These are tough times for Britain’s Jewish and Muslim communities. Both feel under attack, and with good reason – racial abuse, hatred and assault rates are up amid the rising mood of nationalism sweeping Europe.
Although most attacks against both groups are carried out by white males, the perception remains that relations between Jews and Muslims must be characterized by hostility and mistrust.
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“The difference is exacerbated by geography; we don’t live together in the same areas,” explains veteran interfaith activist Laura Marks. “Sixty percent of Jewish children are in Jewish schools and a third of all Jews live in five London boroughs. The Midlands has a large Muslim population, but there’s only a handful of Jews there so vast swaths don’t meet each other.”
Marks and her friend Julie Siddiqi, a former executive director of the Islamic Society of Britain, decided a new approach was needed.
They set up Nisa-Nashim (“women” in Arabic and Hebrew) 18 months ago, with the idea that women were the ones best placed to build personal and real relationships.
That spirit of sisterhood was very much in evidence at the group’s inaugural conference, in central London on Sunday: 200 Muslim and Jewish attendees discussed hate crime, social change and interreligious marriage (interspersed with yoga and music).
Nisa-Nashim now has 17 groups across the country, with plans to set up another 10 by the end of the year. The groups organize potluck dinners and events around religious festivals, but the emphasis is, above all, on building personal friendships.
“Each group has a Jewish and Muslim cochair,” says Marks. “There’s an absolute assumption that we are partners in this.”
Women at the conference said such initiatives are sorely needed. Last year saw a record number of reported incidents of anti-Semitism, reflecting an ongoing trend. Muslims are also being targeted: the two weeks following last June’s Brexit vote saw a fourfold increase in the number of reported anti-Muslim attacks. Women who wear hijabs are the ones bearing the brunt of the violence.
Although the women come from a range of levels of observance, “there are so many similarities between religious Jewish women and religious Muslim women,” says Jemma Levene, deputy director of anti-racism campaign group Hope Not Hate.
“We’re much better educated than people think we are, and we have to navigate a male-dominated community in the same way,” she adds.
Indeed, Marks cochaired a 2011 study that found women occupied less than a quarter of paid senior management roles in major Jewish organizations.
Siddiqi says she has no figures for the extent of women’s leadership in the Muslim community – but “it’ll be worse,” she says, bluntly.
“Mosques are very much in need of an overhaul,” she says. “Most don’t have women on the boards and all the CEOs of our charities are men, too.”
Despite the tensions, relations between Britain’s near-300,000 Jews and 2.8 million Muslims tend to be much better than elsewhere in Europe. The two communities have numerous common concerns – not least faith schools, circumcision and religious slaughter – and do share best practice on an institutional level.
The monitoring body Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) was set up with help from the long-established Community Security Trust (CST), which monitors threats to U.K. Jews.
Siddiqi happily admits to “shamelessly copying” the concept behind Mitzvah Day – a hugely successful, annual social-action event set up by Marks in 2005 – and developing Sadaqa Day as a Muslim counterpart.
“It’s going in the right direction institutionally, but building real relationships and real friendships is crucial to moving forward and having real trust,” says Siddiqi.
One challenge is that the interfaith audience tends to be fairly self-selecting; only those drawn to outreach are likely to get involved.
“That’s okay, it’s a starting point,” says Marks. “They will invite friends who have never been to a Muslim person’s house or to a synagogue.”
That’s been the experience of Saher, a Muslim from the northern city of Leeds, who got up at 4.30 A.M. to make it to London in time for the conference. The solicitor said that although she was quite open-minded, with lots of non-Muslim friends and a Christmas tree at home each year, “I hadn’t really met many Jewish ladies before.”
But one topic was notably absent from the conference agenda: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
To date, Nisa-Nashim has operated on the principle of identifying and naming what Marks calls “the elephant in the room,” but then allowing it to trample everything in its wake.
“We know that it is a big bone of contention, but we believe if we start off a relationship with Muslim women by saying ‘Let’s talk about Gaza,’ we reach deadlock straight away,” says Marks. “Either we won’t talk at all or it will be a futile discussion. So let’s acknowledge that and shelve it, and come back to it later on.”
“I can’t wait until the time we can talk about it – if you have trust and friendship, you can talk about anything – but for now we name it, then park it,” Siddiqi concurs.
Ironically, many conference participants cite the conflict as the reason they were drawn to Nisa-Nashim.
Suhana Chowdhury, a 35-year-old Londoner who works for a literacy charity, said she thought it was important to not let Middle-East tensions poison relations between communities elsewhere in the world.
“I can see the pros and cons of not discussing Israel and Palestine,” she concedes. “There’s so much emotion and there are so many different views – it’s so raw. In this situation, it’s sensible to limit discussion and concentrate on where we are now.”