When discussing Muslim attitudes to Jewish people, nuance is crucial

Jews & Muslims come together for a Prayer of Peace

JVL Introduction

On 11th April the Jewish Chronicle carried an article by Melanie Phillips which contested antisemitism with Islamophobia which she claimed “was invented to silence acknowledgement” of Muslim hatred of Jews.

Jonathan Boyd Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) gives a thoughtful and constructive response with a call for nuance in approaching the complexity of the issues involved.

It is a call which should be heeded in the discussion of antisemitism as well.

It is also clear, as Bernie Sanders recently pointed out, that we need an open debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict, otherwise lots of hostilities related to misunderstandings will endure. That vital debate has been undermined by a widespread use of allegations of antisemitism to stifle discussion.

When discussing Muslim attitudes to Jewish people, nuance is crucial

Beware anyone whose rhetoric on this is simplistic, writes researcher Jonathan Boyd after heated debate in the pages of the JC

15 April 2019

Not surprisingly, I suppose, I am an avid observer of research data. But much as I enjoy the numbers themselves, what particularly interests me is how people deploy them in the service of their own agendas.

More often than not, they fall into the all too human trap of confirmation bias: they use the data selectively to buttress their pre-existing opinions, or to strengthen beliefs they hold and have long convinced themselves to be true.

People do this with data all the time. Rarely do they use them in the way I believe they should: to shed small rays of light, alongside various other rays of light generated by other researchers, on often complex and sensitive issues that require careful analysis and nuanced debate.

Recent articles commenting on the attitudes of Muslims in Great Britain towards Jews and Israel present a good example.

I can prove – empirically – that considerably higher proportions of Muslims in Great Britain hold antipathetic views towards Jews and Israel than the general population of the country. I can further demonstrate that a correlation exists between anti-Jewish and anti-Israel attitudes among Muslims, and indeed among people in general – the more antipathy they feel towards Jews, the more antipathy they feel towards Israel, and vice versa.

And I can also point to solid evidence showing that the Muslim population of Great Britain is growing quite rapidly: depending on how the UK’s migration policy unfolds, it’s projected to rise from about 6 per cent of the total population of the country today, to between 10 per cent and 17 per cent by 2050.

But, at the same time, I can also demonstrate that at least two-thirds of Muslims in Great Britain either disagree with, or have no clear opinion on, each of the anti-Jewish prejudices tested in JPR’s own work on the topic. I can prove that, while non-religious Muslims may be slightly more likely than everyone else in the country to hold multiple anti-Jewish views, the proportions that do are pretty small – our best estimate is about 7 per cent.

Hard core anti-Israel sentiment among secular British Muslims is more common, but still a minority position – around 21 to 22 per cent – meaning that about four in every five within this group cannot be described as ardently anti-Israel, even though most Muslims display at least some hostility towards the country.

Alongside these findings, I can show you that levels of antipathy towards Jews among British Muslims is considerably lower than it is among Muslims living in the Middle East, suggesting that living in the West probably exerts a moderating influence over time. And while much more work needs to be done to demonstrate this conclusively, our data appear to indicate that familiarity does not breed contempt: the more British Muslims know Jews, the less likely they are to hold anti-Jewish or anti-Israel views.

All of this means that when we contemplate our relationship with Muslims today, we are entering complex territory. Some British Muslims genuinely despise us; they want us, and the State of Israel, dead. Others admire us; they want to befriend us, engage with us, learn from us.

Most don’t think about us very much at all – they have their views, but they don’t define who they are. And a good number have no opinion of us whatsoever – they’ve never met us, never really thought about us, and are busy getting on with their lives.

At the collective level, on a global scale, there is an intractable and sometimes deadly conflict going on between us; but at the individual level, locally, there are people with varying views, – some prejudicial, some not – who live among us, and whom we encounter every day – at work, on the street, on public transport, in doctor’s surgeries and hospitals, in supermarkets, in schools and universities.

When we see such complex territory before us, we have a choice: to avoid it, fight it, or to enter into it with caution and thoughtfulness. I would advise the third: to enter it with caution, with a clear goal in mind, but with a well-equipped toolkit containing a great deal more than a metaphorical hammer.

And that should be our approach when cultivating our collective relationship with Muslims today. Our goal has to be harmony – as we sing whenever we return the Torah to the ark, its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace. But our strategy has to be both courageous and smart.

This issue isn’t straightforward; beware of anyone carrying only one tool to address it.