'How to keep talking’: the Woolf Institute addresses interfaith relations in light of the latest misery in Israel/Gaza

Published November 28, 2023 by Dr Eva Simmons

The Woolf Institute’s Panel of Speakers (left to right): Amir Ohadi (Barnet Multifaith Forum); Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra (formerly with the Muslim Council of Britain); Jess Brandler (MD of ‘Solutions Not Sides’); Dr Ed Kessler (Founder President of the Woolf Institute); Shahida Rahman (Trustee of Cambridge Central Mosque); Rick Sopher, CEO of Edmund de Rothschild Capital Holdings);

Dr Elizabeth Phillips (Woolf institute Director of Education and Engagement), event moderator

Events erupting in Israel and Gaza in October have led to strained relations between friends and even within families in the Diaspora. How much more difficult, then, have become some of the conversations across faith lines, and particularly between Jews and Muslims. The Woolf Institute’s panel discussion, ‘How to Keep Talking’, aimed to address this problem, providing a framework in which people from different faith groups could continue to communicate.

The discussion brought together three Muslims and three Jews, plus a moderator, to consider the difficulties, and how to overcome them. Among the Jews was Jess Brandler, CEO of ‘Solutions Not Sides’, whose stated purpose is, ‘to tackle Antisemitism, Islamophobia and polarisation around the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the UK’.

Moderator Dr Elizabeth Phillips began by laying down some ground rules for the dialogue, in order to ‘create a safe space’: even though the current conflict clearly underlay everybody’s thoughts that day, neither speakers nor audience were to address the conflict directly. This of course very much restricted what could be said; contributions were to focus instead on how to ‘maintain and encourage interfaith conversations and engagements in the UK when events like these have so much power to pull us apart and turn us against one another’. In addition, everyone was enjoined to use moderate language, which was not in any way ‘partisan, inflammatory or racist’.

Ground rules laid out

Several common themes eventually emerged: the problematic role of some of the media; the problems of young people in the current situation; and the need for safe spaces in which to be able to communicate calmly across faith and other divides.

In order to give shape to the session, Dr Phillips posed three questions: “Why are you here – what makes you believe we can continue interfaith encounters”; second: what are the biggest obstacles to maintaining good interfaith relations; thirdly, what can best aid good relations.

In response to the first question, several people focussed on what Judaism and Islam have in common. Rick Sopher, of Edmund de Rothschild Capital Holdings, spoke about the connections between the Torah and the Qur’an, deducing from that, ‘there is no reason why we shouldn’t be talking’. He added, ‘I realised when I attended the Woolf Institute Research Day [a forum for students to present summaries of their research work to an audience] that the Institute was the most comfortable place to discuss the events of the 7th October and subsequently. It was a safe, and comfortable space’. Shahida Rahman from the Cambridge Central Mosque endorsed his last remarks, saying ‘we need to talk about complicated matters, and we need a place where we can sit together, and reflect, not making judgments, but coming together to talk: we all have something in common.

Two speakers highlighted the problems of young people: Dr Kessler said he had come to the forum, ‘because of my children; they are struggling – whether because of the pro-Palestinian marches, or in universities. I’m here to learn’. Jess Brandler, whose work with ‘Solutions Not Sides’ takes her into a lot of schools, spoke about the distress teenagers were experiencing at the current time, and her need to understand ‘where others are coming from’.

Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra spoke about his ‘personal jihad’ – the struggle he had to undertake, motivated by the Qur’an, a struggle on which he did not elaborate. But he said that on that day he felt he was among friends old and new, quoting the Qur’an directly: ‘God may bring good will between you and those you hold as enemies’, and he went on to talk about the need to be forgiving, and his hope that, though people could disagree, ‘we should remember we are of the same family’. The Qur’an urged the building of relationships, and being respectful of others.

Amir Ohadi talked about his Shia background, and long experience of the Middle East, living in countries including Lebanon and Syria: ‘I am a product of this region’. He had wanted to learn about ‘the other side’: coming to the UK he had encountered churches and synagogues for the first time, met rabbis, and had learned about Jewish traditions. It was, he said, ‘a journey so profound’. He ended with a plea for appreciation of interfaith values and institutions – such as the Woolf Institute.

The speakers then addressed the second question, regarding the obstacles to maintaining good interfaith relations. Ibrahim Mogra summarised: ‘when you grow two tongues and lose one ear, you don’t listen to the other’; one needed to reverse this, focussing on listening. But he also cautioned his audience not to lose their tongues altogether: they needed to speak up when it was necessary, not dismiss disturbing issues as being ‘not my problem’.

He also highlighted an issue that has been much commented on recently: media bias that was widespread – in the UK as well as the Middle East and further afield, and constituted a major obstacle. Finally, he described his own concerns about young people, many of whom were experiencing anger and frustration, and were under great pressure. He continued by voicing his opposition to antisemitism which he said was forbidden by Qur’anic law, but that ‘not everything is antisemitism’.

Jess Brandler spoke passionately about the problematic role of social media in young people’s lives, causing them to make unfounded assumptions and encouraging the use of language which ‘crosses the line’. They should be encouraged to assume good intentions (unless proved wrong), and call out antisemitism and Islamophobia wherever they encountered it. Young people also needed role models, and to learn that it was OK for Muslims to talk to Jews, and vice versa.

Picking up on Jess Brandler’s remarks about language, Shaykh Mogra highlighted the importance of timing, as well as of language itself. He had written a piece on the oppression of Palestinians, and run it past some Jewish friends, he recalled. It happened to be Holocaust Memorial Day. They told him the article was fine, but not the timing.

Dr Kessler emphasised how much Muslims and Jews shared – including anger and fear: women being afraid to wear hijab, boys afraid to wear a Magen David. ‘As a liberal Zionist’, he concluded, ‘I feel pushed to go this way or that, [but] we all share suffering’.

Shahida Rahman lamented the politicisation of everything – confirming that she felt, at times, quite uncomfortable wearing her hijab. Social media in particular, she commented, were places where politics could ‘hide’. Rick Sopher spoke about ‘tribalism’ which he said was really intensified, at present, because of the graphic nature of, for example, pictures of dead babies on the BBC. Such images exacerbated divisions: ‘you’re either with us or you’re against us’. But he defended the marches in London which, he said, had passed his house: they were not hate marches but, basically, about the destruction in Gaza. However, his family took a different view: having been evicted from their homes in the Middle East, they perceived the marches as extremely hostile.

There was a general consensus on the need to keep talking – and listening, and the importance of having safe spaces as prerequisites for interfaith dialogue. Those present agreed it had been a productive session. But it begged a lot of questions about the deeper hurt and fear that many people feel in light of the massacres in Israel – and the war in Gaza. It may be that those issues can only be ‘safely’ discussed within one’s own faith group.

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