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News Editor Justin Cohen addressing the interfaith launch. (Photo credit: Marc Morris)

On Thursday 20 November, the Jewish News launched its online interfaith section – the only such dedicated portal from any single-faith media outlet.

Here is the speech given by news editor Justin Cohen at the launch. 

Communities minister, Lord Ahmad, Lords, Ladies, members of Parliament, distinguished guests. I’m Justin Cohen, news editor of the Jewish News and it’s a tremendous honour to welcome you here to the launch of our online interfaith channel, in partnership with the Pears Foundation.

Such a gathering would of course have been unthinkable when this mother of all Parliaments was established back in 1801 – a time when non-Anglicans could not even take up seats in the House. But today, 156 years after Lionel de Rothschild became the first Jewish MP, politicians of all faiths and none serve as lawmakers and equals in the heart of a city that’s one of the most diverse on earth.

And so it’s a particular pleasure to be here during Interfaith Week and for this event to be jointly hosted by Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem politicians spanning three of the world’s major faiths. Huge thanks to Mike Freer, Lord Levy and Lord Verjee for hosting today’s celebration. Lord Verjee sends his apologies for not being able to join us, as does the Secretary of State who is in Rochester as we speak.

Of the hundreds of events I’ve covered for the paper over the years, perhaps the one that left the biggest impression was attending the annual pilgrimage to the ancient Ghriba Synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba. Many will be familiar with the name of this shul because of the 2002 bombing that left 19 people dead.

But what I witnessed is far less well known: Jews from near and far parading through the streets of a predominantly Muslim country with a Torah scroll proudly held aloft. I’ll always remember seeing Muslim locals – men, women, and children – hanging out of windows and doors to catch a glimpse of the spectacle, and waving enthusiastically at participants.

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Justin Cohen (center) with Mike Free MP (In blue) and other esteemed guests (Photo credit: Marc Morris)

Few would disagree with Prince Charles when he said recently that we are yet to fully realise the potential of faiths working together. But inspiring stories of coexistence, cooperation and friendship exist in that part of the world and they certainly exist here too.

When Bradford’s last synagogue faced urgent repair bills that couldn’t be met by the community’s dwindling membership, it was the secretary of a local mosque and other Muslim neighbours that sprung into action to raise thousands of pounds. When the Al-Rahma Islamic Centre was destroyed in a suspected arson attack in Muswell Hill last year, it was the area’s Jews that rallied around. And there are so many other examples of the communities coming together to benefit society.

Yet many have the false impression that people of different faiths are at constant loggerheads. The facts tell another story. Whether it’s religious slaughter, circumcision, countering racism or faith schools, those people fail to realise or ignore the fact there’s much more that unites the various communities than divides them.

This new channel will shine a year-round light on the many many examples of faiths working together day in and day out. Collaborations that benefit wider society; joint initiatives to defend our religious practises; and projects that simply unite people who may otherwise have never met. It will be a platform for the headline-grabbing stories but also for those that wouldn’t normally gain column inches.

But at the same time it won’t whitewash the realities on the ground or ignore the many challenges facing the interfaith world. The questions of what makes an acceptable partner for interfaith dialogue…what issues should and shouldn’t be raised ..these were all prominent topics for debate in our pages this summer and I’m sure will continue on the site.

Some may suggest that it’s too soon after the summer that many of us would prefer to forget to launch this initiative – a summer when we reporting on the heart-breaking events in the Middle East and found ourselves on the front line of another battle as the conflict spilled into the UK. The unimaginably atrocity in Har Nof on Tuesday was a painful reminder of the threats Israelis continue to face and the devastating impact events there can have on families here. But perhaps this makes it all the more urgent to talk – not to everyone and anyone – but to get to know other people as people. Whether or not that talk should extend to matters beyond these shores, whether there is anything to be gained from doing so, is another matter that will no doubt be discussed.

What is not up for debate is that lack of contact between – and knowledge about – people leaves room for misconceptions to take hold. This section won’t change the world. But by providing this dedicated forum – the first of its kind for any single faith media – we hope the show the extent of cooperation and do just a little bit to counter false perceptions among the faiths communities and among those looking at them from outside. It’s also significant that this is online initiative as this is where young people – the leaders of tomorrow – are increasingly looking for news and information.

There are a number of people I’d like to thank for getting us to this point. Trevor Pears, thank you for putting your confidence in the Jewish News to deliver this important initiative and I hope this is just the start of a productive relationship between the paper and your Foundation. Thanks also to Shoshana Boyd-Gelfand and also to the team at Department for Communities and Local Government who have shown such enthusiasm for this initiative from the moment it was suggested –particularly Hilary Patel who deserves a week off to recover from my constant bombardment of emails at all times of the day and night. Don’t worry, there are others in this room know how you feel…..

Lord Ahmad, you have only been in your post for a couple of months, but I’ve lost count of the number of people who have mentioned to me your enthusiasm and desire to engage. The fact that both you and Eric Pickles accepted our invitation to attend this event speaks volumes and I’m delighted to announce tonight that you both have agreed to be regular contributors to the channel. It’s a huge honour to welcome you to say a few words…

WATCH MORE:

JNTV: Lord Ahmad speaks at Jewish News interfaith launch: http://www.jewishnews.co.uk/jntv-lord-ahmad-speaks-jewish-news-interfaith-launch/

IN PICTURES: Jewish News Interfaith channel launch: http://www.jewishnews.co.uk/pictures-jewish-news-interfaith-channel-launch/