Jimi Cullen and Zad el Bacha

Jimi Cullen and Zad el Bacha

by Zad El Bacha & Jimi Cullen, Co-founders, Jewish, Arab and Muslim Alliance

“Shalom! Salaam! Pizza!” – that was the cry of the second meeting of the newly formed Jewish, Arab, and Muslim Alliance (JAMA), which recently took place at a cosy Italian café in the heart of Oxford. The alliance includes members from a diverse range of JAM (Jewish, Arab or Muslim) heritages – from an Egyptian Jew to an Israeli Muslim. Members came to the Doodle & Discuss event to make art, socialise and eat pizza in a peaceful and friendly setting.

The motivation for such an alliance is clear. These are groups with a lot in common, but whose relations are often limited to shades of conflict – or, at best, conflict resolution. We propose a new approach to co-operating, creating an alternative to the discourse of conflict.

This does not mean ignoring the real and pressing problems of the conflict. Inevitably it emerges, and talk of Israel and Palestine came up even in the first minutes of pizza eating and doodling. But it does not have to be the centre: that can be friendship, exchanging marker colour combination tips, and entirely different socio- political discussions. In the Doodle & Discuss meeting, for example, people from many backgrounds shared and discussed their experiences of diaspora. In Britain, every JAM is a member of a minority ethnic or religious group, and a meeting like this presents an opportunity to compare and contrast related experiences.

Common ground can be found not only in the contemporary situations of these groups, but also in our partly shared cultural histories.

Swapping stories of refugee grandparents builds empathy. The family histories of JAMs demonstrate the diversity of our heritages. Emphasising this diversity makes it impossible to hold onto divisive stereotypes. Within this diversity, we find overlap.

Members of JAMA are working on a production of the earliest known published Arabic play, Nazahat al Mushtaq wa Ghassat al ‘Asshaq fi Madinat Tiryaq fi l ‘Iraq.

This important work in the history of Arab culture happens to have been written by an Algerian Jew, Abraham Daninos. Seeing an organic work that coherently brings together distinctly Jewish and distinctly Arab traditions weakens the rupture between these groups.

Working together to celebrate and discuss our mutual heritage creates a productive and creative social space that is explicitly shared from the outset. While initiatives which encourage Jews and Muslims to visit each other’s religious and social spaces are powerful and valid, it is important to have a space that belongs equally to members of any of these groups.

When everybody can feel at home, it gives rise to a new and inclusive JAM community.

Many different political and cultural stances converge in these communities but, rather than starting from disagreements and trying to unpick them, we begin from a foundation of shared experiences and cultural and social exchange. In this way, we create an environment where people get along over what brings them together rather than falling out over what pushes them apart.

In this spirit, the public and shared position of the JAMA is not tied to any particular political outlook. The central focus, rather, is the lives and safety of members of our communities. The group is inclusive of a broad range of political views, which may disagree strongly on some things, but agree on this basic principle.

It’s going well so far. One of our Muslim members said she had come to the JAMA to discover more about Jewish culture, for she thought she had never met a Jew in her life. At the end of the meeting, she had realised that not only had she unknowingly met many Jews, but also that she, as a Muslim, shared many experiences of alienation in the west with the Jewish community. In fact, she was surprised to see that one of the other attendees was a friend she had known for some time without realising that they were Jewish. Although these two women had had many friendly interactions in the past, the JAMA offered them a platform to discuss their cultural heritage in a safe setting.

We are not going to end violence in the Middle East by eating pizza in a cafe. But this is a step towards the creation of a fertile new avenue for cooperation.