Grassroots relationship building, rather than polarising discussions on Israel and the Palestinians, is the only way to build bridges between British Jews and Muslims after the Gaza conflict.
That was the verdict of leading voices from both communities at a high-profile debate on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia this week.
Mehdi Hasan, Political Editor of Huffington Post UK, told the 400-strong audience: “The only way to get past these issues is through local initiatives on the ground. When people have a prejudice, facts and figures will not change that. The only thing that changes people’s minds are relationships.”
Organised by The Guardian, the event brought together Hasan and Jewish journalist Jonathan Freedland to discuss ancient and renewed tensions between Muslims and Jews in the wake of the latest Gaza conflict. Hasan is known for his outspoken articles, notably a New Statesman piece in which he revealed anti-semitism as the Muslim community’s “dirty little secret.”
In what seemed a balanced and constructive discussion, the columnist highlighted the fundraising efforts of Bradford’s Muslim community that saved the city’s synagogue in 2013 as a striking example of how cross-cultural collaboration can build crucial friendships. He also praised the Eid c
elebration hosted by Finchley Synagogue for the Somali Bravanese community after their mosque was attacked by arson.
Both Freedland and Hasan emphasised the importance of clearly distinguishing between the labels anti-Israel, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
Hasan said: “You can be critical of Israel without being anti-Zionist. You can be an anti-Zionist, and then you can be a flaming anti-Semite. Are there overlaps? Of course there are, just like with Islamism.
“There are people who are Islamphobes and want to attack Muslims. And there are people who aren’t Isamophobes but are genuinely very worried about the rise of groups like the Islamic State and Hamas.”
Acknowledging that the Jewish community’s relationship with Israel is “subtle and complicated, Freedland said: “You can criticise the occupation since 1967 and still feel bound up with Israel as a Jew. Zionism doesn’t commit you to the size and scope of Israel.”