Richard Stone: British Jews and Muslims are natural allies

From a talk by the adviser to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, to the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation conference in Rabat

Wednesday 15 August 2001 00:00 BST

It has to be an extremely narrow-minded person to deny that Muslims and Jews on the north-west edge of Europe are other than natural allies.

It has to be an extremely narrow-minded person to deny that Muslims and Jews on the north-west edge of Europe are other than natural allies. The common history of Muslims and Jews, particularly when Jews lived under Muslim rule, demonstrates the creative partnerships that blossomed and benefited both communities in all but a few periods of their coexistence. It is only in the last 60 years that the politics of the Middle East have destroyed much of the capacity for people from these two sister faiths to live, work and enjoy life together.

British Jewish students have in recent months come under attack from anti-Zionist extremists. Support has come from moderate groupings in many student societies, including Islamic societies. It has not been easy for moderate Muslims to speak out against the extremists, who can be quite threatening.

It has been frightening and distressing for young Jewish students who have recently left home and are in their first year at university to be shouted at and attacked on the basis that they are somehow responsible for the acts of the Israeli government: "All Jews are racists and deserve to die." In the same way, support across the board has been strong for Muslim students who are attacked for being "responsible for acts of the Taliban and of all terrorists around the world".

With a history of Jews living in peace with Muslims for more than 1,000 years, it seems strange that the two communities in Britain live mainly in separate worlds. Partly this is because the majority of British Muslims came to the country in the last 50 years. The generation of British-educated and mainly British-born Muslims is only just coming to positions of power, aided by the change of government in 1997. British Jews, on the other hand, have had places in the corridors of power in significant numbers for more than 100 years.

There is also the matter of colour prejudice. British Jews see themselves as capable of assimilation, able to slip unnoticed into white British society. That white British society has managed to maintain anti-Jewish prejudice and keep Jews at arm's length from total acceptance is strongly denied by many wishful thinkers of British Jewry. Jews may try to pretend to themselves that the typically British subtle anti-Semitism has gone away. It has not. Conor Cruise O'Brien, the eminent Irish statesman, accurately described anti-semitism as "a very light sleeper". British Jews need to remember the over-confidence of German Jews in the 1920s and 30s.

During the seven years of peace process recently in the Middle East, there were few obstacles to dialogue between Muslims and Jews in the UK. The collapse into chaos and murder has inevitably had a strong negative effect. Muslims who maintain the dialogue come under nasty verbal attack from extremist groups in their own communities. They are shouted at as not being true Muslims because they talk with Jews who are cast as the enemy of Islam.

Jews who talk with Muslims can be attacked from two sides. From within their own community they are told that they are taking grave risks since "all Muslims are potential terrorists". By Muslim extremists, Jews are told they are all Zionist imperialists, guilty of murder of innocent Palestinian children today, and also in the past in Sabra and Shatila.

In the face of such unpleasant experiences, some people understandably decide that it is more comfortable to take the easy road, and drop out of dialogue. Others stick it out, saying that dialogue is more important than ever. They feel that a time will come, sadly probably after many more deaths 2,500 miles away, when British Muslims and British Jews will need to know who in the other's community can be trusted when it becomes popular again to demonstrate links publicly.

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