Now I don’t mean to get too biblical, but it’s been said that the Egyptians didn’t really like the Jews because we were different. We dressed differently; we ate differently, and argued a bit too much. And, eventually, they enslaved us because of it. Yet this problem has continued throughout our history: we are seen as different, inferior, morally wrong or just a bit irritating. And this perception, sometimes true, often false and manipulated, has had murderous and genocidal repercussions.
The problem is that it is often self-perpetuating. We’re a people that stubbornly stick to our laws and customs in opposition to the present culture, meaning that people see us as different, which puts us on the defensive and unwilling to engage with the outside world.
We’re lucky enough to mostly live in countries that are, on the whole; tolerant, pluralistic and engaged with their religious communities. However, our long and tumultuous history has developed a rather inward looking culture. Ask your non-Jewish friends- we’re generally quite cliquey, exclusive and each have a minimum of 30 mutual friends on Facebook.
What this means is that we have done extremely well for ourselves; we have built ourselves up from literally nothing. But when it comes to engagement with other minorities, groups and communities, we are truly lacking. And this is why we need to focus on interfaith a lot more than we already do. We cannot truly integrate while retaining our religious and cultural identity without further engagement and positive contact with other groups.
There has been some minimal engagement, but in general it tends to go one of two ways. Either we end up going straight into sensitive politics like the Arab-Israeli Conflict, which puts everyone on the defensive, or we walk over eggshells, have some tea and cake and talk about how nice the weather is and how similar we are and how everything is hunky dory.
In my humble opinion though, doing interfaith in both these ways is redundant. You may as well not bother. This is such a shame, because as students at university we are perfectly placed to do it, and if done right it can be extremely effective. At a local level, the best interfaith begins with no content at all, it is simply building trust, respect, friendships, and in turn knocking down superficial barriers. This is the first step to all interfaith activity: you cannot truly understand a person, their beliefs or their cultural contexts without getting to know them first. Relationship-building gives you the foundations to go further and to discuss difficult and sometimes intimate issues.
Only after that can you go further. This doesn’t mean diving straight into the most controversial issues, but approaching things with an eye on the broader context and with the assumption that you are not there to preach your political opinions but to further understand others, and for them to further understand you. You won’t be singing Kumbaya anytime soon but that’s not the point, rather the point is to get people to a place where they can engage with people on more than just a superficial level.
The most effective interfaith is that which combines the two approaches. In St. Andrews (where I study) we have held two sold-out, award-winning conferences looking at conflict and coexistence, in which we had a number of academics, journalists, activists and experts speak; and then after we had a dinner where participants could discuss what happened during the day in a carefree, safe and relaxed environment.
If Jews want to be more accepted and better ourselves as a people then, in my opinion, interfaith is the answer. But nevertheless, if we want to engage with other minorities and groups then we have to do it in the both in the right way and in the most appropriate way. If we do, the rewards to everyone are huge. If we do, we shall never be enslaved again.
Joel Salmon is a final year International Relations student at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He was President of the St. Andrews Jewish society for two and a half years and founded the St. Andrews Coexistence Initiative, an organisation that works to bring together diverse and disparate communities in St Andrews. Joel attended the 2013 WUJS Congress as a delegate for the Union of Jewish Students of the UK & Ireland.
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