A ‘Jewish Perspective’ on Xenophobia

Below is a transcript of the talk made by Dr Edie Freidman, Director of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, in the ‘Xenophobia’ session.

As my contribution to the discussion on xenophobia this morning, I’d like to refer briefly to three areas:

1.   Some current concerns within the Jewish community

2.   Some similarities between Muslim and Jewish experience

3.   How minority communities can work together more effectively to combat xenophobia and build a stronger civil society

I will be presenting a Jewish perspective rather than the Jewish perspective.

·      I use the term Jewish to include both those who subscribe to the Jewish religion (Judaism) and those who see themselves as Jewish in terms of their ethnicity and their identification with the Jewish people.

·      Many Jews, though by no means all, identify with both the religion and the ethnicity,

·      but secularism is a very significant tendency within the Jewish world.

Firstly I would like to paint a picture of some of the concerns within the Jewish community: many people (who knows how many), are feeling uneasy.

Officially there is an increase in antisemitic attacks, (7 per day, and worrying trends – school children verbally abusing other school children) unofficially an increase in comments, slogans, all adding to the general zeitgeist – of unease  if not downright menace.

As with other groups facing racism, the reaction to this antisemitism can take different forms.

·      Drawing up the drawbridge still further and hiding (or trying to hide) by isolating oneself;

·      Feeling more hostility towards other groups

·      Being fairly indifferent to, or unaware of, other communities

·      Wanting to engage more vigorously in bridge building (Board of Deputies)

The Jewish community, in common with other communities displays a number of contradictions, including feeling both empowered and disempowered, insiders and outsiders, part of the bigger British majority, yet a minority within it. Consequently communities that may appear to be well established still need protection.

Members of all communities need to acknowledge inconsistencies in the application of their concern for human rights. For example:

·      Some individuals are concerned about asylum issues but not about Islamophobia.

·      Some can be concerned about domestic issues but not about Third World issues

·      Others can be concerned about racism generally, but not about antisemitism and vice versa. 

 We need to help each other see the links between these issues and for the sake of our own communities as well as British society as a whole, we must be prepared to be creatively engaged with each other in spite of all the messiness and contradictions we may face.

Part of this task could require that we look at some of the connections between us both past and present.


Maleiha Malik, an academic at King’s College, has written about a number of similarities in Muslim and Jewish immigrant experience, for example,

·    The way both groups have been demonised for their religious and cultural practices, including the way they dress, their treatment of women, the way they slaughter animals, and their adherence to certain religious texts.

·    She points out how both groups have been labelled as being culturally dysfunctional and incapable of being incorporated into liberal democracies.

She quotes the early 20th century writer S. H. Jayes who felt that nearly all Jews were “politically unfit to be suddenly transplanted into those democratic institutions for which we have adapted ourselves by a long course of self-governing liberty.” How many times have we heard such views expressed about Muslims today?

She also points out how some commentators claimed that the involvement of a few Jewish activists in the late nineteenth century anarchist movement and later in the Bolshevik movement was evidence of the fact that Jews were more inclined towards terrorism and violence, again sentiments expressed about Muslims today.

Contemporary comparisons between Muslims and Jews were commented on some time ago by The Guardian journalist, Jonathan Freedland, who wrote “I’ve been trying to imagine what it must be like to be a Muslim in Britain. I guess there’s a sense of dread about switching on the radio or television, even about walking into a newsagents.  What will they be saying about us today? Will we be under assault for the way we for the way we dress?  Or the schools we go to, or the mosques we build?

In this article he concluded with these words: “I try to imagine how I would feel if this rainstorm of headlines substituted the word ‘Jew’ for ‘Muslim’.

 He articulates what many in the Jewish community have an understanding of;

-       How myths, misunderstandings and stereotypes are used to stigmatise and demonise whole groups of people.

-       How certain groups are defined as one monolithic community without being allowed the same diversity that some of the more established communities are allowed.

-       How we are told in an endless variety of ways that we haven’t passed the ‘cricket’ test and thus our loyalty is constantly being challenged.

So how can we be more effectively engaged with each other?

Firstly: Look at ourselves

We can look at some of these issues from the Jewish perspective. Examine our own institutions (faith schools, religious teaching, university societies) and our personal lives (family, friends, workplaces) Make sure we don’t demonise the other and don’t contribute to stereotyping.  Make sure we don’t reinforce the secular/religious divide. Make sure that race equality and human rights are part and parcel of what we do, say and teach.

Secondly: We need to be more adventurous about interfaith dialogue.

Interfaith groups are where we carry out our multicultural business, but they are too often concerned exclusively with their own problems, and can ignore society’s needs in general. How often do we hear interfaith groups discussing issues such as asylum seekers, equality, social exclusion, poverty?  Let’s make sure interfaith groups look not only at the differences between them but also at the values they share and how these relate to society in general.

Thirdly: Avoid perpetual victimhood

Stop seeing antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of racism through our own personal prisms. We have to become less territorial about our victimhood.   We need to take on board that victims can also be perpetrators, and that we all need to work together within civic society to fight all forms of racism and xenophobia, not just the one form that directly affects our particular group.  We must make sure that international conflicts do not affect our relationships between different groups in the UK.

Fourthly: Appreciate diverse views

Recognise the plurality inherent within all communities.  It’s easier to become somewhat lazy and refer to the Muslim community, the black community, the Jewish community etc. and forget that each community speaks with many voices. Ignoring this fact can mean that we see the world in simplistic terms such as good guys and bad guys. It is much more constructive to see this diversity as a strength rather than an irritant.  This also means being more honest about the contradictions and hypocrisies within our own communities. Consequently, we need to be more open to debate and see that friends who are critical can also be good friends.

And finally: Come together

If we are to change a mindset which is getting us nowhere, we need to rally together behind a human rights agenda, so that we can build up a better foundation on which human rights and our own individual community aspirations can thrive.



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