Where will good in­ten­tions lead?

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Sandy Rashty

THERE WE stood: 200 women in a cen­tral Lon­don venue — prac­tis­ing yoga. In sync, we raised our hands up high and leaned from side-to-side. Up­per-bod­ies stretched, we linked arms and in­haled deeply be­fore let­ting out a sis­terly chant as we ex­haled. But this was no or­di­nary med­i­ta­tion ses­sion. On Sunday, women from across the country at­tended the first fe­male in­ter­faith con­fer­ence for Jews and Mus­lims in the UK. The event, led by grass­roots group Nisa-Nashim, en­cour­aged guests to wear pink or pur­ple to cel­e­brate the ini­tia­tive.

Over cups of cof­fee and cake, new friend­ships were formed and marked by self­ies posted on so­cial me­dia and the ex­change of con­tact de­tails through­out the day. It was heart­warm­ing to wit­ness.

Clus­ters of women ea­gerly talked about shared fam­ily val­ues and re­li­gious prac­tices. Oth­ers pointed to mu­tual con­cerns, from the rise of racism post-Brexit to the threat posed to both faiths by cam­paigns against re­li­gious slaugh­ter and cir­cum­ci­sion. Young women talked about sim­i­lar de­mands they faced from their own fam­i­lies, in­clud­ing the re­lent­less pres­sure to marry suit­able part­ners.

But for all the warmth that came from the group ex­er­cises (both phys­i­cal and men­tal), one large ele­phant lin­gered in the room: Is­rael.

In­ter­faith ini­tia­tives have long high­lighted his­tor­i­cal al­liances and re­minded us that, as peo­ple of faith, we have more in com­mon than apart. Yet, prej­u­dice and sus­pi­cions linger on both sides. Time and again in­ter­faith groups have bro­ken down when­ever a con­flict in the Mid­dle East rears its head. Some have even at­tempted to ban any men­tion of Is­raeli-Pales­tinian pol­i­tics in a bid to pre­vent ten­sion between “friends”.

Yet, how strong can th­ese so-called al­liances be if they can­not even with­stand sim­ple dis­cus­sion of one of the most key is­sues fac­ing both of our com­mu­ni­ties? What kind of bond needs cen­sor­ship to keep it alive?

Af­ter tak­ing part in a panel on “chal­leng­ing the nar­ra­tive”, I put this ques­tion to Nisa-Nashim co-chair Laura Marks. She main­tained that this in­ter­faith group is dif­fer­ent: the women are in charge.

“In­stead of try­ing to per­suade peo­ple that they are wrong, we are try­ing to per­suade peo­ple that we are worth talk­ing to,” she ex­plained. “That is a mas­sive piece of in­ter­faith work that men are not do­ing. They are not go­ing to get any­where un­til they have a friend.”

But still, the un­spo­ken ten­sion ex­ists. “Our pol­icy on Is­rael is to ac­knowl­edge that it is the ele­phant in the room — and we have parked it. We are not ready to talk to peo­ple about it, we haven’t got a re­la­tion­ship with peo­ple where we can talk about it. The mo­ment you get into it, you just clash.”

Out­side the lec­ture the­atre, I met Leeds coun­cil­lor Salma Arif, the lo­cal co-chair of Nisa-Nashim who had come with six group mem­bers to the con­fer­ence. List­ing all the things our com­mu­ni­ties had in com­mon, I ques­tioned whether they meant much if we could not talk about the is­sue that hit us at our core?

“There has to be re­spect and friend­ship first. Oth­er­wise, if we just go into a room and talk about ‘Is­rael and Pales­tine’ we are just not go­ing to agree. If we con­cen­trate on get­ting to know each other, then we can sit down and have a good con­ver­sa­tion.”

The in­ten­tion is clear. Once pos­i­tive groups like NisaNashim are ready for that good con­ver­sa­tion, op­por­tu­ni­ties for real re­la­tions between our com­mu­ni­ties are end­less.

One large el­e­ment lin­gered in the room: Is­rael

Sandy Rashty is a a jour­nal­ist at Sky News. Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @SandyRashty

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