It is never too late to talk…
Nowhere is the subject of peace and understanding, or more realistically, violence and misunderstanding, more evident than in discussions today about Israel and Palestine - whether they take place in mosques, synagogues and churches, or during marches and demonstrations. Speakers and discussants tend to be advocates of one side or another, pursuing a strictly partisan agenda. The atrocities committed by Hamas in Israel on 7 October and the extreme severity of the Israeli military response have brought huge pressures on the Jewish and Muslims communities in the UK today, with a 12-fold reported incidents of increase in antisemitism and 4-fold increase of Islamophobic ones.
This situation brings particular challenges to those of us engaged in Jewish-Muslim dialogue and conversation. When participants tend to arrive at the discussion table, their opinions are already clear in their minds. So they are slightly perturbed when I welcome them by saying that I hope they leave more confused than when they arrived.
For most Jews and Muslims, the reasons for self-assurance are obvious: for Jews, the centrality of the land of the Bible; an historical connection with the only Jewish majority country in the world, the same size as Wales; and an affinity with 40 per cent of the world Jewish population. Most do not separate Zionism, the establishment of a secure national home for Jews in the land of Israel, from its deep religious roots within Judaism. Indeed, they are ready to argue that the creation of the state of Israel was an act of national liberation and that Zionism has been part of Judaism since God's promise to Abraham in the book of Genesis. Today, those feelings are magnified by the commonplace anti-Zionist rhetoric leading many Jews to feel Israel must be supported in response to those who either question its legitimacy or actively desire its demise.
Muslims point out that the al-Aqsa Mosque on Haram Al-Sharif in the Old City of Jerusalem is the third most important holy place in Islam. They are ready to argue that the creation of the state of Israel uprooted an Islamic society - which many call the Naqba, 'The Disaster' - and Muslims became a minority in a land that was once Dar al-Islam, 'The House of Islam'. Indeed, the cause of Palestine symbolises a struggle against Western imperialism and demonstrates solidarity with the suffering of Palestinians. This helps explain why 'Free Palestine' flags are present in public protests against Western intervention well beyond the Middle East, even at football matches. Many Muslims from Bradford to Bangladesh feel the need to support the Palestinian cause in light of their marginalisation in Israel since 1948.
The problem with partisan self-assurance is that it affects the ability to take seriously alternative opinions and, most importantly, to engage in dialogue, which makes the search for mutual understanding much more difficult. Indeed, when one side is wholly depicted as responsible for a conflict, the ears of the 'Other' close. Too often, advocating commitment for the wellbeing of one equates to a blanket condemnation of the 'Other'.
This leads not only to mutual incomprehension, and sometimes to antipathy, but also reluctance to engage in different narratives. For example, Muslim sympathy with Palestinians is seen by some Jews as threatening the Jewish community and feeding the rising antisemitism in the UK and elsewhere. Likewise, some Muslims (and others) see Jews as homogeneous in their support and defense of Israel, unwilling to accept any criticism of the Jewish state. There is also a deep reluctance to acknowledge prejudice against the 'other' within each community.
In response to the present grim situation, I have been facilitating quiet meetings between Muslims and Jews which have provided an opportunity for everyone to share with one another how events in Israel and Gaza are affecting them and their communities here in the UK. It was clear that both desire to keep the channels of dialogue open and to be in touch with one another. It was also striking how many emotions (e.g., worry, fear, anger) and themes (e.g., social media, friendship, personal security, binary positions and the next generation) are present in the views of both Muslims and Jews.
It is important to remember that neither Judaism nor Islam are – nor ever were, even in antiquity - a united force. They were and are a collection of communities and one outstanding shared characteristic is that they develop not despite, but because, of unending and sometimes quite violent internal conflicts caused by diverging interpretations of the same heritage. In other words, it is essential to be prepared for conflicting views, within as well as between communities. An authentic encounter must allow for sharp differences.
Participants sometimes extend the discussion beyond the legal definitions of the state of Israel and the Palestinian Territories and consider other terms which could be applied to this strip of land along the Mediterranean that became the birthplace of the Bible. It lies at an extraordinary location, offering the only available land route between Asia and Africa. To the west is the Mediterranean Sea, to the east a mountainous, virtually impassable stony desert. Located between Mesopotamia to the North and Egypt to the South whoever controlled that strip of land controlled the major land route for trade or military activity between the great empires that rose and fell.
They mention Promised Land, Holy Land, Occupied Land, Palestine as well as Israel.
Mark Twain might have suggested: "You pays your money and you takes your choice" - and his answer has the benefit of simplicity. But, as beautiful as simplicity is, it gets in the way of reality – as Mencken wrote: "For every problem there is a solution which is simple, clean and wrong."
Whilst I hope the students who study Jewish-Muslim relations or the participants of the Dialogue are more confused at the end of their first discussion, I also hope that they will have the confidence to overwhelm the shrill screams of advocacy, to overcome those who generate noise but not hope.
Hope is the vital ingredient that Muslims, Jews, Christians and others thousands of miles away from the conflict can bring. It may be late to start talking, but it's not too late.
Join us on Monday 13 November for a panel discussion - How To Keep Talking - bringing together Jewish, Muslim and Christian participants to discuss how to keep dialogue open and how to maintain the possibility of trust between us. Click here to register.
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