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Muslims in the Shtetl

February 17, 2011 – 8:06 pm179 Comments

A scene from The Reluctant Infidel, where the main protagonist, Mahmud/Solly has an identity that blurs the lines between Jewish and Muslim

Jews should welcome a Muslim prayer group in St Kilda, argues Deborah Stone.

I don’t know the Muslims who want to use the Alma Road Community House for their prayers. I have no reason to believe they are terrorists, any more than I have reason to expect that the applicants to run the next Italian restaurant will be using it as a mafia hideout or that the local Catholic school is sheltering a paedophile priest.

It’s true the Muslim community contains a small section that support fundamentalism, and an even smaller group of potential terrorists. It’s also true that there are bubbles of underworld activity and paedophilia and other terrible crimes within certain groups for complex historical and sociological reasons.

But people are innocent until proven guilty. The day we start assuming all Muslims are a threat is the day we end religious freedom – not just for others but also for ourselves.

Alma Community House is a Port Phillip Council venue for hire by all kinds of welfare and cultural groups, from rummy players to children’s birthday parties. It’s in East St Kilda, in the heart of Jewish Melbourne, just down the road from Temple Beth Israel, Melbourne’s largest progressive synagogue, and St Kilda Shule, a heritage-listed orthodox shul.

An application for a new planning permit is currently before the council to designate it as a place of assembly for use by up to 100 people.

There are the usual concerns about parking and neighbours – although it seems that the House is already being used pretty much as a place of assembly and it’s a moot point whether the neighbours will get any more noise from the projected use than they already get from the sugar-high toddlers who clamber over the playground equipment there on weekends.

What has really got the goat of some local objectors is that the extended permit would enable a Muslim group to use the House a couple of hours a week to hold prayers.

A group of petitioners have come up with a long list of objections to allowing Muslim prayer in East St Kilda.

The group calls themselves QSoc claims to be upholding “Australian values” – a claim that should always be viewed with suspicion because it is usually used to argue against the Australian value of multiculturalism and a “fair go” for minorities.

Some of their objections are farcical. They argue that Muslim ablution requirements waste water. I hope they are planning on banning sport too, on the grounds that all the extra showering by sweaty players after the game is environmentally unsound.

But some of their claims are far more damaging. They claim Muslim prayer is racist and rejecting of other religions, that Islam is separatist and proselytising and that prayer gatherings may encourage violence. They tar the group with associations with extremists and imply that because they are Muslims they want sharia law.

Their stirring has prompted a series of rumours now circulating in the Jewish community that are without foundation: for example the extraordinary claim that the prayer group is actually a banned terrorist organization.

Even worse, the opponents of the Muslim prayer group argue that East St Kilda is “a bastion of Judeo-Christianity” and Muslims are “trying to infiltrate”.

As a Jew, and as the executive director of a Jewish organization dedicated to countering antisemitism and racism, this kind of claim makes my blood boil. Imagine how we would feel if the tables were turned and a Jewish prayer group wanting to meet across town was turned down on similar grounds? (And don’t tell me you can’t find extremist or separatist writing if you start trawling Jewish texts!)

The B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC) supports the right of all faiths and cultural groups to hold prayer services and cultural activities in any part of Australia. We support freedom of religion for all religions and oppose extremism and hate by anyone.

For this reason, we welcome this application by a Muslim group to hold a prayer service in an area where there are a number of synagogues and a significant Jewish population and look forward to a harmonious relationship with this community.

We encourage those who support diversity and justice to show their support by signing this petition in support of diversity.

Because Jews are often the targets of the most extreme and dangerous Muslim groups, some people have argued ADC should not be supporting a Muslim prayer group in the heart of the shtetl.

I take the opposite view. Jewish people know only too well what it is to find oneself subject to stereotyping. We are familiar with being the stranger in a strange land, and for this very reason we are enjoined to welcome the stranger within our gates.

This is not only a just response, it’s also a pragmatic one. We at the ADC understand that by defending everyone’s freedom we ensure a freer society for ourselves.

We also understand that when all Muslims are treated as extremists, some are more likely to become extremists. Muslim moderates need the support of other faith groups, particularly a group like Australian Jews who have experience in retaining our identity while integrating successfully into Australian society.

When I am in Israel I love to visit the Old City at a time when I can hear the Jewish prayers at the Western Wall, the call of the muezzin from the Dome of the Rock and the bells of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre simultaneously. I always feel the prayer is lifted by the multiple melodies that carry it.

I’m looking forward to the day yomtov falls on a Friday. I might choose to attend services at one of the synagogues on Alma Rd just so I can have the multicultural pleasure of being within cooee of some other Australians at a different kind of prayer.

Deborah Stone is executive director of the Anti-Defamation Commission.

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