Jeff Berger
Jeff Berger

Jews must stand up when Muslims are targeted

Boris Johnson. (Photo credit: Victoria Jones/PA Wire via Jewish News)
Boris Johnson. (Photo credit: Victoria Jones/PA Wire via Jewish News)

On our summer beach holidays along the boardwalk promenade where people strolled throughout the day but especially in the evening when the temperatures were cooler, there were caricature artists sitting on folding chairs in front of their A1-sized easels with charcoal and pastel pencils ready to hand. They were waiting to draw quick sketches with exaggerated features of any tourists willing to part with the equivalent of about 10 quid.

Over the years on more than one occasion I stopped for the requisite 5-10 minutes that it took for the sketch to be drawn. The successful artists were clever and had lots of custom. Watching their handiwork come to life, I could see something of a humorous superficial likeness but which lacked subtlety or nuance.

There’s been so much written and spoken this past week about the former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s article in the Telegraph that compared women wearing a niqab or burka to letter boxes and bank robbers. Like those summer holiday artists, caricaturing a small number of Muslim women who choose to wear overtly modest clothing seemed to lack nuance and tact.

Last Friday I had the privilege as an Orthodox rabbi to visit a North London mosque where the Imam spoke at length about the hurt and outrage this stereotyping caused within the Anglo-Muslim community. Sitting on the floor with more than 400 worshippers, I too felt a great sense of sadness and upset.

That someone in high office who is a potential candidate for prime minister would offend more than 5% of the population, some of whose ancestors have lived here for more than a century, defies belief. Sitting next to and around me were hard-working people from the professions and from the civil services, people who contribute through their taxes and through their charitable works to the betterment of their neighbourhood and beyond.

During the Imam’s sermon he mentioned the need to stand up against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred that regrettably are much more commonly expressed in public now than any time in the last 2 decades. From the article, I wasn’t entirely convinced Mr Johnson’s reference was deliberately Islam phobic but it was perceived that way by the Muslims I spoke with.

It also made me wonder how my community would feel if someone made fun of the way we dress. Orthodox Jewish men and women also have a code of modesty that affects what we wear. Admittedly, we’ve gotten used to poking fun at ourselves. But coming from an outsider, we tend more often to bristle.

Just as Jews find it offensive when anti-Semitism occurs in the Labour Party, one must confront other forms of bigotry in the Tory Party. It’s hard to sit quietly and watch the hurt and pain caused to Muslim friends who want, like all the rest of us, simply to raise their children and aspire to the benefits of a tolerant, multi-cultural British society, yet find themselves uncomfortably ridiculed because of outward appearances.

We’re all in this together. If we want sympathy in fighting anti-Semitism, surely we must do the same when we see insensitivity and injustice, especially if that results in hatred being directed at others.

The Prophet Micah (6:8) asked rhetorically, ‘Oh Mankind, what is good and what does the Lord seek from you?’ To be just, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’

To me that verse suggests that to find real balance, it’s not enough to think we’re right, or even to be merciful, but that our actions must always pass the litmus test of whether we have sufficient humility towards others and before God.

About the Author
Rabbi Jeff Berger served the Rambam Sephardi Synagogue for 7 1/2 years and is now an active proponent of interfaith dialogue.
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