I felt foolish crouching by the self-checkout at Sainsbury’s to write the cards, and self-conscious carrying the flowers uphill on Salusbury Road, fighting a strong wind that pulled at the plastic wrapping on the bouquets. I passed a woman in a head-scarf as I rounded the corner on Chevening, and one of the cards flew out of the bundle. I bent over to pick it up. I wondered if she saw and what she thought. Still fighting the wind, I found what looked like an entrance to the Al-Khoei Foundation at the side of a building. There was no buzzer, but to my surprise, the door was unlocked. I pushed it open.
That open door keeps coming back to me as I think about last Friday, the 15th March. Earlier that day, fifty people had been killed at prayer in New Zealand. One of them, Haji-Daoud Nabi, had opened the door to Al Noor mosque saying, ‘Hello, brother’ to the shooter.
I was bringing flowers and condolences to local Muslim institutions on behalf the Willesden Minyan-Shir Hayim social action team. We remembered how members of the Al-Husseini Association had come to our community meeting following the Pittsburgh shootings and how much that had meant to us. Yet I was nervous as I approached these offices, schools, and mosque. How would I be received? I expected scrutiny, security, suspicion. I had passed these buildings a million times, but they had assumed a rather fortress-like appearance in my mind. Closed, not open.
The welcome I received on Friday proved that the biggest walls are those we erect in our heads. At the top of the stairs, I was greeted by a man who informed me that the Al-Khoei staff was out of the office. But he promised to pass along the bouquet, and he directed me to the adjoining school, where I delivered the next bunch of flowers to an office bustling with parents, children, and staff. There were sad smiles, gracious thanks, and quiet words: ‘We are all the same, all people’; ‘They will not win’.
I crossed Salusbury Road to the Islamia Primary and Girls’ Secondary Schools. Again defying expectations, the gate opened immediately when I buzzed. ‘Are those for me?’, a staff member joked, nodding at the flowers. Babar Mirza, headteacher of the primary school, welcomed me into his office for a chat. I asked how the school community was dealing with the news. It was hard, he admitted: they were celebrating Red Nose Day, but getting into the spirit that morning had been difficult.
This understatement typified the responses I encountered throughout the day. So did the firm interest in maintaining and developing contact with the Jewish community. Later, for instance, Rabbi Daniel Lichman, Shir Hayim chair Martin Dives, Queens Park councilor Neil Nerva, and I were welcomed back to Al-Khoei by its interfaith director Mohsen Al-Khoei and fellow staff members, and treated to a tour of the mosque. We stood in the pomegranate-domed sanctuary – the former Chevening Road synagogue – beautifully decorated with brightly coloured carpets and wall tiles. Last year, drawing on the symbolism of this space and its shared history, Al-Khoei hosted the sukkah of Brondesbury Park Synagogue. An international Shi’a charity, it has an impressive track-record of human rights advocacy, interfaith work, and civic engagement.
Our last visit, and our last bouquet, was for a very different kind of organization. The Qalam Education Centre, serving a largely Somali immigrant community, is a shopfront shtibl on Kilburn High Road doubling as an afterschool tuition centre. Over tea at the neighbouring Sweet Spot Café, community leader Abumaged expressed satisfaction that his congregants would see him sitting down with a rabbi. A man who clearly relishes defying expectations, he looked forward to shaking up what he proclaimed to be his flock’s ignorance of Jews at evening prayers, where he would show them our flowers and condolences.
Open doors are absolutely necessary for dialogue, but they are dangerous. The doors we walked through that day represented not only our hosts’ hospitality, but their vulnerability. Abumaged and his deputy perform all security at the Qalam Centre, for instance; they have no outside training, funding, or support. In the wake of Christchurch, the Muslim Council of Britain has called on the Government to increase funding for security for Muslim institutions to the same levels it provides for Jewish organizations.
It would be good to see the Jewish community supporting this campaign. It would also be good to see opponents of antisemitism making more explicit links between anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim prejudice. Fighting racism can never be an either/or choice or a matter of invidious comparisons. As we saw in Charlottesville and Pittsburgh, today’s antisemitism is often embedded in a broader racist, anti-immigrant, and Islamophobic discourse. For our own sake as much as that of our Muslim neighbours, friends, and fellow citizens, every time a politician or Jewish leader calls out antisemitism, let’s demand that they call out Islamophobia, too.
Soon we will sit down to our seder meals, opening our own doors to Elijah – a gesture of welcome and openness. At our social justice seder on 23rd April, we will ask how to turn symbols like this, and our own stories of oppression and liberation, into actions in the world. In the meantime, though, we could begin by noticing the other doors that are open. And walk in.
Kate Lebow leads the Willesden Minyan/Shir Hayim Social Justice Team, which is building connections and capacity to campaign for tzedek, justice, in NW London and beyond. To find out more or to get involved in the team's work, email email@example.com.