My best friend is a Muslim
Emily Rhodes finds campus Jews surprisingly narrow-minded and says prejudice starts in classrooms
Jewish schools can leave people completely unprepared for university life. I realised this after venturing into Oxford’s J-Soc where, among some familiar faces, I met students who had no non-Jewish friends whatsoever. These students had been to Jewish schools, lived in Jewish areas and were used to Jewish friends; they felt understandably overwhelmed when thrown into a university where most people were very middle-England and had not heard of Stamford Hill.
University is traditionally the time when life opens out: a threshold on to a bigger, if scarier, world. Arriving from an exclusively Jewish background and finding yourself to be one of many minorities amid a sea of white Christian students must be an intimidating experience.
This is why, although somewhat clinical and unrealistic, diversity quotas for schools are essentially a good idea. Children need to be comfortable with those who are religiously or racially different from them; otherwise they face a future of fearing the unknown.
I was distinctly underwhelmed when I began at Oxford. I had been at a London day school where I was surrounded by children from diverse backgrounds: Indian, Welsh, Chinese, black, white, Canadian, Iranian, Arabic, Jewish and Hindu… a huge mixture. I noticed a distinct reduction in this diversity when I moved to Oxford, where 90 per cent of undergraduates are white and the majority were Christian.
Thanks to an upbringing within such diversity, I did not think twice about mixing with different people, be they Christian or Jew, Hindu or Muslim, black or white.
I met my Muslim best friend for lunch every Friday, which became a key event for me in the messy puzzle of university. Despite being from two religions that are becoming increasingly polarised, there was never any shortage of common ground. We both came from backgrounds that place a strong emphasis on family; I understood instantly the pressure on her to have a Muslim boyfriend; and we both ate bacon sandwiches and then teased each other for being a bad Jew or Muslim.
We sometimes joked that the two of us were starting the peace process and wondered what would happen if every Muslim were to meet a Jew for a weekly lunch.
This friendship did not seem remotely unusual to me, but many of the less open-minded Jews I met were shocked. They had never spoken to a Muslim, and were stunned when I told them that she did not try to convert me to Islam or pick fights about Israel.
Indeed, she understands some of the Jewish aspects of my life better than anyone, and is my first port of call when in a dilemma about familial duty or a suitable boyfriend.
She offers a phenomenally understanding friendship, and gives me the opportunity to appreciate diversity’s common ground.
Bringing diversity into schools would help more traditional Jews welcome this kind of opportunity, rather than sticking myopically to that which is familiar, narrow-minded, and, quite frankly, prejudiced.
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