UNDERSTANDING GIBRALTAR – Lesson on tolerance for export


You could be forgiven for thinking Understanding Gibraltar would be something to do with Gibraltar’s quirkiness, its history or the experiences of a population of 30,000 living in such a confined piece of land… Well, it could well be interpreted as all of that and more, rolled into one! Many newcomers to the Rock often point out the fact that it is so small yet the different communities seem to get on well with each other presenting a model of tolerance many are of the view, is not very evident elsewhere outside our borders. So Understanding Gibraltar is a sort of think-tank made up of different members of the community who decided to meet a few years back on a regular basis to discuss, analyse and put their minds to work. The group concluded that what exists here is rare and needed to be explored even to the point of exporting our model as an example to the world.

Founder Joshua Lhote

The idea originally came from Joshua Lhote, a lawyer who studied in the Sorbonne in Paris and the College of Law in London. He grew up in France, Israel and Gibraltar, worked at Hassan’s International Law firm and is now focussed on promoting business ventures in Morocco where he feels much of our business future lies. Joshua is married to a Gibraltarian and is now a firm ‘Gibraltar belonger’ already resident here for a number of years… “The events of Gibraltar’s history for over three centuries have much to do with the level of tolerance experienced here. Tolerance in itself is already unusual, these days especially.” Joshua declares, “At a time when Jews and Muslims were barred from Gibraltar and much of Spain, history has shown the authorities turned a blind eye and allowed them to trade in goods that were very much needed here to service the Garrison and both communities were eventually allowed to remain. It was an arrangement that suited all parties and an absolute contrast to the racist provision of the Treaty of Utrecht.”  300 hundred years have passed and Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and other religious and secular believers have co-existed with a level of tolerance Understanding Gibraltar believes is unmatched elsewhere in the world. They want to promote and maintain that level of acceptance between the communities. Successive Spanish sieges of every type, the WW2 evacuation and other landmarks have also helped to strengthen a common struggle producing a national sense of belonging bringing together all sections of the community regardless of religion or background.

UG team

The think tank’s idea is to continue to focus on what makes Gibraltar distinct by welcoming all to become involved. Already regular meetings are attended by members of the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Baha’i, Humanist and other communities including atheists, meetings which began just a few years ago with a get-together in a local bar, later meeting in the Charles Hunt Room and now convening in The Kasbar in Castle Street (formerly the Hole in the Wall). Contacting intellectuals outside Gibraltar from Oxford University and elsewhere is ongoing also, in a wider effort to study and understand further the human condition and how it applies when Understanding Gibraltar. Locally, a seminar was held recently on the Sunborn Hotel organised by the Sunbow Project where Gibraltar’s political and religious leaders and representatives attended. Addresses were delivered by some of them and other invited speakers. Topics included a talk on our evolution, on cultural and religious harmony on the Rock, – bearing in mind the Treaty of Utrecht – whether our multicultural status could be a model for export and a further talk presenting Understanding Gibraltar as a scientific study of the human condition, which is at the centre of the UG think tank consciousness, highlighting the contrast between Gibraltar and the human division so evidently widespread around the globe these days. Meanwhile, the Gibraltar Cultural Services (GCS) has registered Understanding Gibraltar as a Gibraltar cultural organisation (ref no. CO/084) and the group is soon to set up an internet channel as a platform to further promote their message.

Co-founder Ronnie Alecio

The group feels these ideas could be emulated by those from afar. Joshua Lhute was also struck by the fact that Sir Joshua Hassan, a Jew, remained a leader of the Gibraltarian people for a number of decades: he was mayor in the 40s, 50s and 60s and Chief Minister from the mid 60s through to the late 80s with a short break in between. Gibraltar’s population is predominantly Christian and the fact we were led by a Jew never bothered anyone. I don’t think anyone ever bat an eyelid because of that fact! So, Understanding Gibraltar’s chairman was drawn to what for those outside Gibraltar could well be an ‘unusual or curious condition’ to say the least, and felt the Rock was maybe breeding something special! He maintains integrating is vital amongst communities although it’s true there’s always going to be ‘community bias’. It’s felt even though you may always gravitate towards your own group, approaching others of different faiths, political persuasions, other countries and of whatever gender always helps to understand a little further what the other person’s all about – Winston Churchill once said, “We need more jaw-jaw and less war-war!” Hence learning and beginning to understand how the other fellow ticks can, at least, augur well for a tolerant, peaceful co-existence with those around you, and that cannot be a bad thing. “Awareness brings joy,” Joshua claims, “It can take centuries building a tolerant community living in harmony. Gibraltar is a good example of existing together at the same time in the same place in a peaceful way. What has become ordinary for people here is a strange rarity in the face of human history”

Ronnie Alecio, Youssef El Hana, Ayoub Mesbahi, Ian Watts, Joshua Lhote & Carmel Khalilian

Joshua Lhute is not a Gibraltarian in the true sense of the word. Coming from a large country where religious tension is elevated to a sensitive level, he’s noticed something special about our community which so many of us take for granted. Maybe there is something very unusual and special about how our different communities interact with each other, I think much of it is indeed, all about…understanding Gibraltar! The UG friendship is truly serious about what they call, Gibraltar’s powerful symbolism of its history which, when studied carefully, may hold the key to world peace – a serious call for optimism?

Visit them on FB at Understanding Gibraltar.

words | Richard Cartwright