In the US, we need a Muslim-Jewish alliance... but one that does not silence discussions on justice for Palestine.
By Taher Herzallah and Ben Lorber
Since the election of Donald Trump, there has been a renewed interest across the country in Muslim-Jewish partnership. Trump’s ascension to power on a platform of racism and xenophobia has caused many to fear what lies ahead.
From potential policy measures, such as a Muslim registry and the intensification of the Countering Violent Extremism Initiative, to the emboldening of white supremacist groups bent on causing physical harm to both Muslims and Jews, there is an urgent sense that we all need to come together to weather this fascist storm.
This renewed sense of solidarity is welcomed, and after Trump’s inauguration, our communities are ready to take to the streets in unity and strength. But for us to build meaningful and accountable relationships between our communities, we need to also share some principles. Without doing so, we run grave risks of subverting the dignity and freedom of expression for which our communities strive.
Today, many of the groups eager to rush to the frontlines of Muslim-Jewish partnership after Trump’s election – groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) – have for decades been complicit in helping create the climate of Islamophobia they claim to abhor.
The ADL was applauded when, after Trump’s election, its executive director publicly pledged that, he would register as a Muslim if a Muslim registry was created, and the AJC recently announced a partnership with the Islamic Society of North America called the Muslim Jewish Advisory Council.
But how do these actions stand up to their track record?
Living up to reputation
Since 9/11, the ADL has demonised mainstream Muslim community groups as “terrorist sympathisers”, praised far-right Islamophobes for securing federal appointments, opposed the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero, and more.
The AJC lobbied for bills that would drastically expand the state surveillance of American Muslim communities, supported our nation’s first Muslim registry in 2002, and backed anti-Muslim congressional hearings. These are just a few ways these groups, in the last decade alone, have betrayed the principles they claim to uphold.
Far too often, interfaith partnerships with groups like the ADL and AJC create pressure on Muslim organisations to remain silent on Israel/Palestine, or to attack the movement for Palestinian rights, out of fear of being accused of anti-Semitism. In too many interfaith partnerships, Muslims are required to put “relationships before politics” and the “local over international”, effectively stifling their political agency.
In these and other ways, these relationships tend to be transactional in nature. The Jewish community gains a Muslim friend that won’t mention Zionism, Israel or its politics, and the Muslim gains some perceived level of acceptance in the mainstream United States of America, which touts itself as a land of “Judeo-Christian” values but increasingly sees Islam and Muslims as the enemy other.
As campus organisers with American Muslims for Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, we’ve worked for years to build accountable partnerships between Muslims and Jews, founded on principles of justice, solidarity and love.
These principles animate our vision of a just and democratic peace in Israel/Palestine, where refugees can return to their ancestral homes and equal rights are guaranteed for Palestinians and all other peoples living in the region.
Guided by these principles, the Muslim and Jewish students we work with on campuses across the country stand united, alongside others of all faiths and ethnicities, in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for freedom, justice and equality in Israel/Palestine.
Atmosphere of fear
For decades, vocal supporters of Palestinian rights in the US have faced false charges of anti-Semitism from pro-Israel organisations. To name two recent examples, in late 2016, the ADL joined attacks against the first Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison, in his bid for Democratic National Committee chair, because of comments critical of Israel.
And in a move that hits close to home for us, the ADL recently tried, unsuccessfully, to pressure Congress to pass the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, a bill that, by labelling campus criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism, would have empowered the Department of Education under the Trump administration to suppress student activism.
On and off campus, this backlash inevitably hits Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities the hardest, crystallising the cloud of fear that has far too long limited freedom of speech for the Arab and Muslim community.
When pro-Israel groups such as the ADL suppress freedom of speech with false anti-Semitism charges, they are furthering US’s climate of Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism.
For decades, pro-Israel advocacy has worked to create a climate where Israel is seen as a faithful ally and frontline defender in the West’s “war on terror”, and Palestinians – and, by extension, all Arabs and Muslims – are seen as antisemitic “terrorists”.
The end result, today, is a Trump administration that blends unflinching support for Israel’s apartheid policies with white nationalism and rabid Islamophobia, and an extremist Israeli government that enjoys an international green light for its deepening violations of international law.
A Muslim-Jewish alliance is needed
Let us not be mistaken: in the age of Trump, it is more important than ever for Muslims and Jews to come together to combat Islamophobia and real anti-Semitism. Today in the US, we are both targets of the white supremacist alt-right movement, which, with the appointment of Breitbart executive Steve Bannon to a powerful position in the Trump White House and the growth of white nationalists in local communities, is emerging as a dangerous force.
A Muslim-Jewish alliance makes historical sense; Jews and Muslims lived together in relative harmony across the Middle East and parts of Europe for millennia, while white Christian Europe subjected our communities, in different ways, to vicious persecution.
We are confident that principled, accountable partnerships between Muslims and Jews can and must be built as we forge a path forward in this frightening time.
But now is not the time to compromise our values out of fear. Support for Palestinian rights is moving mainstream, and the Israel advocacy movement is losing its ability to police discourse in the US.
As the movement for Palestinian human rights is gaining traction, Israel’s defenders, from the incoming Trump administration to the ADL, are anxiously doubling down on their decades-long campaign of policing, silencing and repression of critical discourse.
Our shared vision of justice and collective liberation teaches us that Zionism – the project to maintain an exclusionary state with an enforced demographic Jewish majority on dispossessed Palestinian land – is incompatible with the values of dignity and freedom which any Muslim-Jewish partnership must hold dear.
We urge American Muslim groups not to partner with organisations like the ADL and the AJC, so long as they continue to limit discourse on Israel/Palestine and to oppose the demands of Palestinians for justice and freedom.
We call on these ,and many other American Jewish groups, to end work to suppress the movement for Palestinian rights in the US, renounce their anti-Muslim history and join the movement for a truly just peace in Israel/Palestine.
Then, and only then, can relationships of mutual respect and cooperation come to fruition and have the capacity, structure and commitment to work towards transformative change here in the US and globally.
Now is not the time to cosy up to the powerful elites of this country, as leaders of our communities have done for too long. Now is the time for all our communities to build our power from the ground up. Only solidarity and joint struggle against all forms of oppression can protect Muslims, Jews and all people from the forces of hatred in this world.