Whataboutism is a way to avoid other people’s pain

What do Parliamentarians including Ruth Smeeth, Luciana Berger and Baroness Ros Altman have in common with business pioneers like Facebook vice president Nicola Mendelsohn and student leaders such as incoming UJS president Hannah Rose?

What unites women from across the Jewish spectrum, bringing together trustees of the United Synagogue including vice president Leonie Lewis with Progressive rabbis Laura Janner-Klausner, Deborah Kahn-Harris and Charley Baginsky?

The answer is that, this week, these Jewish women came together to sign a letter demanding local councils facilitate the end to gendered islamophobia, abuse and attacks on Muslim women. What’s more, they did it within a few hours.

This speed of the coming together was extraordinary, as was the range as of the women – every age, region, Jewish denomination and political leaning was covered.

Not one of the 50 women we asked said no. Not one questioned what we were doing. Everyone signed up immediately.

Gendered islamophobia, a phrase being driven by prominent Muslim women, is on the rise. According to Tell MAMA – the national project which records and measures anti-Muslim incidents – visibly Muslim women are more likely to be targeted for racial abuse and attacks on the streets, than men. This is a simply astonishing statistic and something has to be done about it.

But why are Jewish women taking action? Why we are we writing to councillors, and those standing for election, about anti-Muslim hatred when our newspapers are full of what is happening to us as Jews?

There is a huge rise in anti-Semitism at the moment and we are right to be worried.

All of us on the #EnoughIsEnough demonstration outside Parliament share the same upset, anger and fear over what is happening. And as chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, I am deeply aware of Holocaust denial, a particularly pernicious form of anti-Semitism as it slowly eats away at peoples and slowly erodes belief that such an incredible time in history actually existed.

But that doesn’t mean we should ignore other problems. Whataboutism is a scourge of modern day life. You can’t mention one problem without hearing: ‘Ah yes, but what about something else.”

So often this whataboutism is a way of not listening to other peoples pains and simply focusing on our own. This letter came about because we Jewish women, regardless of what is going on in our community, decided collectively to stand up for our Muslim sisters and say Enough – Dayenu. The letter was followed up by the Nisa-Nashim conference, which took place on Sunday and was the biggest gathering of Muslim and Jewish women in Europe.

We ate together, laughed together, sang together and even did poetry and learned self defence together.

And we also didn’t shy away from tough topics. Sessions covered Israel-Palestine, the first time this has been discussed at a Nisa-Nashim event, as well as how to have difficult conversations when our faiths diverge. Coming out of the conference it has become even more obvious to me that it is only when we hear the suffering of others, and when we accept our similarities as minorities or outsiders, that we can truly drive change.

It doesn’t diminish us to stand up for others. I’m proud that as Jewish women, we have stood side-by-side with our Muslim cousins, put Whataboutism to one side,  showing we have more in common.

About the Author
Laura Marks is a serial social entrepreneur who likes to focus on the common good. She founded Mitzvah Day, an international and interfaith day of social action, co-founded Nisa-Nashim, a Jewish/Muslim women’s network, and co-chairs the Alliance of Jewish Women. She chairs the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and all her work aims to make the world better and safer starting with the grass roots. Laura’s OBE was awarded for interfaith relations and in 2019 she was honoured by the Archbishop of Canterbury through his interfaith Hubert Walters Award. Laura’s family think she has a view on everything – and she does indeed love to broadcast (a regular on Radio 2 Pause for Thought) and write for the Jewish News.
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