Roughly 20 years ago, at one of the first - clandestine - Palestinian-Jewish encounters in this country, our kind and generous Quaker hosts served a tray of mixed sandwiches during a welcome pause in the proceedings, following a bumpy opening session. All the egg and all the cheese sandwiches were quickly devoured. But, to the evident dismay of the Christian moderator, no one touched the ham sandwiches. As it turned out, no pre-planning on his part could have done a better job of getting the mostly Muslim and Jewish interlocutors to engage meaningfully with one another.

The mutual discovery of dietary similarities sparked a lively discussion about other common practices, traditions and beliefs, and their origins.  The parallels, as they emerged, were quite a revelation to people brought up in a spirit of mutual animosity, who more often than not perceived the ‘other’ as the antithesis of themselves.

Regrettably, two decades on, this imagery is still widespread. We know of course what lies behind it - the tragic dispute between the long-suffering Palestinian and Israeli peoples. For as long as this feud continues, it will overshadow any Arab-Jewish initiative or gathering. By forming this group at this time, we do not escape this ineluctable reality, nor do we seek to do so. But Arab-Jewish history did not begin one hundred years ago, nor will it end when this wretched conflict is finally resolved in a fair, equitable and practical way - in a spirit of mutual respect and dignity - as we all surely hope it will be.

A few weeks ago, executive members of the Arab-Jewish Forum spoke spontaneously about their reasons for joining this new body. It was a revealing and insightful session. If there was a common thread, I suppose it could be summed up in the typically semitic response: ‘why not?’ Why should two peoples, who have maintained mostly cordial and productive relations over many centuries, dedicate their energies in the modern era to snubbing or, worse, demonizing each other?

Why do we seem determined to do the work of the British National Party for them - particularly at a time when anti-Arab sentiment, Islamophobia and antisemitism are all raising their ugly heads? Are we - Jews, Arabs and Muslims - completely daft? Just imagine how gratifying it must be to racist elements in society who need do little more than sit back smugly and observe while we despise and smear each other, falsify our respective histories, ridicule each other’s aspirations and perpetuate ludicrous stereotypes. What do we suppose we are achieving?

We seem to have lost all perspective. To be sure, there exists a bitter territorial conflict between our Israeli and Palestinian cousins, who had the monumental misfortune to clash because they simultaneously aspired to the same piece of territory on which to exercise their self-determination at a time of immense world turmoil and upheaval, of which they were both victims. Whatever the rights and wrongs - and there are bound to be some strong views about this in this room - the territorial clash is the root of the conflict. Everything else has been artificially grafted onto this basic reality.

It is not as if there is a fundamental ideological or religious dispute between the two peoples or an endemic historical enmity. Yet, on both sides, vast resources are devoted to ‘proving’ that there is. Self-appointed experts churn out - and their loyal followers dutifully parrot - reams of supposedly scholarly research that rely on such an explanation, or on allegedly ingrained racial traits, to account for the ‘evil’ of the other. No matter how eminent the authors, these works are commonplace, ahistorical, negatively motivated, self-serving and completely without value. They add nothing to the sum-total of human knowledge, wisdom or understanding. They merely cultivate contempt, nourish fear and deepen despair. They would condemn us all to endless, irresolvable, conflict.

If they succeed in spreading their message, it is because we allow them to get away with it. There are many Arabs and Jews, a lot of them here, who do not and never have viewed the case for one side as the converse of the case for the other, who do not regard a setback to one side as an advance for the other and who categorically refuse to rejoice at the grief of the other. On the contrary, they share that grief.

It is time we hit back. In future, whenever we come across examples of bigotry or ignorance within our own communities, or in the general media, regarding the history, beliefs, positions or feelings of the other, we should immediately challenge them. We do this all the time when we feel we have been misrepresented. That’s the easy bit. How much more effective we could be if we worked together to stamp out prejudice and correct distortion whenever we see it, particularly when it is targeted at the other side.

We do not, as an organization, yet have a clear programme for the future - apart from the proposal mentioned by Clive Soley MP, the midwife of this group. But we do have an idea. It is a precious idea and our activities will develop from it. If the Forum, once it is firmly established, is able to play a constructive part in relation to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I am sure we would do whatever we could. But, as indicated, we see the brief of the Arab-Jewish Forum as wider than this, both in terms of the constituency of interest and the issues to be addressed.

The Arab-Jewish Forum will inevitably have its detractors. It is something of a new departure and this is bound to make some people feel uneasy. And we ourselves would not want to overestimate its significance or exaggerate its importance. But nor should we underestimate the potential effect of Arabs and Jews transforming - or re-transforming - the nature of their relationships to mutual advantage, and to the benefit of wider society, not only in this country but, it is to be hoped, in other countries too.