When I moved from south London, where I’d been the only Jewish person in my school, to Golders Green – land of the 24-hour bagel – to begin my rabbinic training, I was able to look out of my window and see, over the road, Muslims of all ages going happily in and out of their new mosque and having their spiritual needs fulfilled.
The mosque had come to the area at around the same time as me, and I had an exchange of emails with the lovely people running it. I’d have dropped them a line in any event, to welcome them, but sadly I also felt obliged to write to them to apologise.
To apologise for the relentless campaign of bullying to which the mosque had been subjected by Jewish extremists determined to keep Golders Green a Muslim-free area.
The mosque’s planning application was swamped with hate-filled objections, from spurious concerns about the impact on local parking to claims that the centre’s new occupiers were “funded by al-Qaeda” and “might keep missiles in the building”.
My favourite objection expressed doubts about how “these Muslims” had obtained their new premises: “Has money changed hands?” it asked. Well, probably, yes – that is quite common when land is bought and sold.
The whole episode left a very nasty taste in the mouth. How delighted I was, then, when the mosque confounded all its opponents’ fears by reaching out a hand of friendship to the Jewish community, participating in Mitzvah Day projects for two years running and – last month – announcing a Holocaust memorial exhibition about righteous Muslims who saved Jews’ lives during the Shoah.
The poor, poor mosque. I feel so sorry for them. Because as soon as they reached out a hand of friendship to the Jewish community, they began to be bullied by a different set of extremists. Muslim extremists, this time: Muslim extremists who could not stand the idea of a mosque working with Jews. A Mitzvah Day project to make chicken soup for London’s homeless was, apparently, a Zionist conspiracy. The Holocaust exhibition was also, unimaginatively, a Zionist conspiracy (because all those Muslims who stood up to the Nazis between the years 1939 and 1945 were obviously in the pay of the State of Israel, established in, er, 1948).
But it’s not just Muslim extremists who opposed the exhibition. The Jewish extremists had something to say about it as well. The anti-mosque campaign’s Twitter account suggested that it was an “offensive” way of “invoking the Holocaust”.
The mosque has now called off the exhibition, at least for the time being. This is a huge shame. I wanted to go see it, but above all it’s always a shame to see an organisation give in to bullying. I think it was the wrong decision, but it’s also hard to blame the mosque: they’ve been relentlessly persecuted by fanatics from both sides.
Two sets of fanatics. Each hates the guts of the other. The one wants a Golders Green with no Jews in it. The other wants a Golders Green with no Muslims in it. And yet they’re in agreement on this particular issue: for different reasons, granted, but they want the same thing. No Muslim-Jewish co-operation. These two groups feed off each other. They both sow hatred and division because they’re united in, bizarrely, fearing a happy society where everyone gets along.
Each group represents the worst of its religion, a perversion of the teachings of peace and tolerance that characterise both Judaism and Islam. Instead of pursuing peace and tolerance, they both are importing high-level global political issues into a small area of north London, adding a nasty twist of racism, and seeking to foment division on the streets.
Those of us of any or no faith who are not willing to see our Golders Green contaminated by extremists from outside need to offer the mosque our every support. Tell them how much we appreciate their holding events open to the whole community. Wish them well on Islamic festivals. Invite their leadership round for tea.
Stress that we’d really like to see the exhibition rescheduled and that we’ll be there to visit it and show our support.
Anyone crazed enough to believe that Holocaust memorial is a Zionist conspiracy, or that all Muslims stockpile munitions, is not going to be dissuaded. The best we can do is give the mosque the strength and support it needs to stand up to the bullying from both sides and continue to build the bridges that its leaders clearly yearn to.