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'Deeply troubled' by racism directed at Muslims

PUBLISHED: 12:42 30 October 2017

The Golders Green Hippodrome Picture: Harry Taylor

The Golders Green Hippodrome Picture: Harry Taylor

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An encounter that I had four years ago has been on my mind a lot this week. A couple of local residents introduced themselves to me at JW3, the Jewish Community Centre on the Finchley Road that we'd opened a few weeks earlier.

“We really weren’t keen on the idea of this place being dropped right in the heart of our lovely neighbourhood”, said the woman after exchanging pleasantries.

“And we didn’t shy away from telling people what we thought” added the man, “But now you’ve opened, we think it’s great – and we’re not even Jewish! Thank you for a great addition to the neighbourhood.”

In the ensuing conversation I heard the same concerns they’d vocalised during the planning permission process that we’d heard for a few years before opening: Fears over increased traffic, competition for parking places, and the potential for noise, especially in evenings. All legitimate concerns.

However, in a candid moment, the woman admitted that when they first heard about the centre being built, she and her friends didn’t understand why we’d want to build a Jewish community centre here “rather than in an actual Jewish area, like Golders Green or Stamford Hill.”

They’d wondered if by building it, it was the start of a plan for Jewish families to “populate the area”, which would no doubt lead to some of the local shops being “turned into” kosher shops.

Having heard many such comments, I wasn’t shocked.

I am shocked now though. As someone who runs a high-profile community centre that wears its ethnicity very visibly on its sleeve, I am deeply troubled by the vitriol being directed at the Shia Muslim community who have recently opened the Centre for Islamic Enlightenment by Golders Green Station.

I appreciate the anxieties of those who live closest to the centre about the increased noise, traffic and parking issues. I have heard from some such residents and I sympathise with their objections.

However, legitimate parking and noise concerns don’t explain the 5,000 plus signatories on an e-petition against the Islamic Centre’s plans, and the messages posted on social media, including by many who live nowhere near it.

Some of the bigoted, ludicrous comments I’ve read (copied word-for-word here) include:

“…an invasion of a people who want to convert and destroy our way of life…”

“What’s to follow????? A chain of Halal butchers, restaurants, every shop will be taken over…”

“…its one of the only jewish areas left in London and we don’t want it polluted and destroyed by a bunch of jew hating muslim terrorists.”

“They bought that mosque so they could infiltrate the jewish area and take it over…”

These are just a few examples of comments coming from a small, but very vocal minority of protestors - including from within the local Jewish community – that would make the EDL proud.

Whilst I’m embarrassed by what I’ve heard and read, I am uplifted by the overwhelmingly positive response by the majority of right-minded people across the Jewish community, including the Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, who called such comments “grotesque”, and cried “shame on the protestors”.

Jews know all too well what it’s like to be made to feel unwelcome when setting up communities in new areas.

We have centuries of experience of being on the rough end of bigotry from ignorant people, fearful of our “different ways”. We know how it feels to be mistrusted, hated, simply because we are Jewish.

So in the spirit of murdered MP Jo Cox who reminded us that “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”, I hope many of you will reach out to our new neighbours at the Islamic Centre, welcome them to the neighbourhood and get to know them.

Who knows, maybe soon we’ll be saying to the centre’s manager, “thank you for a great addition to the neighbourhood.”

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