Opinion

Fight anti-Semitism in America, but Not by Demonizing Muslims

Time for clarity: Desecrating graves and threatening JCCs are anti-Jewish hate crimes. Activism for Palestinian rights is not.

Theo Richmond cleaning a headstone at the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, on February 22, 2017.
Cristina Fletes/AP

In the last several weeks we’ve seen many powerful acts of solidarity between Muslim and Jewish communities in the U.S., from a Jewish community in Texas giving the keys to the synagogue to a Muslim community after their mosque was burned down, to the viral fundraiser started by Muslim activists Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi to repair a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis after a hate crime (with some of the funds now also being diverted to Philadelphia where another cemetery was desecrated over the weekend). Amid deep concern over the mainstreaming of white supremacists, far right Islamophobes, and anti-Semites by the Trump administration, this solidarity and collaboration is inspiring. 

It is also a timely reminder that in this new era, the fights against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racism must go hand in hand. And with an Trump administration that has shown itself to be incapable and unwilling to confront bigotry, while perpetuating its own discriminatory and violent policies, it is up to us, in our communities, to take on the responsibility for building resilient, mutually supportive coalitions to protect and defend each other. 

As this work deepens, we in the Jewish community need to recognize that, in the name of fighting anti-Semitism, some of our efforts have in fact been harmful to other minority communities, in particular the Muslim community. If we're to offer and accept solidarity from those communities, and to work for the safety for all our communities, then we need to reckon with them.

Sometimes the conversation on confronting anti-Semitism reinforces anti-Muslim stereotypes. This can take the form of right-wing Islamophobia under the cover of fighting anti-Semitism, for example conservative Rick Santorum’s entirely unfounded comments on CNN in response to anti-Semitic hate crimes last week: "If you look at the fact, the people who are responsible for a lot of this anti-Semitism that we're seeing, I hate to say it, a lot of it is coming from the pro-Palestinian or Muslim communities.” 

But at other times, it’s liberal Jewish communities themselves that inadvertently reinforce anti-Muslim and anti-Arab stereotypes. Most clearly this happens in relation to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. When it is misrepresented as a religious conflict rather than as a struggle for land, rights and sovereignty in the face of decades of colonization and occupation, and a false equation is made between criticism of the State of Israel and anti-Semitism, this reinforces the false and harmful stereotype that Muslims and Palestinians are collectively anti-Semitic. 

One recent example is how the Forward reported on the Muslim-led fundraiser to support the St. Louis Jewish cemetery. Its original headline was: “Is Muslim Campaign For Jewish Cemetery A ‘Light In Darkness’ — Or Publicity Stunt By Israel Critic?” While the article cites ‘Jewish groups’ with mixed feelings about the fundraiser, it names only the Zionist Organization of America’s Mort Klein (who has a track record of Islamophobia and racism), accusing Linda Sarsour, one of the prominent Muslim and Palestinian activists involved, of being anti-Semitic, because of her criticism of Israel. It is indeed disheartening that such a clear act of solidarity by a Muslim activist would speculate on her motives due to the blurred and charged discourse around Jews and Israel.

Activist Linda Sarsour addresses the crowd during a protest against President Donald Trump's travel ban, in New York City, U.S. January 29, 2017.
Stephanie Keith, Reuters

Equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism limits the ability of Jewish organizations to engage with Muslim partners that they have demonized as anti-Israel, and this isn't confined just to ZOA on the fringes. 

Many Jewish organizations have long refused to work with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) because of the organization's support for Palestinian rights and have engaged in campaigns to smear their reputation. Nevertheless, CAIR is a preeminent Muslim civil rights group that has been on the frontlines of fighting Islamophobia and the Muslim travel ban. The Anti-Defamation League, which spearheaded accusations against CAIR in the 1990s, has been lauded for its statements against the Muslim ban and Islamophobia, but they also have a history of condemning and allegedly monitoring Muslim and Arab organizations deemed too critical of Israel. In a 2015 blog post, the ADL repeated unproven conspiracy theories discrediting CAIR, and in 2010 they placed the prominent Muslim Public Affairs Council on their list of “Top Anti-Israel Organizations” for affiliating with supporters of BDS.  

Even while groups like the ADL have spoken out increasingly against Islamophobia, they also participated in the smear campaign against Rep Keith Ellison. Ellison, a progressive champion, was beleaguered in his campaign for Democratic National Committee chairman by charges of anti-Semitism over his criticism of Israel. The accusations against the first Muslim member of Congress had more to do with disqualifying his criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights than with his association with the Nation of Islam that he had long-since disavowed. 

The role Jewish organizations play in demonizing supporters of Palestinian rights as anti-Semitic is harmful to all of our communities at a time when anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racism are on the rise. By making support for the State of Israel a litmus test for partnership with Muslim communities, the institutional Jewish community is placing a damaging wedge that makes none of our communities safer. 

This new administration has made abundantly clear that it is possible to be both anti-Semitic and love the State of Israel. Our Jewish institutions need to understand that it is also possible for Muslims, Arabs (and all people) to be fiercely critical of the State of Israel because of its human rights violations, occupation and discrimination, and apply the same anti-oppression values in standing up for Jews when they are under attack.

There are many opportunities to be building bridges right now. In a time of violent attacks from white supremacists against both Jewish and Muslim communities, and anti-Muslim policies coming out of the Trump administration, blurring the boundaries between criticism of the State of Israel and anti-Jewish bigotry is both irresponsible and harmful. 

Exciting new solidarities are emerging between liberal Jewish groups and Muslims as they support each other through hate crimes. The real test of that solidarity, however, is whether mainstream Jewish groups can also accept that political advocacy for Palestinian rights, including support for boycott, divestment and sanctions, by Muslims and Muslim communities is not inherently anti-Semitic. 

For all of our communities to be safe, we have to take on the beliefs and structures that have rationalized an idea of security for some at the cost of harm for others. Now more than ever we need to challenge the idea, both in Israel and in the U.S., that our security comes from militaries, police, prisons and border walls, and instead work towards a safer world for all people based on community, equality, and justice. 

Naomi Dann is the media program manager at Jewish Voice for Peace, which is releasing a new book next month: "On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice."