November 24, 2010
ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN JEWISH NEWS
By Samuel Klein, co-director of the Coexistence Trust
Classroom debate at Immanuel College that morning in December 2002 was challenging, vibrant and heated. On my desk was an article by journalist Yasmin Hai entitled ‘Them and Us’, a highly personal reflection on the shifting attitudes of her friends and family towards relations between Muslims and Jews.
I shared with my students the alarming response given by Yasmin’s uncle to her question of how he felt about Jews: ‘Today when I meet someone Jewish, my first reaction is:”Are they anti-Muslim? Do they hate me? Do they want me dead? When you see what they are doing to the Palestinians, what else can you feel?”’
There was scant sympathy in the classroom for his position. It was little more than a year since 9/11 and my pupils were strident in their condemnation of a Muslim faith, which appeared to have inspired acts of terror against humanity. Many of my 16-year old students had very clear views on Islam; they had watched the footage on television and their minds – if open before – were now made up. They spoke openly and plainly about their fear of Muslim culture.
In their view, young Muslims were educated to hate Israel and, by extension, to be suspicious and mistrustful of all Jews. No amount of well meaning, but naive out-reach was going to address these trenchant issues. Though they may not have known it at the time, these classroom discussions with students challenged me to reconsider my own openness and willingness to seek-out and engage contemporary Muslims.
I came to understand that authentic interfaith and inter-communal work is complex; psychologically, socially emotionally and requires an intra-personal process of deepening ones own self-awareness.
I had meant for Yasmin Hai’s article to open up classroom debate on the issue of faith in a multi-cultural society. What transpired for me was much deeper, richer and nuanced than that. It was the beginning of a journey into confronting my own prejudices and anxieties around a culture I did not understand myself. In my students’ unanimous response to Yasmin’s article, I witnessed the almost impermeable yet unnamed membrane demarcating our two communities. ‘Them and Us’ pretty much summed it up. Which is why I made it my business to meet with Yasmin Hai.
I was initially brought into the role as director of the Coexistence Trust by Lord Greville Janner, who has spent his political life campaigning tirelessly on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide and has been a real mentor in his tireless and sustained attempts to galvanize Muslim and Jewish political leaders into countering anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
But working closely together with another member of the trustee body, Lord Parry Mitchell - who subsequently became chairman - this international firefighting soon switched to a vision of working with students in British universities to develop a new generation of leadership willing to be active and outspoken role models and change-agents in encouraging inter-communal collaboration.
The Coexistence Trust’s philosophy is simple but pointed; Respect, Empower and Change.
Firstly, we need to provide spaces for holding difficult conversations seeking first to understand, then be understood. This does not mean we need to be naïve to issues of campus security. Threatening behaviour by one student group towards another should not be tolerated on any level and measures should be put in place to ensure the wellbeing of all students.
Secondly, we need a more nuanced and thus empowering appreciation of each others position. The grounds for this are, I believe, captured by the phrase “inter-communal”, as opposed to “inter-faith” work – and out-reach which embraces a youth and student culture not necessarily interested in faith or organized religion per se but is passionately engaged in exploring the complex range of existential concerns as they forge new perspectives, personal outlooks and lifestyle choices.
Thirdly, we need to actively change the ‘washing machine’ effect of aggravated and hostile exchanges online and in print media between those seeking to represent the interests of Muslim and Jewish students on Campus. Since student communities are transient, the same narratives of suspicion and mistrust are often passed on from one leadership body to another.
Positive interventions are urgently required to improve the situation on campus. As the responses to the 2009 occupations demonstrate, arguably, that there is no clarity or consistency over which method of conflict prevention works best, and not enough emphasis is being placed on the fostering of long term positive relations. For this reason, the Coexistence Trust aims to act as key delivery agents in the area of conflict resolution and mediation between groups on campus delivering high quality skills based courses in partnership with other interfaith organisations and government representative bodies.
This period marks the observance of Ramadan and the Jewish month of Ellul – a time in both calendars for heightened awareness and attunement to the principles and values, which ground our respective traditions. It is also a time for commitment and intention to go more deeply into ourselves and ask difficult and searching questions. I address my concerns to all those currently on university campus who want to make a difference; the time to respect, empower and change is now.