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As someone who has lived and worked in the Jewish community all my life, and like others, I have become very aware of the ever-widening gulf between Jews and Muslims. There are a number of reasons for this – both internal and external.
Around a third of Britain’s 300,000 Jews live in just five North West London boroughs, with many of the others concentrated in areas of Essex, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow. Around 60% of Jewish children attend a Jewish faith school.
It wasn’t always this way but, over time, our community has become increasingly focussed on a few small areas of the country – leaving vast swathes with few or no Jews at all.
Likewise, many Muslims live in areas where the small Jewish population is a tiny minority – if it’s there at all.
Therefore our two faiths experiences of each other are almost non-existent. We live in either a Jewish or Muslim bubble, where almost everything we know about the other is learned from the press, social media or simply hearsay.
Of course, we meet those of other religions in the shops, the street or at work – but how many Jewish or Muslim people have real genuine friendships with each other of the kind we have with people of our own faith?
Without these friendships, and especially in the current climate, negative press stories and social media memes fuel mistrust in both communities at best, and prejudice and dislike at worst.
Add into this toxic mix the inability of our institutions to reach out to each other and you have a recipe for disaster. Most of these Jewish and Muslim communal institutions are predominantly male and both communities have strongly male leadership.
So isn’t now time to give the women a chance?
A year ago, I set up Nisa-Nashim with my now close friend, Julie Siddiqi, a former Executive Director of the Islamic Society of Britain.
The idea behind Nisa-Nashim – meaning women in Arabic and Hebrew – was our thought that we could initiate change through the educated, bright, dynamic women in both communities. We wanted people who would knock down walls, rather than build them. Who would create trust in place of suspicion, and hope in place of hate. Who will be able to reach out to their own communities and role model trusting open relationships.
Whilst the recent The Casey Review, into opportunity and integration, noted the disempowerment and exclusion of minority women, what we see is the quality and dynamism found there too.
We also recognised the key element missing from previous so-called interfaith work… friendships.
Interfaith in 2017 is often almost a business, a programme of events or activities.
We started with a different premise: that it’s only when you trust one another – when you can chat on the phone, invite each other to your family celebrations and weep together over the tragedies in our lives and increasingly in the world – that you can really start to initiate change.
And once those friendships are formed – we can start to tackle the problems we have. And right now there are plenty of them, from the growth of the far right and fears about the upcoming elections in Europe to the increase in antisemitism and anti-Muslim hate crime. All of these things harm not only us, but the whole of society.
Nisa-Nashim has now grown to establish 16 local groups around the UK based on (often new) friendships. Each has two co-chairs, one Jewish and one Muslim, and a commitment to bring women together with a view to spearheading social change.
And now we are preparing for our biggest challenge yet. This Sunday, 150 women of both faiths from all around the UK will be joining us at the University of Westminster for Britain’s first ever Jewish/Muslim women’s conference.
That in itself is a huge achievement, but we see it as just the start. It’s what we do with the conference that counts. We are determined to challenge the negative narrative and to driving change.
Our belief is that bringing people together – by sharing and celebrating our similarities, while at the same time starting to address the issues which drive our communities apart – is a new, positive and fresh approach to challenging the prejudice, mistrust and deadlock holding us back.
And that change begins this Sunday.
Laura Marks OBE is the co-founder of Nisa-Nashim. To find our more about Nisa-Nashim and the conference, please visit www.nisanashim.org
HuffPost UK is running a month-long project in March called All Women Everywhere, providing a platform to reflect the diverse mix of female experience and voices in Britain today
Through blogs, features and video, we’ll be exploring the issues facing women specific to their age, ethnicity, social status, sexuality and gender identity. If you’d like to blog on our platform around these topics, email email@example.com
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