“Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?”
William Blake, On Another’s Sorrow.
On a day when the BBC published two prominent features, one dealing with a proposal to ban racists from social media, another asking how it’s possible to reverse the surge in religious hate crime, it’s inevitable that I should have found myself pondering these matters. Britain’s a small island, so I’m just as likely as anyone else to feel the effects or repercussions of this growing ill-feeling in some way, while a sense of natural justice directs me towards trying to make a positive contribution towards the happiness, well-being and security of my fellow countrymen, if it’s within my power to do so.
It seems to me that those British Jews and Muslims who feel threatened might well look to the British government and to the Church for support, because I don’t doubt that these institutions are full of men and women of goodwill, but I find it hard to envisage that they’ll be able to effect any kind of meaningful change despite the legions of well-paid advisors, consultants, PR experts and think-tanks that have presumably been applying their finest minds to these matters for some time.
I do not write this as a further expression of the widespread cynicism about our politicians, because on this occasion I don’t doubt their good intentions; however, it’s one thing to move to ban troublemakers from social media as a reaction to those inciting hatred, but it’s quite another to possess the imagination to come up with something that will at tackle the problem at source by giving everyone food for thought, something to consider in addition to their preconceived notions.
Someone at the Movement Against Xenophobia has had a decent idea, which is to undertake a nationwide poster campaign showing immigrants to Britain in a positive light, although I’m surprised to learn that they’re struggling to raise the required funds. Furthermore, the question of our attitude towards immigrants is a separate one to the problem of British Jews and Muslims feeling under threat, because many immigrants to Britain belong to neither faith, so the hostile attitude that some have towards the newcomers to our shores compounds the troubles we all face. It’s clearly a pressing issue with the attendant possibility for civil unrest, but rather than leave the matters for others to solve, my conscience dictates that I should cast around for some positive contribution that I can make.
Given the way the internet is deluged with inflamed commentary on this matter, from all sides, I ask myself what I can do as a private individual to make one iota of difference and the answer is – not a great deal. To give some example of the frustration I feel, I was deeply ashamed last Friday night when the England rugby team were booed by sections of the crowd when they took to the pitch at the Millenium Stadium for the opening match of the Six Nations competition. As a Welshman, I naturally wanted to see the England team ground into the mud and heavily defeated during the game – which was not to be – but I would expect that any opponents should be treated with the utmost courtesy before and after the encounter, especially when they were our guests.
So, how can I convey my feelings to all my English neighbours who must have been disgusted by what happened? The answer is that I cannot, because I’m not aware of any aspect of the internet or other media that would magically convey my thoughts to all concerned, but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t make the effort for my voice to be heard, because if I remain silent, then no one will be aware of where my sympathies and loyalties might lie on any given matter. It might be an old-fashioned concept, such as the idea of keeping vigil, but it nonetheless seems to me that I wish to effect any change, whether it concerns the hurt feelings of England supporters or the fears of British Jews and Muslims, then I should ‘bear witness’, in this instance in the form of writing.
The internet is crammed full to bursting with people expressing opinions and with those wishing to change the minds of others, so I can’t see that it would serve any useful purpose for me to engage in or add to what I’ll euphemistically describe as a debate. Instead, I’ll simply put on record the briefest account of my experiences with British Muslims and Jews as some form of marker, so that while others will be free to form their own views, they’ll be in no doubt about mine, for what my thoughts might be worth to them.
During my time in London, from 1979 to 1996, I met many Muslims. I encountered a lot of them at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park during my early years in London and I was singularly impressed with the powers of oratory that some of them possessed, while I don’t remember coming into conflict with any of the others in any way. I met many more towards the end of my time in London, when I lived in Hendon, and I worked with some of them over the years as well. One Muslim man gave the best recipe for pork curry that I’ve ever found, while I must admit to having been surprised at the time by the sense of humour that many of my Muslim friends from that time possessed, perhaps because I’d previously been under the illusion that they were all a dour, austere lot.
A friend of mine who regularly worked with Muslims was an atheist and he said as much – the response he got was that they cheerfully viewed him as being halfway to being one of their number, on the grounds that they proclaimed that there is no god but Allah, while he proclaimed that there was no god, so they were patiently and good-humouredly waiting for him to see the light and complete their affirmation of faith.
I’ve met many more Muslim men and women during the time I’ve lived in the West Country and without exception, they’ve all been perfectly civil to me and nothing I’ve seen or heard has ever given me the least cause for concern. The experiences of others may be different, of course, but I’d be doing the people I’ve met over the years a grave injustice if I didn’t speak the truth about my association with them. I could write for hours more about some of the Muslims I’ve met in this country and abroad, but I’ll call a halt for now by briefly speaking of a man it’s a huge pleasure to know and to whom I’m greatly indebted.
One of the great misfortunes of my life has been to fall ill while living in Exeter, so I would urge anyone who’s able to do so to avoid this fate at all costs. At a time when I was near to despair, a Muslim doctor in London learned of my plight and immediately offered to help me, even though I was a complete stranger to him. It’s a long story that I won’t go into now, but he treated me like a human being, which is far more than can be said for some of the supposed health professionals down here, so this is not something I’m likely to forget in a hurry.
My gratitude to this generous-hearted man knows no bounds, so while he’s never asked me for any recompense for his time and trouble, let alone recognition for his good deeds, it would be a sorry state of affairs indeed if I couldn’t reciprocate his kindness in some small way. I try to do this by proceeding on the assumption that by virtue of the basic tenets of their faith, all British Muslims share his fine qualities and charitable demeanour, while this approach seems to me to be far more constructive for everyone than the alternative, which is to regard them all constantly with undisguised suspicion and hostility.
So, what of the British Jews I’ve met over the years? I met and worked with a great many of them after I’d moved to London in 1979, while I can’t remember a single aspect of them that marked them out as being in any way different from all the thousands of other people I encountered during my time in the capital.
Perhaps this might sound as if I’m damning them with faint praise, so I clearly need to go further. I spent a lot of my time working in hospitals during my time in London, so I met, worked with and socialised with innumerable doctors, surgeons, anaesthestists, nurses and others who were Jews, many of whom were some of the funniest, cleverest, most considerate and generous people it’s ever been my pleasure to spend time with.
From around 1990 to 1996, I lived in West Hendon, which is just a stone’s-throw from Golders Green, a place I regularly visited on account of the wonderful bakeries and other Jewish shops. At the time, I was naturally aware that this was a Jewish area and the place possessed a positive allure for me on account of its vibrancy, while I thoroughly enjoyed doing nothing more than passing the time of day with the shopkeepers and their staff, with whom I’d discuss cooking, recipes and the day’s news over a coffee, so it never occurred to me to think of these people as being different to anyone else with whom I lived and worked.
In 1995 or thereabouts, I was part of a touring troupe of actors who put on Murder Mystery plays around the country. It’s so long ago that it’s all a bit of a blur, but I remember that we performed at a couple of synagogues in north London where we received the warmest welcome imaginable.
For some reason that escapes me, despite the fact that I’d spent a lot of time in pubs and bars with my Jewish colleagues and friends, I’d somehow formed the idea that they either didn’t drink or else were moderate imbibers of alcohol, but the Murder Mystery plays that I was a part of in these packed synagogues were uproarious and almost riotous affairs. I was amazed and mightily impressed by how some of those present could really pack their drink away, so for this reason alone, I’m always going to regard these affable, humorous and generous people in a warm light. However, as was the case with my aforementioned Muslim friends, there’s one particular instance of my association with British Jews that I’m honour-bound to relate before I finish.
After we left London in 1996, we moved to a small village in the remote wilds of Salisbury Plain. My young son Jack came to suffer from croup, a condition that any other mum or dad whose child has endured this will know is terrifying both for the child and for the parent, because it becomes increasingly painful and difficult for the child to breathe.
As such, there were perhaps six or seven occasions when we had to summon an ambulance, but there was one time when we simply couldn’t wait, so I put him into our car and drove as fast as I reasonably could through the night to Salisbury Hospital, which was about 15 miles away. I’m not one of life’s panickers, but by the time we arrived at the Accident and Emergency Department, I was beside myself with worry because of my son’s obvious distress.
My wife had stayed at home with our baby daughter and she’d rung ahead to let the hospital know we’d be arriving. When I brought the car to a halt and leapt out, a young doctor was there waiting for me in the cold night air and it was immediately obvious from his clothes and from his hair that he was a devout Jew, although I couldn’t tell you which denomination he belonged to.
All that matters is that he instantly saw to my son, made him better and put my mind at rest, something I’ll remember and be intensely grateful for until my dying day. I don’t know this man’s name, so I can’t personally thank him once more or repay him for his kindness other than by relating the simple fact of our meeting and proceeding on the assumption, as I have with our Muslim brothers and sisters, that all British Jews are similarly generous-spirited and well-disposed to the rest of us with whom they share these islands.
So, if you’re one of those people who believe that all British Muslims are collectively guilty of planning one thing or that all British Jews are collectively guilty of something else, on account of some ill-informed, malicious rubbish you’ve read on the internet, I doubt that I’ll be able to change your mind. I don’t live in some dream world, so I’m well aware that part of the suspicion and hostility directed towards British Jews exists because some people assume that they’re all somehow inextricably linked with the worst manifestations of Israel’s policies, while exactly the same principle applies to British Muslims and the way that in the eyes of some, they’re all apparently fervent supporters of atrocities elsewhere.
All I can say to this is that I’m glad I’ve not been on the receiving end of such prejudice myself. There was a time when I travelled extensively around Britain, Europe, Scandinavia and Russia, encountering thousands of people in the process, but I cannot recall a solitary occasion when any of the natives of the countries I visited took me to task or held me responsible for anything they disliked about Britain’s policies or long history.
As I’ve been treated with such courtesy abroad, I’d expect to see the same thing happening in Britain, where we pride ourselves on our presumption of innocence and on our sense of fair play. Individually, Britain’s Jews and Muslims have their virtues and their faults and that’s because they’re all human beings like the rest of us, something that to my mind is so evidently a basic, incontrovertible truth that I believe it’s un-British at best and inhuman at worst to think otherwise and while I’m painfully aware of my own many failings, God forbid that I should ever sink to the depths of thinking ill of my fellow man on the sole basis that he loves or prays in a different way to me.
Postscript: the following paragraph is taken from a Guardian article on Andrew Keen and his book The Internet is Not the Answer:
Plus, of course, the internet is increasingly full of angry people. “It’s not that the net made us angry,” says Keen, “but it has become the funnel for our anger. We’re all now in the business of blaming someone else, we’re all obsessed with the meaningless indiscretions of strangers, and we have a platform for it. The internet’s a really great tool for persecuting people we don’t know, who we’re utterly indifferent to, about stuff that is essentially irrelevant. Stuff that, in a pub, we’d forget about in 30 seconds.”