Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Muslims can learn from this new Jewish group

The IJV is no different from the Muslims now emerging to halt the influence of the Muslim Council

Monday 12 February 2007 01:00

Some of my dearest friends are in the newly formed Independent Jewish Voices, which is why I have thus far desisted from commenting on this initiative. The restraint was necessary to avoid accusations of cronyism and to deny their detractors ammunition.

A hug from a Muslim and an advocate for Palestinian rights would have been grabbed as evidence to "prove" the IJV an enemy of its people. (One fanatical British Zionist has already branded the signatories: "a Jewish Fifth Column for Arab and Muslim terror"). But now, having witnessed such attacks building up from snide to poisonous to the verbally vicious, silence is no longer an option.

IJV is condemned because it dares to break free and think creatively about what it means to be Jewish in this troubled century. Honest diasporic Jewish people are becoming painfully aware that memories of the Holocaust have been manipulated by fundamentalist Zionists, for whom the only true test of Jewishness is that you support whatever the state of Israel chooses to do, right or appallingly wrong.

Moral deformity has become the loyalist's brand; conformity is commanded and policed by the prestigious Jewish Board of Deputies within the British establishment. Remember, in the 1930s the patriotic Board advised Jews not to fight back against Oswald Moseley's Black Shirts.

Well-placed individuals, the willing satellite voices of the Israeli state are incandescent too. If one of them (and they know who they are) ever ventured a straight denunciation of a single unacceptable act by the Israeli government or army, we would be reassured of their integrity. That they don't means these are propagandists as unworthy and untrustworthy as the press officers of the Saudi Government.

I don't here mean the handful (no more) of thoughtful British Jewish intellectuals who inhabit that space between Independent Jewish Voices and the Jewish establishment. Their critiques of the new dissenters are serious, even crucial, and should influence the nascent movement. Not to engage with legitimate critics would make the Jewish Voices as intolerant as the intolerance it is rising against.

In key ways, this breakout faction is no different from the many Muslim challengers emerging to halt the influence of the monolithic, regressive, self-serving, presumptuous, overweening Muslim Council of Britain, funded for years by the Government without any regard for the hundreds of thousands of British Muslims who have never accepted this informal jurisdiction over our lives and thoughts.

Iqbal Sacranie, with stars of ambition burning brightly in his eyes, once said to me: "We are going to model ourselves on the Jewish Board of Deputies. See how much power they have in this country when we have none." I agreed with his last point completely but was wary of his chosen destination.

Sacranie got there fast and efficiently, inveigled himself into the corridors of power, co-opted as many Muslim organisations as he could. The MCB gained favour by always excusing Muslims who behave terribly, and using the real suffering of some Muslims to promote their own unholy agenda.

Rebellious British Muslims have felt the same suffocation experienced by IJV as unelected community and religious leaders found subtle, sometimes rough, ways to discredit opposing views. Religion and race were used - if you voice any disagreements with the "official" line, or point out oppression within, you are charged with betraying the faith and faithful, bringing on the BNP and encouraging Islamophobia. And thus are we blackballed, decent Muslims who are concerned about the crisis we find ourselves in globally.

These days the threats feel feeble as the democratic urge gets stronger among British Muslims. Our new organisation, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, to be formally launched this year, is attracting an extraordinary range of people, including young women in hijab. I am delighted that we are only one of a flurry of other nascent collectives which will disagree with each other and us. Between us we can turn compliant Muslim citizens away from monopolistic control to embrace participatory democratic activity. That is our dream.

For reformist Jewish people who seek the same, the pressure not to do so must be that much worse. Already denounced as luvvies, traitors, splitters, and "congenital Israel bashers", next they will be accused of supporting Palestinian suicide bombers and genocidal anti-Semite exterminators.

I hope IJV remains steady as the winds blow to pull it down. It won't be easy. Members should take courage from the fact that within Israel itself are principled people who reject the racist ideologies of Zionism for the sake of Jewish survival. Read The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe, the Israeli historian: "The problem with Israel was never its Jewishness - Judaism has many faces and many of them provide a solid basis for peace and cohabitation; it is its ethnic Zionist character.

"Zionism does not have the same margins of pluralism that Judaism offers, especially not for the Palestinians. They can never be part of the Zionist state and space and will continue to fight - and hopefully their struggle will be peaceful and successful.

"If not, it will be desperate and vengeful and, like a whirlwind, will suck up all in a huge, perpetual sandstorm that will rage not only through the Arab and Muslim worlds, but also within Britain and the US, the powers which, each in their turn, feed the tempest that threatens to ruin us all."

British Jews separating from the Board of Deputies, and Muslims distancing themselves from the Muslim Council, may have taken the first tentative steps to prevent this catastrophe. Wish us luck; too many wish us harm.


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