Last Sunday, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, who is running second in national polls, said he did not consider Islam to be “consistent with the Constitution” and thus “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” The previous Friday, a man in New Hampshire told Donald Trump, who is running first, that “We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims,” then asked, “Can we get rid of them?” Trump’s reply: “We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.”
When CNN asked fellow candidate Ted Cruz whether he agreed with the questioners’ sentiments, the Texas senator refused to answer. “The American people,” he explained, “are not interested in the food fight that reporters are trying to stir up.” Candidate Rick Santorum would not answer either. “People are entitled to their opinions,” he declared, “whether I disagree with it or agree with it really isn’t the point. The point is that they have the right to say it.” (To their credit, candidates Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Lindsey Graham criticized Trump’s response).
As it happens, the last few weeks have also witnessed a spate of attacks on American Muslims and their houses of worship: a rock thrown through a mosque window in Nebraska, a burned cross on the lawn of a mosque in upstate New York, racist graffiti on a mosque in Tennessee. And, most famously, the arrest of a Muslim high school student in Texas who brought his homemade clock to school.
Imagine for a second that this was happening to us. What would American Jews be saying to each other if the man running second for a major party’s presidential nomination had just said that Jews were unfit for the presidency and Judaism was incompatible with the Constitution? What would we be saying if three prominent presidential candidates refused to condemn the idea that American Jews constituted a “problem” that needed to be gotten “rid of?” Imagine the mood in synagogue on Yom Kippur on the week these hateful, near-genocidal, anti-Semitic slurs were being broadcast across cable TV.
Then imagine that the same presidential candidates who trafficked in, or excused, anti-Semitism, adored Muslims and Islam. Imagine if Cruz, while studiously avoiding synagogues, spoke frequently at American mosques. Imagine if Trump boasted about the fact that his daughter had converted to Islam.
Imagine if polls showed that while only 47 percent of Republicans would vote for a Jew for president, 95 percent would vote for a Muslim.
If this were the America in which we lived, how would we want American Muslims to respond to their privilege and our demonization? During the current epidemic of anti-Muslim bigotry, that’s the standard to which American Jews should be holding ourselves. And we’re not meeting it. It’s not even close.
Yes, American Jewish groups do sometimes criticize Islamophobia. The Anti-Defamation League, to its credit, has called Carson’s comments “deeply troubling.” But five years ago, when Muslims proposed building an Islamic Community Center near the World Trade Center, much of whose space would be devoted to interfaith dialogue, the ADL came out in opposition. The organization has never apologized for so spectacularly betraying its mission of fighting bigotry. Abraham Foxman, who made the decision, remains the ADL’s National Director Emeritus.
The Zionist Organization of America regularly hosts speeches by Pamela Geller, a woman so fanatically anti-Muslim that she defends Josef Stalin’s deportation of Chechens and the Serbian genocide in Bosnia. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which rejected J Street’s application, considers ZOA a member in good standing.
The Republican Jewish Coalition’s most prominent member is Sheldon Adelson, who has said all the world’s terrorists are Muslim, called Palestinians an “invented people” and proposed dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran. The American Jewish establishment should loudly denounce any politician who demonizes an entire religious group. But how can it do so when one of its biggest benefactors does the same thing?
American Jewish leaders cannot effectively confront the anti-Muslim bigotry marring the 2016 presidential race because they cannot effectively confront the anti-Muslim bigotry in their own ranks. That’s not just a failure of moral courage. It’s a failure of moral imagination. It shouldn’t be hard for American Jews to imagine ourselves on the other side when politicians scapegoat a vulnerable minority. But privilege can be a narcotic. On Monday, after a weekend in which Trump and Carson’s hateful words dominated the news, the websites of the Presidents Conference, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Federations of America, and AIPAC said nothing on the topic at all. The message: It’s not our problem.
We claim to be a people with a long memory. Sometimes, sadly, it’s not long enough.
UPDATE: Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein informs me that Pamela Geller has only spoken to ZOA twice, and not in the last six years. I regret not including that information in my article
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