As we head into the New Year, you won’t be reading many articles this week looking back at 2016 with anything but shock, sadness and a little rage.
Leaving aside all the incredible and talented people we have lost in the last 12 months, 2016 will be remembered as the year when hate and racism went mainstream.
Britain’s EU Referendum and America’s Presidential Election unleashed a wave of intolerance that shows little sign of abating. We’ve also seen a marked rise in anti-Semitism, both subtle and overt. It’s the same across Europe and much of the world.
In the UK, The Casey Review into opportunity and integration showed the challenges that lie ahead for us in 2017.
In this independent review, Dame Louise Casey found that the fear of people who are different has grown, as has the tendency to retreat into our own communities rather than engage with others.
Casey identified that this insularity is particularly prevalent in the Muslim community. While this has validity, her report seemed overly focused on Muslims – which might have the reverse effect creating further alienation. Indeed, I know many who feel their faith was singled out.
But it’s not only Muslims who are living isolated lives. We, as a Jewish community, need to take a long hard look at ourselves too.
Casey’s review doesn’t focus on us too much, but many of the same issues we see in the Muslim Community apply, as an Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) report, released earlier in the year, showed.
Sixty percent of us send our children to Jewish schools (much higher in the strictly orthodox community), and our children attend Jewish youth clubs and summer camps. They play in Jewish football teams and are members of Jewish drama clubs, scouts/guides, National Citizenship programmes and then so called ‘Juniversities’. I have met many Jews, who at 16 have never had a real conversation with anyone from another faith. This often continues throughout life which often ends in the loving world of a Jewish care home.
Of course, there are advantages too. The British Jewish community is one of the strongest and most cohesive, of any faith, anywhere in the world. The JPR found that 74% of British Jews still marry Jews, which seems high given 100 years of Britishness for most Jewish families.
But with the rise of the far right and far left, the natural instinct now is to withdraw even further into our own community, where we feel safe and comfortable. This would be the wrong answer.
As Mick Davis, the chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council, recently wrote: “Those of us who seek to maintain communal values of Jewish peoplehood and connection to Israel need to develop ways of building strong and resilient Jewish identities capable of withstanding broader political shifts. We need to maintain our ability to engage confidently and authentically with the world around us.”
Mick kindly chose Mitzvah Day as an example of this engagement and, in the changing world of 2016, it certainly felt more powerful than ever seeing 40,000 people volunteering side-by-side in November
I was especially inspired by the Jewish-Muslim engagement, with our 80 interfaith Mitzvah Day projects playing a small role in building those vital bridges.
Whether it’s through Mitzvah Day – or the Muslim Sadaqa Day – or one of the other incredible grassroots projects that bring Jews and Muslims together, we must unite to make a difference.
If we can rid ourselves of our anxieties about Muslims, we will surely find out how much we have in common – from our texts and traditions to our focus on the family.
Through the new Jewish-Muslim Women’s Network, Nisa-Nashim, I’ve seen first hand how Jews – as the more established and integrated community – can support Muslims in their journey, which is so similar to ours. I’ve also seen the benefit to the Jewish people in the group, forming real friendships with Muslim women rather than remaining in fear of the unknown.
When people of faith work together – even if it’s doing something as simple as cooking a meal for the homeless, or volunteering together at Christmas – both parties benefit, as does wider society.
We have to learn that there is no magic pill from the Government that will banish hatred and intolerance; it must come from us.
The last 12 months have been awful, but I am an optimist. Casey’s review found lots of great people doing real work in local communities, each making their own small difference.
In 2017, there is everything to play for. So let’s get on with it.