Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner shared her Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on 11 May 2016.
This evening, many British Jews are celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. We drink, dance, and debate the direction and politics of the State with which so many of us have ties. Israel is a country that evokes strong emotions because of two often dichotomized narratives; two histories of two peoples.
We know the politics of the Middle East often fuel mutual prejudices that simmer under the surface of Britain’s Jewish and Muslim communities. Last week I went to Bradford, a wonderful city, but sadly no stranger to community tensions.
But Bradford is also a city full of surprises, local Muslims there have funded the repair of the dilapidated roof of the city’s last remaining synagogue – saving it from closure. A story of literal and spiritual restoration.
I visited a church that hosts a weekly group of Muslim women, teaching cookery and English. I headed straight for the kitchen and we chatted about food, families, joys and pain.
In the world of interfaith dialogue this is sometimes called a ‘tea and samosas’ moment: it’s good, it’s friendly and helps inject fraught situations with humour and humanity. But it’s also soft, possibly too soft. We sidestep confrontation or challenge – avoid those festering, potentially divisive but fundamentally important issues.
One of the women made sure that this was far more challenging. She asked a torrent of questions, listened carefully to my answers and then promptly invited me for dinner. There the honest, respectful, warm, but sometimes uncomfortable questions continued. Robust conversations that are properly held can build – not destroy relationships, even if they feel daunting.
Research shows that the vast majority of British people have never knowingly met a Jew. So some of the views I heard in Bradford last week about Jews, like the rest of Britain, are often formed, indeed fomented almost exclusively through the prism of news about Israelis and Palestinians.
We’ve had a turbulent month for interfaith relations. Now is the time to start addressing difficult questions, not shy away from them. We need to talk about the topics that divide us.
So extraordinary was the gesture to save Bradford’s synagogue and such is the strength of relationships that were forged through it, that a Muslim now sits on the synagogue’s council. A true testament to what can be achieved through open, but not uncritical dialogue.
I believe it gives us a positive answer to the vital question for people of faith and none – can we live together when we have opposing narratives – without opposing each other?