impacting on the security of Jews far beyond the borders of Israel. Security at Jewish schools and synagogues has been tightened in the light of a threat against Jews everywhere by Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, on Al-Aqsa TV. Jewish Londoners remember the terrorist attacks of 1992 and 1994 on Israeli and Jewish targets in Buenos Aires, in which Iran and Hizbullah were implicated.

For Jewish Londoners, this is not just a concern for their personal security. While there is a wide variety of views about the current Israeli military action, many share the worries of Israelis about the intentions of Iran and its proxies, Hizbullah in the north and Hamas in the south, which, if unchecked, are in a position through ever-increasing military capability to make large parts of the country uninhabitable. The military entanglement of Israel with Hamas is itself a concern, the loss of civilian life in the Gaza Strip, the continued rocket fire into Israeli towns and Israeli casualties. Many Jewish Londoners have relatives living in Israel. Every time an incident takes place in Israel, London’s Jews reach for their phones to check on loved ones living in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, for Muslim Londoners, there is deep anger at the large numbers of civilians being killed as a consequence of Israeli military action (even if as a result of rocket fire from Hamas). The feeling of many British Muslims is that Israel must have known in advance the likely civilian death toll that would result from such a military operation on a densely-populated society, but decided it was a price Israel was prepared to accept for its own security, rather than exhausting other possible options.

The sharply deteriorating humanitarian situation, which was already dire due to the stand-off between Hamas and Israel and the blockade, are being watched with disbelief in Muslim homes across London.

Much of that anger – shared outside Muslim communities, too – is directed at Israel, but also variously at Hamas, Egypt, the US and the UK, depending on political outlook and perspective, as was seen by marches from Glasgow to London last Saturday. But there is a broad consensus that somehow Muslim lives are considered cheap and that the international community continues to fail to exert any meaningful pressure on Israel to take the peace process more seriously. A huge effort is being made by British Muslims to get vital humanitarian aid into Gaza, which is being frustrated by the military conflagration and blockade, and the inexplicable difficulties in getting aid over the border from Egypt into Gaza.

Some British Muslims also feel that when they try to express support for Palestinian self-determination, then they are too quickly labelled as “Islamist” or “terrorist-sympathisers”. Likewise for Jews, gratuitous references to the Holocaust and the use of antisemitic tropes and imagery by some politicians, commentators and campaigners are both distressing and alarming. We need to create more safe spaces where young Muslims and Jews are free to debate and think through these issues, without fear of demonisation.

In this context, there is little direct inter-communal dialogue between Jews and Muslims. Now is not the time for “bagels and bhajis”. Let’s start up an honest discussion about the substantive political issues of Israel/Palestine, Zionism (of all political varieties) versus Palestinian nationalism (Fatah or Hamas), which, even at the best of times, have never been at the top of the agenda of inter-faith or cross-community dialogue, and yet – while these issues are ducked – events in the Middle East will continue to have the effect of stifling real inter-communal solidarity, something really needed for long-term social cohesion.

Londoners should be ideally building communities together, but that requires us to build trust and honesty between each other. We need to find a language that allows us to express strongly-held views about events overseas, without increasing the divisions between our communities here at home. What is needed is a move to educate each other about the aspirations, religious, communal and national of each other in all their variety and complexity and to develop empathy between us.

We are in danger of living parallel narratives. Part of the success of London, specifically, is as a result of its multireligious and multiethnic environment, but the time has come for Londoners to develop a shared story in order to have a meaningful and secure future. This responsibility lies with those of us living and working here. The same is true in towns and cities up and down the land.

But, beyond this, it means establishing a broad coalition in support of a secure Israel and a free Palestine, and an isolation of all those who wish to perpetuate the cycle of violence.