By Ian SHARER, Liberal Democrat councillor, Hackney
Recently, Andy Warhol’s famous words came to mind: “Everybody has 15 minutes of fame.”
I was contacted by several excited media outlets regarding a meeting I had facilitated between the local elders of the Muslim community in Hackney together with myself, two fellow Liberal Democrat councillors and Mr Chaim Hochhauser, a senior member of an Orthodox Jewish organisation based in Stamford Hill called Shomrim (which literally means ‘to guard’).
Some might think a cross-communal gathering such as this is unusual. But to me and to my fellow councillors, Dawood Akoon, a religious Muslim and Abraham Jacobson, a member of the Charedi community, it is a monthly occurrence.
Let me explain. I have been a councillor in the Cazenove Ward in Hackney for more than 10 years. It is the duty of each councillor to hold a surgery at least once a month and we recently held one in the North London Muslim Community Centre.
I approached the chairman of the NLMCC, a friend called Mohammed Munaf Zina, who was only too pleased to agree to this. I then met Salim Patel, secretary for the local mosque, and finally Yousef Ameeret, chair of the interfaith Hackney Advisory Group who also sits on prominent Muslim committees.
Following the tragic murder of drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich and the arson attack of the Somali Community Centre in Muswell Hill, it was obvious that action was needed to help protect our Muslim neighbours.
It was a small step for me to see that Shomrim might provide the answer.
Before going on, let me explain what a unique organisation Shomrim is and why I thought it could help. I was present with Chaim Hochhauser at the first meeting of Shomrim in 2008, when the idea was floated to have Jewish volunteers on call 24-hours a day to respond to anti-Semitic incidents in the area.
With the help of the then borough commander, Shomrim was given full backing and training by the local police to have neighbourhood patrols. It has now grown to 22 members who are on call to the local community and also offer back-up to the police when there is an emergency like a missing child.
Shomrim has played a major role in lowering local crime figures, assisting in numerous arrests. Its work has been praised by the police. It is, to all intents and purposes, the eyes and ears of the officers. So when I raised the idea, Chaim Hochhauser agreed immediately to a meeting, as did my Muslim contacts. It took place in the Muslim Community Centre two days later, and both sides were delighted with the outcome.
One day later, Shomrim added local Islamic centres to their petrol routes and emergency call-out numbers were given to the local leaders. Since then, security training has been ongoing with various Jewish organisations meeting Muslim counterparts.
While it may come as a surprise to others, this type of cross-communal co-operation does not surprise me. Indeed, good relations have benefitted both communities. For example, when there is a planning applications for a shul or Jewish school, there is always written support from local Muslims.
It is this kind of dialogue and co-operation that gave birth to the Jewish-Muslim forum, of which I was a founder member three years ago. This committee for dialogue between the faiths has been replicated in other areas of the country.
When local Muslim football teams held five-a-side competitions for teams between the ages of eight and 15, Councillor Jacobson and I were invited to give a speech and hand out the winners’ prizes. We were treated with warmth and respect, and asked to stay for dinner, where we were each served a Kedassia meal.
I cannot think of a better example to illustrate how – in Hackney – dialogue and co-operation is not the exception, but the rule.