Under the inflammatory headline ‘Sup With the Devil,’ this week’s Jewish Chronicle leader article accuses the Masorti movement of ‘consorting’ with certain individuals (links are below). New London Synagogue, the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues and a group associated with New North London Synagogue are members of London Citizens, the charity which works for local organising on issues such as the Living Wage campaign. Aside from this Synagogue another of the roughly 250 member organisations in membership is the East London Mosque, indeed one of the members of that Mosque serves as trustee of London Citizens.
At the height of operation Cast Lead, this trustee gave a speech entitled ‘Heroes of Palestine.’ In his speech he named two individuals who could serve as examples of heroes for his audience. One was Sheikh Yassin, the founder of Hamas, the other was Sheikh al-Qassam, after whom the military wing of Hamas, the al-Qassam Brigade, is named. I’ve watched the speech and I’m in pain as these people, who inspire violence and terrorist atrocities carried out in the name of Hamas and Islamic resistance in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza are held up as heroes. You cannot hold these people up as heroes and then claim, as happened, that you are ‘neither promot[ing] or condon[ing] terrorism’. You are and to suggest otherwise suggests a blinkered disregard of the simple meaning of words such as ‘condone’ and ‘terrorist.’ The leadership of London Citizens should not have defended this speech in the way they did.
But I remain committed to the organisation. London Citizens is not engaged in issues in the Middle East, indeed their commitment to localism probably explains their failure to grasp what was going on in a speech which addressed issues far away from their centre of expertise. Nor, undeniably, is London Citizens a front secretly promoting a violent terrorist agenda. Citizens believe in, and train activists in, non-violent democratic engagement. They believe in and work towards building bridges between different individuals and communities who might pass each other in the street, but don’t know anything about the shared needs, hopes and fears of one another. They, clearly, are not devils. Someone has to care about bringing diverse communities together engaging in issues that concern us here and now and I have met no-one who does that better than London Citizens. As Jews living in London we have to reach out to our Islamic cousins and hope that they will reach out to us also – indeed that is exactly what has happened as Jews (myself included) have developed our own relationship with London Citizens. But I don’t expect that relationship to be straightforward or comfortable. There is much blood spilt, much pain felt and much hatred still burning. Friends who know the person who gave this speech better than I tell me he is a supportive partner for many issues which I also care about and he wants to work with the Jewish community in London even though he must know we are proud Zionists. I don’t think that we, as Jews living in London, gain anything by demonising him or the organisations he represents as a Muslim or a trustee. I am appalled at the way the demonic epithet hangs over the JC’s coverage insinuating and damning far too broadly. Indeed the reportage of this issue echoes the JC’s attack on the Pears Foundation two weeks ago. It’s inflammatory and divisive and threatens only to burn down what must instead be built up.