BACK TO BROTHERHOOD?

A 2013 meeting of representatives of the North London Muslim Jewish Forum at the Polish Embassy. L-R: Eusoof Amerat, Hackney Independent Advisory Group member; Rabbi Avrohom Pinter; former Polish Ambassador Witold Sobków; Rabbi Herschel Gluck; Munaf Zeena, co-chair of Muslim Jewish Forum and Chair of North London Muslim Community Centre.

Common Cause Creates Alliances

British journalist Helen Stone, in a 2015 article, wrote movingly about her Auntie Lilly, a”h, who died at age 105. Lilly’s only daughter, Regina, married an American and lived in the USA. Although in regular daily contact with her mother, according to Stone, it was of immeasurable comfort to Regina that her mother’s next-door neighbors, a religious Muslim family, looked after her in the later years of her life as if she were a member of their own family. They visited her often and she enjoyed their company.

Amazingly, when Lilly became incapacitated due to old age, they washed and dressed her on a daily basis. Despite their differences of belief and culture, Lilly and her neighbors did not allow this to adversely affect their relationship. When she passed away, their extended family attended the levayah and mourned with her relatives.

British Jews and Muslims are minority communities within the U.K. As a result, both face threats to their respective religious liberties due to social prejudices and legislative discrimination. However, despite their shared plight, unlike Lilly and her neighbors, there has not always been harmony between the two populations.

Rabbi Herschel Gluck attending a vigil outside Finsbury Park Mosque, close to the scene of a van attack in London in 2017. Ten people were injured and a man who had been taken ill before the attack died at the scene. (ISABEL INFANTES/AFP/Getty Images)

Rabbi Herschel Gluck OBE, chairman and founder of the Muslim Jewish Forum, acknowledges that the purpose of encouraging interaction between the two communities is to foster not only a mutual respect but also an acceptance that when fighting against legislative discrimination, the ideals and objectives of members of one faith may not always converge with those of the other. He eloquently exclaims, “Though there are, sadly, some issues that divide us, there are also many issues that unite us.”

Last year, Mary Hassell, a senior coroner whose jurisdiction encompasses North London, home to a multitude of both Muslims and Jews, was accused of operating a “first come, first served” queuing policy in relation to burials. Stamford Hill’s Adath Yisroel Burial Society had initiated the judicial review against Hassell due to the dismay of the Jewish community at the fact that she had persisted in her refusal to prioritize any burials on religious grounds. The High Court declared her strategy to be “unlawful.”

While the High Court’s pronouncement quashing Hassell’s policy was a resounding victory for North London’s Jewry, the area’s Muslim community was equally relieved and delighted that Hassell had lost the case. In this situation, both the Muslim and Jewish community had a shared vision. Both wished to be assured that if a loved one died, the burial would be prioritized in accordance with the requirements of both faiths that it take place on the day of the death or as soon as possible thereafter.

Subsequent to the High Court Judgment, Hassell called a public meeting at which she tried to explain why she had introduced the strategy, which is often scornfully referred to as the “cab-rank” policy. She stated, “What I found was that because the Adath Yisroel Burial Society is very well organized and trying to represent its members to the best of its ability, deaths where the burial society were involved were being prioritized over other deaths.”

Hassell claimed that in fact, a Muslim father had waited all day in the hospital after the death of his child due to the prioritization of a Jewish person’s burial that day. She was accused of attempting to cause division between the Jewish and Muslim communities by making this comment. However, if this was indeed Hassell’s intention, she did not succeed. Rabbi Gluck has stated that both communities remained united over this issue.

A topic close to the hearts of both Muslim and Jewish parents — as indeed to those of all parents — is the education of their children. The freedom and independence to choose what is and is not to be included within the school curriculum is a fundamental desire of any Muslim or Jewish school’s governing body and teaching staff. While the government’s updated rules for independent schools allow secondary schools to decide at what age their pupils are to learn about controversial issues of individual diversity, they do not absolve schools from the responsibility of teaching the subject at some point — even if their reluctance to do so is based on religious grounds.

The concept of faith schools is an ongoing bone of contention in U.K. society and worldwide.

Many individuals and parliamentary representatives are especially concerned about the presence of fundamentalist Muslim schools in Britain, as they worry that they may be nurturing a new generation of extremists. Mark Gardner of CST states that “Jihadi terrorism from the 9/11 attacks onwards has been very damaging to the common perception of Muslims, increasing suspicion and racism against all Muslims.”

An individual well acquainted with the British educational system who wishes to remain anonymous has observed that while there have been some isolated incidents of fundamentalist Muslim schools in Britain preaching fanaticism to students, the reputation of every Muslim school in the U.K. should not be tarnished as a result.

She stated that faith schools in general, and Jewish schools in particular, should not all be tarred with the same brush as those individual schools propagating radicalism.

Another issue which has had an impact upon the lives of both Muslims and Jews in the U.K. is that of religious slaughter, which both minorities are adamant be termed as such rather than as “ritual slaughter,” since the latter term indicates the dogged pursuit of a cult ideology as opposed to the fulfillment of a sacred religious commandment.

According to the Halal Food Authority (HFA), water-bath stunning of poultry and electric-tong stunning of larger animals is permissible with the strict proviso that the animal must not die prior to slaughtering. While the HFA prohibits the employment of other means of stunning animals such as captive bolt stunning, percussion stunning and gas stunning, this nevertheless represents a significant difference between requirements for halal meat and those of kosher meat, which may not be stunned under any circumstances whatsoever.

Although U.K. law demands that all farm animals be stunned prior to slaughter, any slaughter of sheep, goats, cattle and birds for religious purposes is exempt from this requirement.

Consequently, halal and kosher meat may lawfully be slaughtered in the U.K. without pre-stunning. However, the RSPCA and British Veterinary Association (BVA) have always opposed non-stun slaughter as they believe it is inhumane. In 2015, they joined forces and presented the government with a petition signed by over 100,000 people requesting an end to non-stun slaughter and the introduction of labeling to show consumers exactly what they were eating.

Labeling would potentially pose an insurmountable problem for the Jewish meat industry. The laws of shechitah necessitate that certain requirements are fulfilled during the shechitah process. If these conditions are not met, the meat is rendered non-kosher and is sold to the U.K.’s non-Jewish consumers.

Due to the adverse publicity surrounding non-stunned meat, if a labeling system were to come into effect advising non-Jewish consumers as to which meats have been pre-stunned and which have not, it is likely that abattoirs would encounter difficulties in selling the non-stunned variety.

Furthermore, a ban on meat which has not been pre-stunned would have catastrophic implications for British Jews, as it would effectively mean that kosher meat would no longer be available in the U.K. Obviously, the consequence of such a ban would not be so dire for Muslims as some halal meat may be pre-stunned, albeit under certain prescribed conditions.

Poignantly, though, according to Rabbi Gluck, it is a little-known fact that as an expression of unity with their Jewish brethren, many Muslims in the U.K. have refrained from eating halal meat which has been pre-stunned.

This touching gesture of solidarity, to which Rabbi Gluck attests, is reflected in the words of Liz Arif-Fear, co-chair of a branch of Nisa-Nashim, the Jewish Muslim Women’s Network, which have never been more appropriate: “I think it’s fair to say that most of us don’t share everything in common with our friends. So why do we expect this when making new friends from different religious communities? Think about the relationships you have at home and in your inner circle — do you agree on everything? No! But you do respect and empathize with one another whilst maintaining a strong bond.”

Current housing issues are a problem facing both British Jews and Muslims. “Issues such as the cost of living and a housing shortage have had a detrimental effect on the Muslim community,” proclaims Sufia Alam, Centre Manager of a branch of the East London Mosque Trust, in her article entitled “A View from the East End,” which appeared in the Muslim Council of Britain’s report of last year.

The exorbitant price of houses available for sale in Jewish or Muslim enclaves has meant that many potential Muslim or Jewish buyers cannot afford to purchase properties in these neighborhoods. This problem is compounded by the fact that the average Orthodox Muslim or chareidi Jewish family tends to have many children and would require an appropriately sized house.

Scarcity of housing across London has likewise been a major reason for the soaring rents in boroughs such as Hackney, where many Orthodox Jews reside. The increased rents have, in turn, prompted large housing benefit claims. The benefits cap in place for London residents has meant that in the case of many of Orthodox Jewry’s Hackney constituents, for example, their homes are, quite simply, no longer affordable.

Similarly, the detrimental impact of the benefits cap is evident in London boroughs having a large Orthodox Muslim population, such as Tower Hamlets, where there is a dearth of affordable homes for rent.

As Sufia Alam reports, “The government’s introduction of a benefit cap has forced some families out of Tower Hamlets, and this in turn has had ramifications on the whole family support network. Whilst some have moved to neighboring boroughs … others have moved further away where there are limited community links to their own and a lack of integration with the host community.”

Mark Gardner testifying at the Home Affairs
Committee inquiry into
anti-Semitism in 2016. (Screen capture CST) )

According to Mark Gardner of CST, “The threats in recent years to … way-of-life issues is negatively impacting upon Jews and Muslims, but it is also helping bring both groups closer together in some local areas and in Westminster also.”

This article has hopefully highlighted the irrefutable fact that both the Muslim and Jewish communities in Britain are dealing with similar problems. As Gardner declares, “Clearly, these are real issues, which affect both communities in mutual ways: so it brings some benefit in terms of understanding each other better over our similarities rather than our differences.”