London's multicultural character is one of the most striking aspects of its modern identity. It's a fragile complex, its patchwork fabric far from smooth, but, although intercommunal friction is inevitable, the occasional sparks rarely ignite fires of real consequence. For London's Jewish and Muslim communities, however, the current Gaza conflict threatens to send this delicate tapestry up in flames.
Relations between Jews and Muslims in London are traditionally good. We live side by side in North West London; halal and kosher shops occupy the same streets; Jewish and Muslim students populate the same classes. Although they might not be best friends, the close proximity of Muslims and Jews, and their interaction at school and work, means they share a sufficient level of trust to enjoy typically peaceful, cordial relations.
Suspicions do, however, persist, fueled by unfolding events in Israel/Palestine. Instinctively identifying with their corresponding "side," both Jews and Muslims have a tendency to transfer their mistrust of their Middle Eastern "enemy" to their London neighbors. Normally, these suspicions remain unvoiced, simmering softly beneath the surface, but any conflagration in the Holy Land can be enough to reactivate this dormant fear.
In the face of such fragility, there are groups working to cultivate deeper understanding between the communities. Synagogues and mosques regularly hold interfaith events; political and academic bodies increase dialogue between Muslims and Jews, while other groups engage in artistic collaboration. The Muslim-Jewish theater collective Muju, for example, eschews potentially divisive debate in favor of trust-building, inter-communal theater projects. Started in North West London four years ago, Muju produces events that see Jewish and Arab actors and comedians, graffiti artists and bands perform to audiences of skullcap- and hijab-wearing attendees. Along with other such projects, like Bristol's pioneering radio station Salaam Shalom, Muju has a profound impact at the grass-roots level, countering the dominant reality of conflict from Israel/Palestine with an alternative, but equally valid, reality of Jews and Muslims engaging productively with one another.
However, the Gaza conflict puts this delicate web at risk, as divisions between London's Jews and Muslims resurface. Angry rhetoric spawned violence during the first week of the offensive, when a small gang of reportedly Arab youths rampaged through Golders Green, attacking Jewish businesses, abusing locals and daubing anti-Semitic graffiti on shops. Just a few days later, my local synagogue endured an attempted arson attack. Though no one has been seriously injured, Jews remain shaken by events.
This is a new feeling. British Jews have rarely felt under threat from our Muslim neighbors; the stories of anti-Semitism emanating from Paris, for example, have always seemed alien to our own experiences. However, the events of the past weeks have led some Jews to voice a growing sense of discomfort.
Meanwhile, even nonviolent demonstrators have lacked sensitivity for their co-religionists. Outside the Israeli Embassy last week, police separated rival groups of protesters as they hurled abuse at one another. The pro-Palestinian demonstrators included British Muslims who held placards equating Israel with the Nazis, whereas pro-Israeli British Jews chanted the epithet of "terrorists" back at them. With alarming readiness, many Jewish and Muslim Londoners have spurned harmonious relations in favor of a foreign conflict.
While it is understandable for British Jews and Muslims to show solidarity with their kin in Israel and Palestine, it is disturbing the way elements of both communities are ready to reduce the conflict to a point-scoring contest - each "supporting" its "team," like two mobs of soccer hooligans squaring up on derby day. Protesters waving green flags, proudly proclaiming "We are Hamas," agitate for all-out war with Israel. Meanwhile, those who cheer the Israel Defense Forces' war machine seem to have no sense that the message the world will infer is not their sympathy with Israel's predicament, but their apparently proud complicity in its killing of civilians.
Jews and Muslims in Britain enjoy a fortunate degree of distance from the suffering in the Middle East. This perspective ought to be exploited to help Israelis and Palestinians transcend the perpetual cycle of war. Instead, by clashing in the streets, fueling the war rhetoric and resorting to anti-Semitic and Islamophobic name-calling, Jews and Muslims in Britain not only entrench the divisions between their own communities, but cheer on the war in the Middle East from the sidelines, safe in the knowledge that they will not be the ones to suffer.
In London, Jews and Muslims have an imperfect, but workable paradigm for coexistence. We must strive not only to maintain it, but also to think of how its principles might be exported to benefit Israel and Palestine. Those who do the reverse and import war from the Middle East to our hitherto harmonious land, are unforgivably killing two doves with one stone.
Josh Freedman Berthoud is a London-based writer, and co-author of "Forty Years In The Wilderness: A Tour of Israeli Settlements," to be published by Five Leaves next year.
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