The real mes­sage of a cel­e­bra­tory evening

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - KEREN DAVID

The set­ting was a smart West End ho­tel, and the guests were smart, veer­ing to the glit­tery. On one side of me sat a friendly rabbi. On the other, a press of­fi­cer for a char­ity who, it turned out, was a for­mer col­league and friend of my cousin. On the stage yet an­other rabbi was about to speak. We were all, I sensed, look­ing for­ward to din­ner ar­riv­ing.

We’d heard sev­eral speeches on the theme of im­mi­grant val­ues, learn­ing from the grand­par­ents who knew they wanted to give some­thing back to our adopted coun­try. We’d seen videos of adorable chil­dren in need, made by the char­i­ties which give them aid. We’d heard a mes­sage from Theresa May prais­ing the com­mu­nity for its phi­lan­thropy (“You give more to char­ity than any other com­mu­nity.”) and achieve­ments.

Yet this event was not held by the Board or Deputies or World Jewish Re­lief. I was a guest at the an­nual awards cer­e­mony held by The Mus­lim News. The aim is to cel­e­brate the very many con­tri­bu­tions that Mus­lims make to Bri­tish so­ci­ety, in the hope of gain­ing pos­i­tive cov­er­age. Al­though the awards have been around for nearly two decades, the pro­pa­ganda Sa­jid Javid MP, Sec­re­tary of State for Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment and Com­mu­ni­ties, pre­sent­ing ce­ram­i­cist Shahida Ahmed with her award

bat­tle is not be­ing won; the ac­tions of some mur­der­ous ex­trem­ists — peo­ple who are not Mus­lims, we were told again and again — ob­scur­ing the words and deeds of the mod­er­ate ma­jor­ity.

The cause was good, and these were clearly nice peo­ple, judg­ing by the hugs and smiles, but there were a few mo­ments for me when the gen­eral soft-fo­cus pos­i­tive vibe sud­denly sharp­ened into some­thing

else. Such as when the co­me­dian warm­ing up the au­di­ence asked: “Are there any Is­raelis here?” Rabbi Laura Jan­ner- Klaus­ner stuck up her hand, and he made a lame joke ask­ing if she was go­ing to oc­cupy the stage. Re­as­sur­ingly, though, there were hardly any laughs. The au­di­ence were more in­ter­ested in gos­sip­ing amongst them­selves.

Flick­ing through the brochure, I saw that in pre­vi­ous years a few awards had gone to peo­ple that I’d have a prob­lem ap­plaud­ing: Ibrahim He­witt, chair of In­ter­pal for one; the chair of the Scot­tish Pales­tine Sol­i­dar­ity Cam­paign for an­other.

But those were more than 10 years ago. With Rabbi Janet Dar­ley at the helm of the 2017 judg­ing panel, there would surely be sen­si­tiv­ity to Jewish feel­ings?

Even when I saw that NUS chair Malia Bouat­tia short­listed for the first award to be an­nounced, I didn’t think she’d win. Clearly, de­spite her more re­cent re­gret, com­ments in the past about Birm­ing­ham Univer­sity be­ing a “Zion­ist out­post” and “Zion­is­tled me­dia out­lets” could cause the neg­a­tive cov­er­age that the awards are de­signed to counter. But no, her win was greeted with ap­plause. Was this the pat­tern for the evening? I started care­fully read­ing the ci­ta­tions for the short­lists.

Hap­pily, it turned out that Ms Bouat­tia was only rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the other win­ners be­cause of her gen­der. Wo­man af­ter wo­man came onto the stage, chal­leng­ing any no­tion that Mus­lim women are lim­ited in their role. Win­ners in­cluded a group that en­cour­ages Mus­lim girls to take part in sport; a ce­ram­i­cist (“I’m an artist…my par­ents wanted me to be a doc­tor!”); twin school­girls de­fy­ing ill health to do well aca­dem­i­cally and train as St John’s Am­bu­lance Cadets.

There was a bioethi­cist from Bal­liol Col­lege; a maths teacher, a French jour­nal­ist who told me about a story she’d writ­ten about “the French Anne Frank”, and a busi­ness­woman whose web­site show­cases the best ha­lal restau­rants. Some wore hi­jabs, oth­ers didn’t, all beamed proudly as they made their ac­cep­tance speeches. It was heart-warm­ing to wit­ness, and it gave me hope that Malia Bouat­tia will grow into her award.

The over­rid­ing mes­sage of the evening was the re­jec­tion of ex­trem­ism, com­plete hor­ror at be­ing as­so­ci­ated with ter­ror­ism. The pos­i­tiv­ity that the or­gan­is­ers wanted to com­mu­ni­cate, was im­pres­sive and in­fec­tious. And the per­son whoI thought should have won Bouat­tia’s Good Cit­i­zen­ship award; a young man, Mo­hammed Zafran who set up a char­ity in honour of his mur­dered broth­erin-law, which has helped more than 16,000 young peo­ple was hon­oured with the judges’ over­all spe­cial award.

Any­one who is tempted to group Mus­lims to­gether as “them” should at­tend this awards cer­e­mony. Their com­mu­nity is as di­verse, as hard­work­ing, as thought­ful and char­i­ta­ble as our own. And, as Rabbi Janet Dar­ley told me af­ter­wards, “The Jewish com­mu­nity should think about do­ing some­thing sim­i­lar. We also have a lot to cel­e­brate.” Jews should have an awards event like this

PHOTO: JAMES GIF­FORD-MEAD/THE MUS­LIM NEWS

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