Sadiq Khan has expressed his concerns about the impact of the Brexit vote on community relations as he broke his Ramadan fast for the third consecutive year in a London synagogue.
The Mayor of London, who campaigned vigorously for the UK to remain in the European Union, has said he will fight for the best possible deal for the capital, which voted overwhelmingly to stay inside the union.
Ahead of a Big Iftar event at Finchley Reform Synagogue, Khan told the Jewish News: “I am concerned that as a consequence of the way the campaign was conducted there has been a groundswell of people who feel vulnerable and frightened. We’re already hearing stories of racial abuse and graffiti being daubed on Polish buildings. We’ve must be vigilant and there will be zero tolerance for hate crime.
“We’ve got to remember that history tells us at times of economic uncertainty community tension rises. We’ve already seen some of the stuff the far right are doing on social media – we can’t allow them to divide our communities.” Victims of racial abuse must report it, he said, acknowledging that he hadn’t done so when targeted in the past.
The mayor – who said efforts to increase social integration would be a central pillar of his term – added: “We must heal the rifts. We are a country literally split. You’ve seen both sides expressing things during the campaign they probably wish they hadn’t. I recognise and respect the verdict of the British public. I’m not going demonise or call those who voted to leave xenophobes or racists – they voted that way for, in their minds, legitimate reasons. We’ve got to bring people together and it’s important we do so sooner rather than later.”
He pointed out that the area of England with the highest level of immigration saw the most overwhelming remain vote. “Let me say loud and clear to the million or so Europeans in our city: you are welcome. We recognise the huge contribution you make to our society and that won’t change.”
The iftar doubled as a celebration of the relationship between the Somali Bravenese Welfare Association and the shul, which began three years ago when the latter provided a base for the former after an arson attack on its centre. For the last three Ramadans, the shul has hosted prayers and well as an iftar event, featuring Jewish songs and readings from the Koran.
Khan told the gathering on Sunday night, which was attended by London Assembly member Andrew Dismore and Muslim Council of Britain head Shuja Shafi, of his “pride” at the story of friendship. “People talk about Jo Cox’s maiden speech – when she spoke about the fact we’ve got more in common than divides us – this exemplifies what she was talking about,” he said. “It’s the story of hospitality that the Torah teaches. People who aren’t of an organised faith sometimes say those of faith don’t practise what they preach – they certainly do here. I tell the stories whenever I speak to mayors from other countries who ask for advice about interfaith relations.”
He added: “Thank you for making me a mayor who can boast about my city. Thank you for being the light in these dark, dark times.”
Asma Mohamed Ali, a key member of the Somali Bravanese community, said she may never have visited a shul or learnt about the many similarities between Islam and Judaism if not for the tragic backdrop.
“We hope next year we’ll get our new centre and we’ll open our doors to members of the Jewish community the way they have done for us,” said the mother of five, who said she is delighted her children also have the opportunity to learn about another faith.
Among them is Sharifa, eight, who fired question after question at the community’s Rabbi Miriam Berger as she showed her and other young Muslim visitors a Torah scroll. The youngster described the crash course as a highlight of her visit and said she would be telling her friends at school about meeting the rabbi and Sadiq Khan.
Asked if he sees the shul as the Welfare Association’s second home, chairman Abubakar Ali, said: “I call this our home. Our children come here and the parents greet each other at school. Members of Finchley Reform teach our children. The communities want to work together and we need to build more opportunities to meet.”
For Sahibzada Syed Lakhte Hassanain, chairman of the charity Muslim Hands – which sponsored the ifar food – it was the very first time in a synagogue. He said he was “very happy” to be present. “If religious Muslims and Jews come together we can give a good message to the communities.” He added that such gatherings of members of the two faiths and politicians could provide foundations for discussing thorny issues like the Middle East.
Rabbi Berger, who was described by Khan as the “coolest rabbi”, said the event felt “really normal and really right. It’s part of a long journey and a relationship that’s been building over a few years. But after this weekend and seeing quite how fractured society is, that the voice of hate and fear is so pervasive, it’s important this is not a new relationship but an embedded one that means we can heal each other at times that feel so devastating”.