Q: Is interfaith dialogue a token gesture or can it lead to genuine understanding?
Zöe Jacobs says…
While at university, I found myself standing in front of the Student Union debating chamber defending the Jewish Society on account of its connection with Israel.
To this day, I remember looking out into a sea of people I didn’t know, many of whom were members of the Islamic Society, and with whom, mostly, I had no relationship.
Ten years later, having studied community organising while at The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, I have had numerous opportunities to sit in one-to-one conversations with people of many other religions, sharing with each other the issues that keep us up at night, and joining in actions over the Living Wage and Street Safety, resulting from our investment and shared interest in London citizens.
Even during Operation Protective Edge, when many in the British Jewish community felt threatened, my community – Finchley Reform Synagogue – had a joint Iftar meal where Jews and Muslims sat together, acknowledged the real challenges, yet built on our relationship and further understanding of the other.
I am no longer happy to just have a cup of tea with the vicar down the road; these days I aim for real relationships and shared interest. Only then can we make a difference.
• Zöe Jacobs is a cantor at Finchley Reform Synagogue
Mehri Niknam says…
Interfaith interaction is a necessity for promoting a cohesive multi-faith society. The role of religion as a positive force for the greater good of the society is a valid proposition. Generally there are two types of interfaith interactions.
There are the good intentioned but largely unprofessional and ad hoc meetings, which I call “meeting and greeting”, the usual ‘we talk about what we have in common not our disagreements’.
These meetings are good, but of limited influence because the participants lack authority in their community and can’t function effectively under inter-communal pressure.
The genuine, effective and sustainable interfaith is where those who agree, as well as those who disagree, come together on a regular basis. Here, no theological, political or social subject is off the table. We must be honest with ourselves as well as our interlocutors so we can discuss without being labelled.
We need experienced, respected professionals to lead such groups. Finally, we must accept that in spite of good intentions, we will not agree on everything, but there will remain few major issues of disagreement.
Therefore, true interfaith means that despite disagreements, we remain engaged in our efforts to dispel misinformation, misunderstanding and continue to work towards future agreements.
• Mehri Niknam MBE is executive director of the Joseph Interfaith Foundation