24 March 2013
David Berkley QC is Jewish and a barrister. Like me, he was one of the founder members of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester and we have presented together on many occasions on subjects relating to Muslim Jewish dialogue.
A few months ago the Muslim Jewish Forum received an invitation for David and me to give the annual Peter Bell Memorial Lecture to Concord (Leeds Interfaith Fellowship) which brings together Bahá’is, Brahma Kumaris, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Sikhs and other Communities.
Dr Peter Bell MBE was a founder member of Leeds Concord back in 1976 and served as General Secretary until his death in 1999. Since 2010 Leeds Concord has held a lecture in his memory. We chose to talk about what we have learned from our experiences with the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester.
The lecture was given on 20 March 2013. We spoke from a written text which is reproduced below.
However the text does not fully reflect the evening as we added a great deal of additional detail and colour during delivery. In the reproduction below, I have added some supplemental material based upon what I said during delivery. This additional material is formatted as blockquotes to prevent it being confused with the joint script that David and I agreed in advance and used for the presentation.
This page originally had "eight years" in the title, but a friend pointed out the inconsistency with the event invitation. The event invitation was based on the Muslim Jewish Forum's legal incorporation date of 14 June 2005. When writing the page title, I was thinking of the initial meetings in 2004 leading to the Forum, and also the imminence of June 2013.
I have changed the page title to harmonise. However in the URL of this page I have retained the "8". I never like changing my website URL's as it risks making invalid links that people may have created.
Thank you for inviting us to give this lecture. As well as being an honour, it has provided us with the opportunity to look back and reflect and assess what we have achieved with the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester.
After the talk we will be delighted to take questions. We propose to cover the following:
Mohammed Amin had lived in Manchester since 1952. At school some of his friends were Jewish, particularly since Muslims and Jews were exempt from attending the school assembly instead spending their time sitting together in the sixth form common room. One of his close circle at university was Jewish and of course professionally he had both Jewish colleagues at work and Jewish clients. One of those clients invited him to a Seder at his home near New York City in 1994.
My university friend gave me an early introduction to kosher food restrictions. It was relatively easy for me to manage the halal food requirements while eating dinners and lunches at Clare College, but catering was more challenging for my Jewish friend.
I have never forgotten watching him frying “Nuttolene” which as the name suggests was a meat substitute made from nuts.
However despite being aged in his early 50s, at the time that the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester was set up, Mohammed Amin had never set foot inside a synagogue. He also knew no Jewish people socially.
David Berkley was born in Israel but had lived in Manchester since he was 7 years old. Growing up in the Orthodox Jewish community and attending religious schools and Yeshiva he had little social contact with non-Jews until University. Since then in the course of his professional practice he came to into contact with and developed good relations with clients and colleagues from the Muslim communities in the North West of England.
Sensing that there was an urgent need for better understanding between the faith communities David Berkley helped to establish a grass roots initiative in Bury and was a founder of the Muslim Jewish Forum.
Back in 2004 Mohammed Amin received an invitation from Manchester Town Hall which came from the Deputy Lord Mayor, Councillor Afzal Khan. That was not a surprise since he was a long-standing friend. The invitation was to listen to two individuals from London, Rabbi Herschel Gluck and Ismail Amaan, talking about their Muslim Jewish dialogue group in North London. Co-hosting the event was Mr Henry Guterman MBE, a former president of the Jewish Representative Council of Greater Manchester.
At the event, Rabbi Gluck explained that he had become conscious that he had no contact with the Muslim community in his area. He decided to take direct action by going to the nearest mosque and ringing the doorbell!
Apart from the talk by the visitors and the questions and answers, there was no direct outcome from the meeting. However a few months later Councillor Afzal Khan and Mr Henry Guterman called another public meeting to discuss whether we should set up a similar forum in Manchester. There was general support and the small number of people volunteered to help set it up. Mohammed Amin and David Berkley were among them.
Given that David Berkley is a lawyer and Mohammed Amin is an accountant, it was natural for the two of us to be given the task of drafting the constitution. Equally inevitable given our backgrounds, we produced the most formal kind of constitution imaginable, by incorporating a company limited by guarantee. Despite Mohammed Amin having practised as an accountant for many decades, this was the only occasion on which he has formed a company "by hand" as opposed to contracting the task out to company formation agents. However it meant that forming the company cost only the registration fee of £40 plus the costs of purchasing a company seal and some statutory books which came to about three times as much.
Many people assume that the natural role of Muslims and Jews is to be at loggerheads with each other. This view is of course formed from an awareness of the Middle East conflict, and the way that conflict has unfortunately been imported into countries like Britain, corroding relations between Muslims and Jews in this country.
When planning the forum we realised that if we had formal discussions about the Middle East, we would never talk about anything else because the subject would take over everything else. It is of course also immensely divisive between Muslims and Jews. Finally we were conscious that sitting in Manchester neither the Muslim nor the Jewish communities had any power to change what was happening in the Middle East, let alone bring about peace.
Accordingly we restricted the aims and objectives of the Muslim Jewish Forum very specifically. It is worth reading out the key clause from our memorandum since it is quite short. This is clause 3.
3. The objects for which the Forum is established are to develop the cultural and social ties between the Muslim and Jewish Communities of Greater Manchester; to educate members of the Muslim and Jewish Communities in relation to their shared values and common Abrahamic tradition, heritage, history and culture; and to promote better understanding within the wider community of the interests and values that are common to the Muslim and Jewish Communities.
The key point about this objects clause is that it is entirely local. The Middle East is out of scope.
Despite the exclusion of the Middle East from the Forum’s official activities, that did not preclude personal conversations between members about the Middle East. I explained that before I got to know David Berkley, who was President of the Zionist Council for the North West, I had believed that the right way forward was a “one state solution” with Jews and Palestinians having a single state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River with equal civil rights for all.
It was David who helped me to understand why this was not acceptable from a Jewish perspective. In particular the story of the MS St Louis was now never far from my thoughts and I shared it with the audience.
Obviously all of the rules regarding membership of the Forum and the executive committee, such as having two co-chairs, were designed to ensure parity of treatment between Muslims and Jews.
Mohammed Amin had a private concern that the forum might be excessively dominated by Muslims since there are about 10 times as many Muslims living in the greater Manchester area as there are Jews. However the experience was the opposite; there were far more Jews interested in having dialogue with Muslims than there were Muslims wanting to talk to Jews. There are several reasons for this imbalance in Mohammed Amin's view:
Accordingly, especially in the early days, there were far more Jews at Forum events than Muslims.
In the summer of 2006 Muslim attendance plummeted as a reaction to the war in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah. The same thing happened during operation Cast Lead at the end of 2008/beginning of 2009. However in both cases the forum simply persevered and Muslim attendance grew back up. We're now at the stage where Muslim attendance is catching up with Jewish attendance.
We started off with some basics and have always allowed practicality to guide us. Nowadays each significant event that we do is recorded on our website using the text of the press release that we issue after the event. These press releases make a difference by themselves since they are often picked up by the Jewish and Asian press, thereby helping to spread the message that events are taking place which involve the Muslim and Jewish communities coming together in harmony.
Without wishing to read out an endless list, some of the more notable things that we have done are as follows:
A full list of events held since the Muslim Jewish Forum set up its website can be found on the past events page of its website. The speakers mentioned some of the events as they extemporised.
In response to a question about young people, I mentioned that two of our committee members were particularly keen on football. Accordingly they had organised a football competition for children between the ages of 8 to 16. We had the Muslim and Jewish children form mixed teams for this competition.
Almost as important as the formal events organised by the forum are the other things that have happened because the forum brought people together and created connections.
From the earliest days of the forum, David Berkley and Mohammed Amin have given talks to Manchester Limmud, Liverpool Limmud and Leeds Limmud on a variety of topics. These have included Muslim Jewish dialogue itself as a topic, our different attitudes to conversion and what Jerusalem means to Muslims and Jews. This last topic illustrates our approach quite well; when David Berkley suggested to Mohammed Amin that we talk about Jerusalem, Amin immediate reaction was that we were not going to have a presentation where each of us stood there claiming "my connection to Jerusalem is better than yours!" Accordingly Mohammed Amin spoke about the Jewish connection with Jerusalem while David Berkley spoke about what Jerusalem means to Muslims.
I explained the genesis of the talk about different attitudes to conversion and mentioned that when I presented, I had used a rather unusual citation on my slides, “SATC 6.2”. As expected, nobody in the audience was able to identify the citation. I explained that the long form of the citation was “Sex and the City, series 6, episode 2”! This was a television series about the lives and loves of four women in New York City.
In this episode one of them who has fallen in love with a Jewish man decides that she should convert to Judaism so that they can be married since his family does not want him to marry a gentile. She obtains the address of a rabbi, rings his doorbell and when he opens the door introduces herself: “Hello, I am Charlotte York I would like to learn more about the Jewish faith.” The door is slammed in her face. She obtains the address of another rabbi but has the identical experience.
After several such rejections someone explains to her that the protocol is to reject the applicant several times before allowing her in, as a way of assessing her determination. Accordingly she then stops changing rabbis and is eventually invited in to learn about Judaism. She does successfully convert, they get married and they live happily ever after. Watching this episode made me focus on how hard Judaism makes it to convert into the religion compared with the approaches of Islam or Christianity.
A small group of people, three Muslims and three Jews, decided to visit Krakow and Auschwitz together. Afterwards Mohammed Amin wrote a blog about the visit and an article for the Jewish Chronicle, both of which can be found easily on his website. Five of the six have taken other holidays together; so far they have been to Granada and Marrakesh. Dubrovnik is next.
A number of people were brought together originally by the forum, along with others, took part in a mixed journey to Israel and Palestine at the end of 2009/beginning of 2010 organised by the Forum for Discussion of Israel and Palestine (FODIP).
Mohammed Amin was invited by David Berkley speak at an Israel advocacy conference in Manchester "The Big Tent for Israel" at which he talked about how supporters of Israel should promote its cause with Muslims.
I explained that as a subscriber to the Jewish Chronicle I was aware of the planning for “The Big Tent for Israel” and the severe political difficulties that ensued when Rabbi Guttentag decided to exclude non-Orthodox rabbis from speaking.
At a Muslim Jewish Forum event David had informed me that an organising committee had been set up to decide upon speakers and asked me if I was willing to speak. I had never imagined that I might find myself on a platform speaking on Israel advocacy but said yes.
Having done so I had to decide what I wanted to say, concluding immediately that standing on that particular platform and pointing out Israel’s failings would not be appropriate. I used the occasion to explain that when supporters of Israel talk to Muslims, they should begin with the facts as they are present where there is some possibility of agreement, rather than beginning with the history where agreement is virtually impossible. I pointed out the widespread ignorance about Israel amongst Muslims, using the example of a highly educated Muslim professional of Pakistani background who did not know that Arab citizens of Israel were allowed to vote. My talk is available on this website.
We have now been legally constituted for almost exactly eight years, since our date of incorporation was in June 2005.
In that time we have, we believe, achieved the following:
Recently The Manchester Islamic High School for Girls and King David’s School in Manchester entered into a formal twinning arrangement, starting with a visit of the girls to King David’s. What is important about that in our view is that the Muslim Jewish Forum had zero direct involvement in setting up the contacts and the twinning. What the twinning demonstrates is that more Muslims and Jews in Manchester now regard such activity as normal. We claim the credit for having changed the atmosphere.