By Laura Marks OBE and Julie Siddiqi, Co-Founders of Nisa-Nashim
What do you call 200 Jewish and Muslim women in a hall – talking, praying, listening, laughing, eating and even exercising together?
This weekend we held Britain’s first ever Jewish/Muslim women’s conference at the University of Westminster.
It was our honour to address the delegates – who had come from the North, East, South, West and centre of Britain – standing side by side as Jewish woman and a Muslim woman and, even more importantly, side by side as friends. Because that it what we are.
Our friendship began five years ago when mutual admiration for each other’s achievements in our male-dominated faith communities turned to interest and then to friendship.
While we may not know exactly what the other is serving for dinner each night, we do know when there are entrance exams, new pets, negotiations over adolescent demands, birthdays, tears of joy and those of sadness.
However it is fair to say that this friendship isn’t the norm. With 3 million Muslims in Britain and 300,000 Jews, often living in very specific areas in closely knit communities, we are deeply aware that most Muslims will never have met a Jew and most Jews will only have fleeting acquaintances with Muslims.
Traditionally, we have been told that our faiths don’t get on. There is mistrust, suspicion and, at worst, open hostility. We question each other’s affiliations and loyalties, and Israel/Palestine creeps into conversation.
And we have to admit that these generalisations are based in reality. We’ve seen it when our faith groups are surveyed on their thoughts of each other. And we’ve certainly seen it with our own eyes.
There is a mistrust of Muslims within the Jewish community, reinforced at each extremist atrocity perpetuated by people claiming to be represent Islam. Likewise in the Muslim community, prejudice against Jews often isn’t far from the surface.
So how do we combat this? The first way is to be brave and call out hatred whenever we see it – our own communities, in our families and among our friends online. We need to find ways to do that. We mustn’t turn a blind eye.
The second is to stress the other narrative, the one you don’t often read or hear about, but is there all the same. The story of the Muslims in America who paid to repair a desecrated Jewish cemetery, or the holding of a Muslim Women’s development day in a British synagogue. Or how our communities unite in social action on Mitzvah Day, or later this month on Sadaqa Day, coming to together to collect clothing for refugees, cook for the homeless and visit the elderly.
But the main way to fight back against mistrust and prejudice is, and always will be, through friendship.
While we had some incredible and powerful female speakers at the conference – including clergy, authors, activists, journalists and company executives – the main goal was to form, and cement, friendships.
After all, Jews and Muslims are so alike – especially our women. Our fixation on family first, our traditions, way of dressing, our rules on charity and on what we eat, and our scriptures are very similar. Even our background as immigrants to Britain echo each other.
Eighteen months ago, we launched the Jewish/Muslim women’s network Nisa-Nashim – the words meaning ‘women’ in Hebrew and Arabic – to initiate change through the dynamic women in both communities. We wanted people who would knock down walls, rather than build them. Who would create trust in place of suspicion, and hope in place of hate. Who would focus on challenging the narrative.
Since then we’ve built 17 groups around the UK, led by determined Jewish and Muslim co-chairs, most of whom didn’t even know each other a few short months ago.
These women are forming friendships, friendships which can sustain when things get tough, which they do and they will. We are going to need to be Bold For Change.
To be clear, we are not naïve. We know that there are huge challenges facing our work, from those who actively wish it harm to many more who doubt our ability to drive change in a small and then in a larger way across society.
We are not asking for permission to initiate positive change. We are already mobilising, and bringing, hundreds of the smartest, most dynamic and thoughtful Jewish and Muslim women with us, in partnership and in friendship.
The intention is to go on to reach out to thousands more women, to our children and our mothers, and to even those people who don’t want to hear us.
One amazing woman we spoke about a look during the conference was Jo Cox. We even had a quote from her on the back of our volunteer T-shirts.
Jo’s death had a huge impact on both of us, and the entire country, in June last year. She was a wonderful woman in so many ways.
Now it is our all jobs to carry on her work – to do whatever we can to challenge ignorance, to introduce a positive narrative and to demonstrate that, in Jo’s words, “we have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
Laura Marks OBE and Julie Siddiqi, Co-Founders of Nisa-Nashim
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