U.S. Jews and Muslims Must Fight Together Trump’s Racism

Given Trump’s position atop the polls, America’s Jews and Muslims have every reason to cooperate. But many of us are more concerned with excluding and demonizing each other.

A protester wearing a yellow star stands as republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event in Rock Hill, South Carolina January 8, 2016.
Reuters

He condones violence by his "fans." He moots databases for some citizens, discusses restrictions on houses of worship, and has even raised the possibility of special IDs. His rhetoric on race reaches into and reproduces neo-Nazi propaganda. When asked the difference between his policies and Hitler’s, he said, “You tell me.” 

This man is no mere flash in the pan. Donald Trump has been the Republican Party front-runner for nearly four months. His campaign is not producing racism anew, but resurrecting the racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant and exclusionary sentiment that dominated and defined our country for centuries.

Given Trump’s position atop the polls, America’s Jews and Muslims should have every reason to cooperate. 

But rather than focus on our common future, many of our communities are more concerned with excluding and demonizing each other.

Some of the world’s worst anti-Semitism comes from the mouths of Muslims. For too many Muslims, Israel is a uniquely perfidious place, and all Jews can and should be held accountable for it - the attacks against Jews in France are only one example of this hateful extremism. Addressing anti-Semitism must be made a priority for the world’s Muslims. Many of us downplayed the threat of radical religious rhetoric for too long, and are now paying the price.

But Jewish Islamophobia must also be a priority.

In the last few years, the Jewish Communal Fund has given tens of thousands of dollars to Pamela Geller, an anti-Muslim bigot whose recent work includes “draw Muhammad” cartoon contests. A detailed study by the Center for American Progress, Fear, Inc.,  found deep support from several Jewish community institutions for the mainstreaming of a toxic anti-Muslim discourse in the United States. Prime Minister Netanyahu indulges and sustains a rhetoric that equates all Palestinians with ISIS, and even suggested — before walking it back  that the Holocaust was an Arab Muslim idea.

The effective of such vitriol in the Middle East is easy to see. But what about the effect here in the United States? These same tropes find their way into and inflame the white supremacism and chauvinism that quickly go from Islamophobic to anti-black, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant hate.

American Muslims and American Jews must be talking, and especially those of us who strongly disagree. We will have to reflect on the painful language and hateful actions of those who claim to speak in our name. We will have to discover ways to express disagreement over Israel and Palestine without precluding cooperation in maintaining American pluralism. 

Even a few years ago, I would have never imagined insisting on this, nor would I have thought very highly of a Muslim who said so. But I am not the same, and neither is American Islam. I know so personally.

A few years ago, I was invited to join the inaugural class of the “Muslim Leadership Initiative” (MLI), which brought American Muslim leaders to study Judaism and Zionism in Jerusalem. Horrified by the immoral, illegal and self-defeating war on Iraq, I had resolved to become a contributor to American foreign policy conversations, but realized I would be unable to without understanding America’s relationship to Israel. My going to Israel was not an easy decision, but it seemed to me a necessary one. That decision had tremendous and unforeseen consequences. 

Not only in what I experienced there, but in how some of my Muslim colleagues reacted to my going.

Some opposition was driven by commitment to BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement; I do not agree with academic or cultural boycotts, but I admire non-violent resistance. Some critics were skeptical of the program’s values or outcomes, and had fair reasons for doing so. But a minority was animated by a barely concealed anti-Semitism. They told me, for example, that even agreeing to go at Hartman’s expense (participants were not otherwise renumerated) was an immoral compromise, even as they took salaries or funding from regimes with far worse human rights records.

What explained this double standard? Did it not suggest that perhaps the problem of anti-Semitism even here, in American Muslim communities, was worse than I wanted to acknowledge?

These latter critics launched various attacks against MLI. The initial force of the accusations (of treason, cooptation, and careerism) prevented me from seeing it was only ever the product of a small number of people. With admittedly aggressive tactics. Some MLI participants received credible death threats, while all of us were faced with a campaign to financially and otherwise exclude us from Muslim institutions and communities.

But the effort failed. At one recent American Muslim event, for example, I spoke to some critics of the program, nearly all of whom became supporters well before the evening was over. The angry loud minority was only that. While the Republican Party has been coopted by Trumps and Carsons, American Islam has not.

Not only did MLI continue, but each subsequent cohort has been bigger than the previous. (There have been three). Dozens more Muslims have expressed interest in participating. These were not people divorced from their communities, but leaders with long years of experience, credibility and authority. A still greater sign of hope arrived this summer, at the largest gathering of North American Muslims, the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which hosted over whether strategies of boycott or engagement were better for American Muslims.

Yes, you read correctly. The single largest American Muslim institution featured a debate which prominently covered BDS, MLI and the proper ways forward for our communities. No one was proposing abandoning our support for Palestinian freedom from apartheid, occupation and violence, which I believe we are all committed to ending our country’s support for. We were instead talking about how to relate to people we might disagree with, and what happens when you might disagree strongly on some issues, but find you agree on others. By having this debate, we have also cracked open a space to talk about challenges within our community.

One of which includes anti-Semitism.

The very fact of this debate occurring at the largest Muslim gathering in America evidences a pluralism and tolerance that some might find surprising. There is openness to principled conversations between Muslim and Jewish institutions here in America. I do not mean the very valuable work done between groups that have similar orientations and perspectives, but the far more urgent work of reaching people of faith who cannot imagine speaking to one another, who may not realize the necessity of doing so, and who might be surprised there is someone waiting on the other side.

This election is uglier than any I remember, and the consequences of such language returning to our political landscape should force us all into rethinking our priorities. Not just for our own sake, but for each other’s.

Haroon Moghul is a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding. He is a Director at Avenue M, a new media company. Follow him on Twitter: @hsmoghul