Features

“A common ground of feeling the need to do something”

Maya Sall talks to Barnet faith leaders about the local impact of the conflict in Israel and Gaza

A group of people standing in a circle in the dark with lanterns in front of them
Lanterns are lit at the Together for Humanity event at Middlesex University – (Credit – Middlesex University)

It’s been five months since the beginning of the conflict in Gaza, following attacks on Israel by the terrorist group, Hamas.

While Barnet is geographically far from the conflict zone, it is home to Britain’s largest Jewish population, alongside a rapidly growing Muslim community – and therefore has been significantly impacted by the horror of the initial Hamas attacks, the ongoing hostage situation and the desperate plight of Gazans following Israeli military action.

Many of Barnet’s Jewish and Muslim residents have relatives living alongside, or within the warzone.

Dr Rabbi Samuel Landau of the Barnet United Synagogue said that two families from his shul have sons who have been killed in the conflict. Esmond Rosen, President and Trustee of the Barnet Multi-Faith Forum, and his wife Hillary have a son who lives close to the Gaza strip. “He’s always been very level-headed, but they feel they’re in real danger now,” said Rosen.

The impact of the conflict has also been felt closer to home. In October 2023, there was a surge in both antisemitic and Islamophobic hate crime. In the four months from October to now, the Metropolitan Police reported 243 incidents of antisemitism and 38 of islamophobia, compared to 116 and 24 in the first half of 2023.

One of these incidents involved an elderly man being pushed over on the way to prayer at the mosque, said Tofozzul Miah, trustee and former president of the Barnet Islamic Centre (BIC). Rabbi Landau spoke of a situation where Jewish teenagers were “roughed up” outside their school.

In response to the escalating number of crimes, Commander Paul Trevers, responsible for criminal justice outcomes at the Metropolitan Police, said “hundreds of officers are undertaking extra patrols at places of worship, schools, and other premises.”

“These incidents add up to shatter basic assumptions around trust”, said Rabbi Landau, who works as a clinical psychologist alongside his clerical duties, “it impacts people’s perception of security – their confidence in the safety they believed they had.”

Despite navigating their communities through the challenges of increased hate crime, both Rabbi Landau and Toffozul Miah said that simply dealing with pain caused by the ongoing conflict is their community’s biggest challenge.

Miah said the members of the BIC are “concerned, depressed and upset” about the “innocent lives lost on both sides” and Rabbi Landau spoke of a “moral anguish” amongst the community.

Both faith leaders stress that this distress is caused by the loss of “innocent lives on both sides”. Miah said: “in Islam, we believe that one innocent life is a whole community” and Rabbi Landau concurred: “it is deeply painful to see any human being suffer. The images coming out of Gaza are deeply traumatic, and we do not forget that Palestinians are also in crisis.”

In times of crisis, communities rally together, providing vital emotional support, and the story has been no different in Barnet. The Barnet United Synagogue supports a community of around 12,000 people, and over the past few months, they have been busier than ever. “People keep asking me, where can we come together and pray, and I say come to Shabbat – that’s what it’s for”, said Rabbi Landau, “but now we also hold Shabbats specifically for the war”.

Since the war broke out in October, the Barnet Islamic Centre has been collecting money for humanitarian aid supplies to be sent to Gaza. Miah said that one unexpected consequence of these collections is the ongoing discussions that have arisen within the Muslim community over how to end the conflict, “our congregation want this war to stop, but there is disagreement over how. Still, what’s important is the discussion.”

Miah said that these debates within the Muslim community have led the Barnet Islamic Centre to be eager to organise an opportunity for an multifaith discussion group. “As faith leaders, it’s our job to provide a facility which can bring people together and the rest we can work around as it comes,” the former president of the BIC said. “Barnet, ultimately, is a small community, and we do need to come together, as that’s how we flourish as a community.

“The grief we feel is a shared grief. I think we’ll find that anger is not directed at each other – but at the UK government for not doing more to stop the war.”

Rabbi Landau acknowledged the need for inter-faith discussion, as “no one wins by being the better victim”. “Everyone is seeking to be understood,” he said, explaining that he believes it is important for members of Barnet’s Jewish and Muslim communities to come together to “hold space for others” in an environment that can be “compassionately navigated.”

However, he was cautious about how quickly those discussions will be able to happen. “Building interfaith relations at this time has been difficult because of the pain we are all feeling”.

It is true that emotions are high, but these acts of coming together are happening, led by the Barnet Multifaith Forum. Esmond Rosen, president and trustee of the forum, has been organising interfaith events in response to the conflict since October.

The forum, which covers twelve faiths, and acts as an interfaith representative body to Barnet Council, has conducted vigils and interfaith meeting and discussion groups which allow Barnet’s Muslim and Jewish communities to discuss the ongoing war in the Middle East.

“The conversations were filled with a lot of pain, some hopelessness, but a common ground of feeling the need to do something,” said Hillary Rosen, Esmond’s wife, when describing her experience of one of the discussion-led events set up in the wake of 7th October.

The pair believe this form of interfaith discussion will bring healing to the Barnet community, that while clearly not fully divided, is indeed grieving. “The pain that everyone felt was the same pain”, said Hillary, “the atmosphere in the room was raw – I could feel that we have different perspectives, different histories and different truths, but alongside the tension, there was a lot of generosity”.

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