By Stephen Hoffman
A phrase close to my heart is the famous saying: “United we stand, divided we fall.” It speaks volumes about the importance of unity and how we must all stand together.
Little did I know that these words would be more important than ever as just a few days ago, the Jewish community was hit by a terrible act of antisemitic violence which continues to shake each and every one of us across the global Jewish community.
The horrific attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh (USA) on Saturday 27th October 2018 has been in our hearts and minds ever since. In this scared place of worship, 11 Jewish people were murdered in cold blood by a far-right extremist, simply for being Jewish.
On this day, we saw the darkest side of humanity as hatred led one man to massacre innocent worshippers on the holy day of Shabbat [Sabbath]. As a member of the Jewish community, I know personally how much this has affected us. It was a dark day and a stark reminder to the world of the danger of hatred and division.
However, whilst we witnessed the worst of humanity, alongside the grief and heartache, we also witnessed the best of humanity – the good that we’re all capable of. This in particular came from our Muslim brothers and sisters.
The world watched in delight as, in the space of just 24 hours, Muslims from across Pittsburgh rallied around in solidarity with their Jewish neighbours, raising over an incredible $130,000 dollars for the victims and their families.
Muslims are helping the Jewish community by raising funds for victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. pic.twitter.com/wbXihM3ZAe
— AJ+ (@ajplus) October 30, 2018
Beyond simply the financial donations, this act of kindness and solidarity shows how by opening up our hearts to other communities, we can laugh, cry and provide emotional support to each other in even the darkest of moments.
In the UK: Growing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia
Here in the UK, with the tragic rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia, the kind of emotional and communal support shown across the pond is more important than ever across our own towns and cities.
In fact, within the first six months of 2018 alone, the Community Security Trust (CST) – the Jewish body which records and reports cases of antisemitic behaviour and abuse across Britain – recorded 727 antisemitic incidents across the UK. Sadly, this is the second highest figure recorded in over two decades.
Likewise, if we look at the level of Islamophobia affecting the British Muslim community, the picture is no brighter. Figures from Tell MAMA – the equivalent of the Community Security Trust for Muslims – recorded a total of 1,201 incidents of anti-Muslim hatred for the whole of 2017. Worryingly, two thirds of these incidents did not occur online but in person – which shows a shocking level of “confidence” amongst the perpetrators of anti-Muslim hatred and the worry for Muslims out and about on our very streets.
Tell MAMA’s figures also showed a 26% rise in incidents of anti-Muslim hatred compared to those of the previous year. We can therefore see that antisemitism and Islamophobia are not only failing to decline but are actually on the increase.
However, I don’t want to paint a picture of doom and gloom as there are also many positives to be celebrated – one being the incredible power of interfaith work both nationally and internationally increasing significantly year on year. This work is crucially helping to unite communities across the UK and providing a means of tackling conflict amongst different communities.
Indeed, interfaith work is providing us with incredibly importantly lessons on how to combat the hatred that so many Muslims and Jews in the UK face today.
The power of interfaith: Muslim and Jewish unity
Some people perhaps may be unfamiliar with the idea of “interfaith” activism and interfaith-based community work. So what exactly does it mean? Well, the United States Institute for Peace describes interfaith on the basis of conversation:
At its most basic level, interfaith dialogue involves people of different religious faiths coming together to have a conversation. ‘Conversation’ in this sense has an expansive definition, and is not limited to verbal exchange alone. In his seminal work, Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah placed conversation at the very heart of civilization, defining cultures as ‘dramatic conversations about things that matter to their participants.’
Interfaith dialogue is in fact a respected and evidence-based response to bridging religious conflicts – especially within and across the Muslim and Jewish communities, which are sadly not always united as they should be!
The reason behind such dialogue is to enhance religious tolerance and in doing so, helping to build productive and encouraging relationships between different faith groups. This in turn brings communities together and helps breaks down feelings of hatred and/or fear of “the unknown” in the process.
As such, interfaith dialogue therefore helps create an environment of peaceful coexistence. If we look at Jewish and Muslim communities for example, we can definitely see how interfaith dialogue can be a great way of showing us that there is much more that unites us than we may have realised!
As we have seen by the way people are moving to the extremes of right and left in politics and not seeing beyond their own echo chambers, tensions and community cohesion are at risk. This has caused the politics of hate to rear its ugly head across the world, as people concentrate more on what divides them rather than what brings them together. Interfaith dialogue really is therefore more important than ever as it is crucial in helping to build a more cohesive society:
Interfaith dialogue is essential in our world today. There is so much ignorance about each other’s ways, beliefs and practices and so many people spread false reports and rumours about others and other groups. These only lead to greater prejudice and misunderstanding. It’s only by learning the truth from each other and by meeting each other that we can allay fears and start to build true links and relationships with each other for the benefit of our society.
With more tolerance, less fear and greater unity, you could even call interfaith work an elixir of life against extremism! Without fear, hatred and division, extremism of any kind cannot develop and certainly not grow to the violent extent that we have so sadly often see in many towns and cities across the globe in recent years from Pittsburgh, London, Paris, Manchester and many more.
Really, at the end of the day, we must remember that we are all human. We all eat, drink, laugh and cry. If Jews, Muslims and other people from different faiths and none do not interact, do not learn about each other’s faiths or help each other in time of joy and crisis, then the likely outcome will be increased alienation and demonisation.
After all, it is harder to feel negatively towards a group of people or a community you can put a name, face or a smile to – with someone you’ve met, listened to and built a relationship with, than someone you don’t know!
Inspiration for the future: Interfaith in action
If you’re in need of inspiration, a great example of bridge-building work is Mitzvah Day. The word “mitzvah” in Hebrew means “good deed” and a key part of the Jewish faith is seeking to do good deeds throughout your life to help the community you live in.
This is in fact a concept which we can all get behind regardless of our faith background, especially as over the last ten years of Mitzvah Day, we’ve seen how communities are being united and helping thousands of people across the UK. After all, the purpose of Mitzvah day is simple: to give time to the community around us – whoever they may be!
From helping the elderly, the disabled, local refugees and much more – Mitzvah Day really is bringing a diverse range of people together. Just look at some of these great projects:
One particularly touching Mitzvah Day was last November when Muslim worshippers from Golders Green Mosque came to Golders Green Synagogue to donate blood to people in need. This was an incredibly important act of solidarity as the building of Golders Green Mosque sadly became a needlessly controversial issue, pitting a tiny minority of the Jewish and Muslim communities at the centre of discussions against the construction of the mosque. Mitzvah Day thankfully gave a positive platform for those from Golders Green Mosque to show that the Synagogue had nothing to fear from them and that they could work together to help those in dire need.
And again, just this summer, young Muslims, Jews and Christians also proudly showed us the power of unity and how young people are leading the way for the future. In July, three leading faith media organisations from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities united to set up the 21 for 21 project, to find and provide a platform for 21 leaders for the 21st century to highlight the work of those who have made significant and positive contributions to understanding and co-operation, between those of different faiths.
These are however just two great examples of some amazing work happening across the country which is making a real difference to build bridges amongst different faith communities – communities which are uniting in happy and sad times.
The truth is, if you think of the whole entire world as a very narrow bridge, that bridge can only be held together if we unite as individuals and as communities, concentrating on what we share in common and working together to overcome areas of conflict. The only alternative is for that narrow bridge to fall apart as hate forms cracks through division, suspicion and hostility. So, let’s ensure that bridge never falls by uniting together and remembering that we have so much in common.
About the author:
Stephen Hoffman developed a love of politics at a young age and has used this passion in a number of jobs, including working in Parliament for a Conservative MP and with various campaigning organisations. Stephen has also attended a number of political study tours across the world.
He now runs his own consultancy firm, focused on helping individuals and groups with social media, event management and writing.
Stephen can be found tweeting at @thehof102.
Editor’s note: This post is dedicated to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh and the brothers and sisters who died at the hands of hatred. Rest in peace, tranquillity and love.
Our thoughts and prayers remain with their families, their survivors and all those affected, as well as the global Jewish community. United we stand in solidarity.
Salam, shalom, peace.