Understanding our differences: the importance of inter-faith dialogue

Communities Secretary Sajid Javid tells the Chief Rabbi’s Conference about the need for people of all faiths to work together.

The Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP

Good afternoon everyone, shalom aleichem.

They say you should open a speech with a joke.

How about this?

Did you hear the one about the Muslim politician in a room full of Rabbis?

I’m still working on the punch line…

Seriously though, thank you all for inviting me today.

Thank you for welcoming me into this famous synagogue.

And thank you, Chief Rabbi, for that wonderful and very kind introduction.

It’s not often I agree with Gordon Brown.

But he was absolutely right when he described you as “a great pastor, a great thinker and a great humanitarian”.

I’m delighted that the UK has such a distinguished individual as Chief Rabbi.

Of course there are some people who say that Ephraim and I should not get along.

That our different beliefs make us natural enemies.

That’s nonsense.

I can look past the fact that he supports Tottenham…

There’s one big similarity I’ve found between Jews and Muslims.

It’s that all our parents are anxiously waiting for us to get proper jobs!

So let me congratulate Ephraim on the news that his son Danny has found gainful employment as senior rabbi of Mizrachi in Melbourne.

I’m a parent myself, I know how it fills you with pride when your children excel in any field.

Not long after Nigeria won its independence, the country found itself divided by deep-rooted ethnic and religious tensions.

In that time, the country’s first president, the Christian Nnamdi Azikiwe met with the premier of the Northern Nigeria region, a Muslim named Ahmadu Bello.

They talked about the need to bring their communities together.

To bridge the divide between them.

And Azikiwe ended the meeting by saying “Let us now forget our differences.”

To which Bello replied, “No – let us now understand our differences.”

For me, that’s the key to making communities work in the diverse, multi-cultural country that is 21st century Britain.

There’s no point pretending we’re all the same.

Because we’re not.

There are more than 60 million of us in these islands.

We come from many different places, we worship different gods.

Some of us even vote for different political parties!

Our diversity can be a great strength, bringing many different views and experiences and outlooks to the table.

It can be used to create great things, whether in art, culture, business, politics, or in your local community.

If we try to ignore that then we all suffer.

I can’t tell you to forget that you’re Jewish any more than you can tell me to forget that I’m a Muslim.

It’s who we are, it’s a part of our life.

Trying to ignore that, trying to impose a one-size-fits-all vision of society, will not end well.

It will foster resentment and legitimise intolerance.

If we’re going to live with each other, work with each other and tolerate each other, we have to understand each other.

And that’s why strong, positive inter-faith dialogue is absolutely vital.

But it needs to be about more than the Chief Rabbi talking to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

It needs to be more than Jeremy Lawrence, the senior Rabbi here at Finchley, talking to Imam Maulana Oussama Sahmoui at the North Finchley Mosque.

Today I’m speaking to Rabbis as we look ahead to Yamim Noraim.

Tomorrow, I’m speaking at a reception to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

But it needs more than that, too.

Interfaith dialogue needs to happen at all levels of society.

It needs the ordinary members of your synagogues, the congregation from the local church, the people who attend the mosques and temples and gurdwaras.

All of us need to come together and see just how much common ground we share.

As rabbis, I think you’re in a great position to make that happen.

You are teachers, counsellors, leaders who can share the importance of dialogue and help to bring it about.

But don’t worry.

I’m not just going to stand here, and issue some kind of order, and expect you to get on with mobilising your flock. We all have a role to play.

I want to make sure government is playing its part.

Five years ago we started a programme called Near Neighbours.

It helps people set up and run small projects that bring different faith groups together to break down barriers.

And it has been an incredible success.

We’ve seen Jewish, Muslim and Christian organisations in, for example, Leeds working together to set up a café where people of all faiths and none can get to know each other.

We’ve seen the Nottingham Liberal Synagogue partnering with a local Muslim organisation to provide hot meals to vulnerable people.

We’ve seen the Board of Deputies’ Rabbi Levy using Twitter to bring together girls from Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith schools so they can learn computer coding.

Altogether we’ve seen more than a thousand small projects up and down the country.

And between them they’ve helped a million people engage with their communities.

Projects like this help to build understanding between different groups.

And that makes them particularly important in the current climate.

We were all horrified by the spike in reported hate crime that followed the EU referendum.

The figures have now fallen back down.

But there are still far too many people facing threats, intimidation and even outright violence simply because of who they are.

And much of that hatred is directed towards Jews.

Last weekend I was saddened, but not surprised, when Yad Vashem’s Professor Yehuda Bauer said that if he were a British Jew he would feel concerned about the anti-Semitism that exists in this country.

I’ve heard similar concerns from too many people.

And of course, the Jewish community knows all too well the corrosive effect of prejudice and intolerance.

As I’ve said before, the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Indiscriminate killing is simply where hatred, if it’s left unchecked, reaches its tragic conclusion.

The Shoah began with nothing more than words.

Then came the insults, the boycotts, discrimination.

The noxious weed of anti-Semitism crept insidiously into everyday life, until the stage was set for violence, oppression and finally murder on a scale unprecedented before or since.

That’s why it’s so crucial that extremism, racism and violence is stopped in its tracks.

As a government, we’re maintaining strong legislation against racially and religiously motivated crime.

Our new Hate Crime Action Plan will make it easier to identify, report and record hate crime, and will provide new support for victims.

And we’ve provided well over £13 million for improved security measures at Jewish schools, synagogues and community centres.

But the freedom to live and worship behind walls and under guard is no freedom at all.

Yes, we must do all we can to tackle the criminal manifestation of anti-Semitism and other religious bigotry.

But we also have to deal with the underlying attitudes that fuel it.

And that’s why programmes like the Near Neighbours projects I talked about earlier are so important.

Setting up a soup kitchen or teaching some girls to code might not sound like much in the grand scheme of things.

I know it will take much more than a pop-up café in Leeds to unwind decades, even centuries, of misunderstanding, disagreement and hatred.

But the small size of these projects I think is their strength.

They’re not vast, faceless, disconnected programmes in which government tells people in distant cities and towns what to think.

They’re local.

They’re community-based.

They build friendships across ethnic and religious divides, creating the trust that’s so important in resolving local issues, overcoming suspicion and defeating intolerance.

I spent the weekend scouring my bookshelves for some Talmudic wisdom I could cite to sum up my case.

Unfortunately it turns out I’m a very poor theological scholar!

And my Hebrew’s even worse than my Punjabi!

So instead I turned to a canon I’m more familiar with.

Where a wise old man says: “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay”.

Yes, that was Gandalf in the film of the Hobbit…

However, the wizard makes an excellent point.

We can fight terrorists with bombs and bullets.

But the rising tide of intolerance, racism and bigotry won’t be defeated on the battlefield.

We will banish intolerance from this country only by changing minds.

By spreading understanding.

By talking to each other and realising that we might look different and sound different and believe different things, but that we are all human.

That we don’t just LIVE in the same community, we ARE the same community.

So let’s come together.

Let’s stand up to intolerance, together.

And let’s build a stronger, better Britain, together.

Not by ignoring our differences, but by understanding them.

By appreciating them.

By getting to know each other as people rather than as labels.

After all, it’s easy to hate a nameless, faceless enemy.

But it’s much harder to hate a familiar, friendly neighbour.

Shanah tova.

Published 13 September 2016