Muslim-Jewish Relations Must Confront the Palestinian Issue

The Gaza war has highlighted the Palestinian ‘elephant in the room’ in U.K. Muslim-Jewish dialogue as well as the U.K.’s foreign policy double standards on Israel. Can interfaith contact survive?

Fiyaz Mughal
Fiyaz Mughal
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Thousands of protesters march through Whitehall in central London, to call for an end to Israeli military action in Gaza and 'justice and freedom' for Palestine, July 19, 2014.
Thousands of protesters march through Whitehall in central London, to call for an end to Israeli military action in Gaza and 'justice and freedom' for Palestine, July 19, 2014.Credit: AP
Fiyaz Mughal
Fiyaz Mughal

The fallout from the Israel-Gaza conflict has not only has led to massive carnage in the Middle East, it also – depressingly – exposed a swathe of political and intercommunal fault lines within the U.K. and between Jewish and Muslim communities here.

Those who might have thought that the issue of Palestine would over time fade into political insignificance in terms of the U.K.’s political discourse must have been taken aback by the strong reaction to the fighting from both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli sides.

In the latest Gaza conflict, Twitter effectively has become the battleground for ideas and opinions, and the live pictures, the pain, ferocity and rhetoric made this a platform to activate another generation of young Muslims around the world to become politicized, activated and energized by a desire to speak out against what they perceive to be a glaring injustice.

In the U.K., as in many other parts of the world, young Jewish and Muslim men and women - who have so much in common, and who may have worked together on interfaith or social cohesion projects – gravitated to opposite poles when the conflict started. Yet bizarrely, when discussions went back to issues of interfaith projects and activities, discussions resumed as if none of the vitriolic bile thrown by each side had ever happened, though the "normalization" of relations is far from what it was before this latest operation.

Now, for Muslim-Jewish interfaith dialogue, the Israel/Palestine elephant in the room looms larger than ever, bloated with a life of its own. It is interesting to note that one Islamic community leader in the U.K. who talked to me in confidence about the support that Jewish communities had given him after an Islamophobic attack on his center said that mentioning this support had led to a torrent of abuse from members of his own congregation. He commented that he would in future want to downplay such support given the acerbic statements he had received. Phone texts from members of his community shown to me asked him to refrain from interfaith activities with Jewish communities because of the Gaza conflict.

Exacerbating the tension between the two communities and the ‘them or us’ dynamic is the fact that extreme groups have jumped in opportunistically to exploit the Gaza crisis. For example, members of far-right groups such as the English Defence League and Britain First have expressed some of the most stalwart support for Israel. Within some of these far-right groups, anti-Muslim rhetoric and deeply bigoted messages make up the mainstay of their propaganda and online activities.

On the pro-Palestinian side, we have a complement of conspiracy theorists, anarchists and those looking for an avenue to promote some of their anti-Semitic views.

Yet, what is lost in all of this polarization is mutual recognition: The very real pain and suffering of the innocent men, women and children in Gaza who have endured occupation and collective punishment for so long. Empathy and care for those civilians in Israel who have lost their lives and who fear rocket attacks. In the political melee it seems that the main thing missing is our common humanity and sense of empathy for each other.

In the wider national debate, the U.K. Muslim community has a strong perception that the UK government is behaving according to double standards towards Israel which have been re-enforced through successive military operations in Gaza and the 2006 Second Lebanon War. On the latter many still remember the deafening silence from the then-Prime Minister, Tony Blair, as the July war and Israel’s invasion led to many civilian deaths in Lebanon.

The U.K.’s coalition government has talked about a foreign policy whose core values are based on humanitarian interventionism. Through the Foreign Office’s Human Rights Department, it has pushed for Christian, Shia and Ahmadiyya rights in Pakistan, whilst also pushing for minority rights in Iraq, Bahrain, Iran, to name a few. But on Gaza – silence.

When Britain's first Muslim cabinet minister, Sayeeda Warsi, recently resigned from her government post, this absence came to the fore. Whatever the U.K. public may have made of her resignation, there’s no escaping the one simple fact of the double standards she raised regarding the U.K. government’s position on Israeli violations of human rights and the lack of a robust call for the killing and suffering to stop (despite a tentative U.K. government return to the fray during the failed ceasefire negotiations several weeks ago). In one of Baroness Warsi’s outgoing interviews she sums up the feeling of perceived double standards by the current U.K. government:

“One of the arguments I’ve heard from people is ‘Why don’t you criticise Assad?’ Well we did. ‘Why don’t you criticise ISIS?’ Well we did. ‘Why don’t you criticise Iran?’ We did. ‘Why don’t you criticise Putin?’ We did. ‘Why don’t you criticise Israel?’ Well, we didn’t. That’s the difference.”

It is a difference which no doubt will resonate with Muslim communities and beyond in the U.K. and one which has scored an own goal against any form of an ethical foreign policy in the eyes of many Muslims. Whatever the future holds, a consistent foreign policy means a reduced set of grievances and fewer chances for those with extreme agendas to take hold.

For far too long, the issue of Palestine has been pushed to the side in work on interfaith relations and the prevention of radicalization. This is the case even when senior U.K. civil servants, in departments such as the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government, quietly acknowledge the impact that the Palestinian issue has on general community cohesion and its role within the Muslim community as a longstanding grievance, and its impact – as one amid several factors - on triggering extremism within the U.K. Muslim community. Palestine has been used by extremists as a rallying call, because of the strength of emotions with which it resonates and has done over a long period of time.

If we are to try and overcome the chronic as well as the acute damage to Muslim and Jewish relations caused by tensions over Palestine and Israel, to build a genuinely solid and sustainable interfaith relationship, we all need to come out of our comfort zones and take steps to ensure that we all are willing to listen, engage and really talk about at least some of the issues that increasingly divide us. As well as religious and lay leaders this must also include U.K. civil servants providing platforms for such engagement, actively resourcing them and having the stomach and commitment to stand by such work. Only then, can we try and untangle the polarization that our communities find ourselves in.

Fiyaz Mughal OBE is the founder and director of the interfaith organisation Faith Matters , and of TELL MAMA, which support victims of anti-Muslim hate and maps, monitors and measures levels of anti-Muslim bigotry in England and Wales. Follow him on Twitter at @tellmamauk.

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