How American Jews Can Protect American Muslims

The next time someone threatens a mosque, we should be there.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed that the US government register Muslims.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed that the US government register Muslims. Credit: Reuters
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

On November 27, the Islamic Center of Lexington, Kentucky received an email vowing that “I'm going to kill everyone there you Muslim f***s.” On November 24, when congregants at the Islamic Center of South Plains in Lubbock, Texas arrived for morning prayers, they found the mosque’s glass door smashed. On November 21, a group of armed protesters surrounded the Islamic Center of Irving, Texas, and then posted the names and addresses of local Muslims on Facebook. On November 20, the Islamic Center of Corpus Christi, Texas received a letter demanding that congregants “convert to Christianity now, before it is too late.” On November 17, police arrested a Houston man for threatening to “shoot up a mosque.” On November 16, the Islamic Center of Omaha, Nebraska was vandalized for the third time in four months. On November 15, worshipers arrived at the Baitul Aman Mosque in Meriden, Connecticut to find it riddled with bullet holes. On November 13, the Islamic Center of St. Petersburg, Florida received a call threatening to “firebomb you and shoot whoever is there.” On November 12, attackers smeared feces and vandalized Korans inside The Islamic Center of Pflugerville, Texas.

If you don’t think the United States is witnessing an epidemic of anti-Muslim bigotry, you’re not paying attention. It’s fueled by the savagery of ISIS. And it’s fueled by presidential candidates like Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, who declare that Islam is “not consistent with the Constitution,” insist that America accept only Christian refugees and propose that the government register Muslims and close mosques. Because of their hateful opportunism, which is echoed daily in conservative media, less than a majority of Iowa Republicans now believe Islam should be legal in the United States.

The question for American Jews is what we, who know in our bones how dangerous this scapegoating is, would want our fellow citizens to do if this was happening to us. Last week, a UCLA law professor named Jonathan Zasloff suggested an answer. He noted that earlier this year, after jihadist terrorist attacks against Jews in Denmark and France, more than a thousand Norwegian Muslims formed a “human shield” to protect Oslo’s main synagogue. “Now is the time for the Jewish community to step [up] and pay it forward here,” Zasloff wrote, “perhaps with similar protective rings.”

I can already hear the objections. In Europe, critics might argue, Muslims had committed the attacks against Jews so Muslims bore an obligation to protest them that Jews here don’t. But it doesn’t matter that the Americans threatening to bomb mosques are not, as far as we know, Jews. They live among us. As Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “Few are guilty but all are responsible.” We, who enjoy a level of privilege and power our grandparents could scarcely have imagined, have a moral responsibility to defend those minorities being demonized and threatened as we once were.

A second objection might be that American Jews should not expend energy defending people who hate us. But there’s no evidence that the men and women whose mosques were defaced or threatened in Kentucky, Florida and Texas were Jew-haters. And if even if some do harbor anti-Jewish feelings, what better way to change them than by showing that Judaism teaches us to “not oppress a stranger because we know the heart of a stranger.” When Jews fight Islamophobia, we inadvertently fight anti-Semitism too.

To its credit, the Anti-Defamation League, along with other Jewish groups, has condemned the threats against American Muslims. But press releases don’t attract much attention, nor do the threats themselves. Hundreds of American Jews, standing alongside Muslims outside mosques to defend the rights of all Americans to worship free of intimidation and violence, would make front-page news. That’s the privilege that comes with being white, prosperous and native-born. In 1964, when Jews and other whites journeyed to Mississippi to struggle alongside African Americans for the right to vote, cameras followed. The same thing could happen now.

Finding a new generation of idealistic Jewish kids would be easy. The students involved in J Street U, American Jewish World Service and If Not Now When would be thrilled to stand in the tradition of Heschel and Allard Lowenstein. If an established American Jewish group put some organizational muscle behind the effort, it could take shape overnight.

In this season, Jews commemorate the bringing forth of light from darkness. And in this moment of American political darkness, it’s time to bring forth some light of our own.

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