Ask those who work within interfaith work whether Muslim and Jewish relations are getting better and their response will be ‘yes’.
A natural response to a simple question, based on a sense that they are engaging with more people from the other faith.
Ask a Muslim or Jew living in Leeds, Newcastle or Birmingham and beyond the interfaith world, and the answer will on many occasions, be ‘no’.
As I travel the country and have conversations with the latter audience, I am finding more mistrust and polarised opinions between Muslims and Jews.
The recent declaration from President Donald Trump to acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, surely has not helped matters in bridging divides.
For the overwhelming majority of Jews, Jerusalem is the ‘eternal home’, the place that holds their history, their heritage and their sense of belonging within the core of it.
For Muslims, it holds a special and unique place of reverence given that it is linked to Islamic history and the ascension of Muhammad where he came face to face with Prophets of God.
Both elements are deeply rousing and deeply spiritual and sadly, the Holy Land is always on the edge of conflict given that passions run deep and grievances literally take on Biblical proportions.
Yet, it is not just the Trump’s of this world that weigh in on issues.
Many within Muslim communities today feel a sense of fear and being vilified through hate material online and press headlines and this has raised levels of anger and mistrust within parts of Muslim communities.
Furthermore, the liberal voice within Muslim communities is feeling under pressure, partly because at times of stress, it is the divergent and dissenting voices within who feel the pressure of communities turning inwards and who see liberals as challengers which beleaguered communities do not need, rather than looking at them as moral compasses at a time when direction is lost.
It is as times like this, as well, that the most reactive and vocal of voices within communities seem to get heard, rather than those who lay out nuanced arguments, a phenomenon which is affecting many global communities today. It seems that nuance is out and simplistic rhetoric and thinking is in.
Take for example, the Golders Green Hippodrome saga where plans to use the community centre as a venue for an Islamic Centre and mosque met with some opposition.
Or take the fact that annually in about 20-30% of antisemitic cases, the Community Security Trust working with victims of antisemitism, identify people of Middle Eastern or Asian appearance as the perpetrators; there is a real likelihood that quite a proportion of these perpetrators will come from Muslim majority countries.
Or take the increasingly polarised comments online from both communities to each other, or reactions to ‘Al-Quds’ marches in Central London and pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian rallies which have become ‘horn-locking’ events where both sides posture and make a point of staring down the other. It increasingly is a fact that people are no longer talking, they are shouting, whether across police protection lines or across social media platforms.
Or take the fact that when antisemitism is discussed at social events or even in Parliament, few Muslims will turn up to listen to the impacts on Jewish communities.
Or when events around anti-Muslim hatred are held, very few Jews will attend.
If we believe, as those who have been involved in interfaith work for decades, that we are ‘winning hearts and minds’, then we are sadly fooling ourselves into a sense of self-importance and misplaced comfort as though by ‘trying to do good’, we are adding value to the world and making real impacts.
The truth is that many such campaigners are having less and less impact, as they are being overwhelmed by what social media and hate groups manage to pump out on a daily basis. Yet, they still persevere, banners in hand, standing next to each other, as though the selfie will make a lasting change to Mohammed or Moshe who truly believe that the other cannot be trusted. Simply put, Muslims and Jews are becoming more polarised, more antagonistic to each other and more mistrusting.
Out of 3,350,000 Jews and Muslims, can we honestly, hand on heart, say that the vast majority have strong links with each other and be willing to accept even listening to each other about Israel and Palestine in this febrile atmosphere.
I hope that I am proved wrong, but given the fact that liberal Muslims are increasingly feeling embattled within and with their tin hats on, what hope is there of better Jewish and Muslim relations beyond the same crowd of interfaithers and social activists who make a career out of selfies with other communities?
Unless we do not step up to the challenge and call out bigotry where we find it and unless we do not challenge it within our communities, we are going to find that the only people who listen to us are the friends who sit in our social echo chambers and who ‘like’ the usual self-congratulatory pompous messages that get posted on Facebook. If that is a future which lies ahead, I am out.