The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) issued a joint statement on August 27 calling for common ground between the UK’s Muslims and Jews and action against both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. The unprecedented declaration came after a ceasefire was agreed between Israel and the Palestinians after 50 days of fighting which saw over 2,000 Palestinians killed, most of them civilians, and 70 Israelis killed, most of whom were soldiers.
The conflict was a source of huge tension between the two communities, with the two organisations campaigning on diametrically opposed platforms. The MCB condemned Israel’s actions, and supported protests including calls for boycotts and divestments. Meanwhile, the BoD has defended Israel’s actions, and opposed calls for boycotts.
The declaration between the two recognises the ‘deeply-held’ and differing views between Muslims and Jews as the ‘about the origins, current reasons and solutions to end the conflict.’ It is also significant as it acknowledges, perhaps for the first time, the right of each side to campaign for their respective pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli positions. The joint statement affirms: ‘Whilst everyone has the right to voice their political opinion, be that in a rally or on social media, we must be mindful of how we convey our protest.’
During the 50-day conflict, the tensions from the Middle East threatened to spill over into the UK with both expressions of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. While a synagogue had daubed on its doors the normally laudable slogan of ‘Free Gaza’, many commentators in the mainstream media exploited the conflict to express openly Islamophobic views.
The statement has been broadly welcomed in the Muslim community, though some may be wary given that the BoD and related bodies has historically campaigned to limit the right to campaign against the policies of Israel. There is justifiable some concern that legitimate protests and calls for boycotts of Israeli products will be branded as anti-Semitic. Indeed, in 2009, it was the Gaza conflict that led to the BoD to openly call for the Government to disengage with the MCB and in 2010 it protested when the Government briefly re-established engagement with the MCB. It is unprecedented for a leading body of one faith community to deny political space for the leading body of another faith.
The joint initiative has also been broadly welcomed in the Jewish community as well. In a statement, Liberal Judaism said that the move “is a bold and constructive step and should be welcomed by all those with an interest in strengthening community cohesion in the UK’.
Inter-faith bodies have also welcomed the move. The Three Faiths Forum which promotes inter-faith activities between Muslims, Jews and Christians said: “We consider this joint statement an excellent and constructive step in strengthening relations between Muslims and Jews in this country.”
However, there have been angry and vocal denunciations of the joint initiative by hard-line both members of the Jewish community and Islamophobic commentators. It has been reported that two former presidents of the BoD have called on the current leadership of the Board to resign over this issue. The Jewish Chronicle newspaper has also led a vociferous campaign against the initiative, describing the Board as ‘naïve’.
Meanwhile, neoconservative commentator Douglas Murray of Henry Jackson Society, a lobby group, condemned the statement in the right-wing Spectator magazine as ‘the most terrific shot in the communal foot of Britain’s Jewish communities.’ The author Melanie Phillps joined him by writing in the Jerusalem Post stating that the common platform means “Jewish leaders are minimizing evidence of Muslim extremism.”
Both Phillips and Murray have led the neoconservative charge against the MCB in the past, and in criticising the BoD, they also dismiss the scourge of Islamophobia, with Murray stating that ‘Islamophobia’ remains a ‘nonsense term’.
It remains to be seen whether such hard-line views will prevent Britain’s Jewish leadership from seeking deeper relations with British Muslims. It is equally unclear whether hardliners will prevent the UK Government from supporting this initiative of better community relations. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, praised the MCB-BoD statement as ‘unprecedented’. However, Home Secretary, Theresa May, according to a report in the Jewish Chronicle, appeared to criticise the decision by suggesting that the MCB was extremist. She said: “The Government is very careful about the organisations with which it will work. It’s not for me to comment on what the Board does.”