"We Don't Do Kumbayas Around the Campfire": Configuring Meaningful and Sustainable Jewish-Muslim Engagement

Published March 09, 2021 by Susanne van Esdonk

Susanne van Esdonk reflects on the quest for 'meaningful' engagement raised in relation to the configuration and sustainability of Jewish-Muslim initiatives in London.

Over the past decades, there have been many initiatives of Jewish-Muslim engagement in London, often emerging in response to contextual factors, such as national and international conflicts or events, political changes, and developments in local neighbourhoods. While some projects take place on specific days set by national organisations such as Mitzvah Day, Sadaqa Day, or Inter Faith Week, others occur independent of overarching frameworks, in schools, mosques, synagogues, or are initiated by individual, often local, organisers. Among the cases of Jewish-Muslim engagement in London that I studied between 2014 and 2016, we find a wide range of substantive approaches – including theatre projects, educational meetings, Scriptural Reasoning initiatives [1] and social action. The range of incentives and individual motivations for participation found among initiators and participants is equally as wide.

It is not surprising that one of the main challenges to the sustainability of Jewish-Muslim initiatives is the way in which people are able to deal with tensions and difficulties, especially in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – in this context often referred to as the 'elephant in the room'. Within the cases studied, several strategies to deal with tensions were applied, ranging from the consensus to 'agree to disagree', to addressing tensions and difficulties head-on by means of mediators or the use of theatrical techniques. What was further emphasised by many participants, is the need to create a 'safe space', both physically and figuratively, in which relations can be forged and configured, taking into account specific needs and circumstances including the groups' composition.

However, the configuration of Jewish-Muslim engagement does not end here. Besides meeting essential preconditions, mentioned above, some initiators mentioned the value of having 'ownership' over a project, which allows them to develop a case- and context-specific framework for cooperation which could not be created by just replicating the work of others. This ties into an underlying quest for 'meaningful' engagement, which demonstrates the complexity and multilayeredness of Jewish-Muslim engagement even more. Several interlocutors criticised what they call "bagel-tea-samosa" meetings, or "cuddly stuff", and made clear that they do not want to participate in initiatives resembling "kumbayas around the campfire". This relates to their wish to establish sustainable, constructive relations, on a deeper level, in which difficulties and tensions are not ignored, but rather normalised and discussed openly. As one interlocutor stated: "when I feel that everything is orchestrated to never go near certain topics and everyone has to get along all the time… that's not real life".

Based on my empirical data, Jewish-Muslim engagement becomes 'meaningful' once goals and substantive approaches line up, and when relations are adapted to changing needs over time, meaning that there is need for a tailor-made approach. Where one person finds their goals reached by participating in an interfaith march or dinner party, others like to be involved more pragmatically in social action projects, or regard interreligious text study as the best way to reach a similar goal. And while this relates to discussions on the relevance of face-to-face contact versus side-by-side cooperation, as raised by e.g. the late Jonathan Sacks, it goes further than that, since what someone considers to be meaningful depends on a combination of contextual factors and incentives, motivations, previous experiences, and individual expertise that together constitute the basis, or habitus, for people regarding their current experiences as meaningful.

To complicate things further, some results are unpredictable; a Jewish teacher involved in a Jewish-Muslim educational programme mentioned that the most successful part to a recent outing had not been the visit to a mosque and synagogue itself, but had been the walk in between: "The measure of success, for me, was that [the students] were really talking on that walk from the mosque to the synagogue. They were all really talking to one another. That was our aim. Seeing the places of worship was less important". For academic research on this topic, this means that in order to study contemporary Jewish-Muslim engagement, the basic prerequisites remain important, but we will need to look further than that and become aware of the role of individual experiences and the way in which they interact with a group's dynamic. Once Jewish-Muslim engagement moves beyond the stage of interfaith mingling and we find more long-term, commonplace relations, chances are that we will also find these issues to be discussed more often among initiators and participants themselves.

This article is written by Susanne van Esdonk, who recently finished her PhD in Religious Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Her thesis 'Jews and Muslims in London: Navigating between Commonalities and Differences in a Superdiverse City' [2] provides an empirical study of the configuration of constructive engagement between Jews and Muslims in London between 2014 and 2016, taking into account historical, political and (trans)national contextual factors. This research project is part of the comparative, NWO-funded project 'Delicate Relations: Jews and Muslims in Amsterdam and London'. Susanne has a background in Religious Studies, Islamic Studies and Arabic.

Further reading:

Van Esdonk, Susanne, and Gerard Wiegers. 2019. "Scriptural Reasoning among Jews and Muslims in London: Dynamics of an Inter-Religious Practice." Entangled Religions (8).

Meddeb, Abdelwahad, and Benjamin Stora. 2013. A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations: From the Origins to the Present Day. Princeton: University Press.

Meri, Josef, ed. 2016. The Routledge Handbook of Jewish-Muslim Relations. New York: Routledge.

Roggeveen, Suzanne, Sipco Vellenga, and Gerard Wiegers. 2017. "Cooperation in Turbulent Times: Strategies of Jews and Muslims in Amsterdam." Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (28:3): 355-379.

[1] Article by Van Esdonk & Wiegers: https://doi.org/10.13154/er.8.2019.8342

[2] Thesis summary: https://hdl.handle.net/11245.1/d58b6127-1857-4756-83d4-f8b51013d1df

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