Jews and Muslims, Confronting Islamophobia, Finding Common Cause – OpEd

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This is a talk I delivered at the Confronting Islamophobia: I am My Brother’s Keeper conference on Saturday at St. Mark’s Cathedral here in Seattle.  I’m grateful to the organizing committee for inviting me to speak.  I’m delighted to report that the event was very well attended.  Last night, the St. Mark’s main sactuary was full with I estimate about 800 or more in attendance to hear Imam Faisal Rauf.  There were TV crews there last night and today.  The Seattle Times ran a front page story and both Steve Scher and Dave Ross interviewed Imam Rauf on radio.  Congratulations to the steering committee which did yeoman work planning a massive enterprise very successfully.

*  *  *

In conceiving this conference, the organizers knew in theory they were going to be addressing an important issue in American life.  But events since we first began organizing it have proven just how fortuitous our choice of topics has been.

American Islamophobes like Rep. Peter King, and Pamela Geller and David Yerushalmi have turned up the heat and volume on this debate and placed into even starker relief the necessity of having a rational, tolerant discussion of the role of Islam and American Muslims in the life of this nation.

Here’s what we can’t do: we can’t score political points, we can’t try to win elections, we can’t single out our fellow citizens as terrorists merely because of their religious beliefs.  We can’t demonize all American Muslims for the beliefs of a handful of hating extremists among them.  Anyone who does this must be held up for the bigot he or she is.

In the light of the American assassination of Osama bin Laden, this becomes an even more urgent task.  No matter how many times a president says that he isn’t seeking to tar an entire religion with a broad brush merely because of the acts of one adherent or one Islamist terror group, it doesn’t mean the rest of us have gotten the message.  In fact, yesterday a pilot on a Delta Airlines flight out of Memphis refused to take off until two imams were removed from the plane.  Apparently, their dress so spooked him that he must’ve believed he had Osama’s cousins flying with him.

Whatever we may’ve thought of the Bin Laden killing, Barack Obama now has an opportunity to head off the bigots in the Republican Party and Tea Party movement who will try to make hay from this.  Clearly, it’s going to be a tough election for Republicans.  A major issue of national security has practically been foreclosed to them.  When a Party becomes desperate it seeks the weakest link to attack.  Unfortunately, some in this country see American Muslims as this weak link.

They will tar and feather them.  Remember the smears against Obama during the presidential election, which still cause a majority of Republicans in this country to believe that he is Muslim?  Look to the political right to exploit fear of Islam and make hay in the 2012 elections.  It may be used in the presidential election and it may be used in other federal or state elections.  We must be alert to fight back against such bigotry.  That’s why it’s important for non-Muslims, specifically Jews because of our complicated, fraught relationship, to step up and say we will not stand for it.

I wanted to speak about a few specific events that have occurred here in Seattle and in other places that might instruct us about the problems we face as Jews and Muslims in overcoming our suspicions and conflict.

Naveed Haq

In 2006, a mentally-ill Pakistani-American named Naveed Haq forced his way into the Seattle Jewish federation building and proceeded to shoot at the staff killing one woman and seriously injuring five.  In his twisted mind, he equated Jews in Seattle with the acts of Israel committed in Lebanon during the 2006 war.  This was an act of hatred and violence unprecedented in Seattle’s Jewish community.  It shook many people to the core.  Thankfully, the strident ideologues in the community representing groups like Stand With Us, didn’t set the tone for the response.

But the best that can be said, is that the community’s response wasn’t worse than it might otherwise have been.  The first jury to hear the case couldn’t agree on a sentence and there was a mistrial.  The prosecution announced it was retrying the case.  It insisted on trying Haq for first degree murder despite his documented history of mental illness going back ten years.  The district attorney attempted to argue that this deranged individual knew right from wrong and rationally planned his acts of violence.  All this, despite the fact that he was a deeply confused, disoriented, alienated and sick man.

One of the federation victims even said to the press that the most important aspect of this case was not religious hatred or anti-Semitism, but rather the fact that it was so incredibly easy for such a disturbed individual to procure a gun.

The prosecution refused to consider a sentence to a mental asylum.  All this in large part, because the Jewish communal leadership would not settle for anything less than prison and punishment.  Sadly, the Jews of Seattle lacked the capacity to understand that–despite the fact that Haq, in his delusional state, blamed American Jews for Lebanon’s suffering–he was a sick man, and not an Islamist radical.  For Seattle Jews, this was a hate crime, not a crime committed by someone who was mentally ill.  And this, I think, is the tragedy that is beyond the actual tragedy of the shootings.  American Jews had a chance to understand the difference between anti-Semitism and mental illness and they chose to see themselves as victims of a Muslim extremist, rather than a man who himself was a victim of his own demons.

Naveed Haq was not Osama bin Laden.  If anything, he was Arthur Bremer.  Men whose delusions and twisted imaginations combined all sorts of hatred and set them on a homicidal rampage.  Naveed Haq needed treatment, not punishment.  Besides, life in a mental asylum for violent felons wouldn’t have been a vacation.

Southern Poverty Law Center

When Brenda Bentz was considering which speakers to invite for this conference, she had no lack of Muslims with deep expertise on these subjects.  But we wanted non-Muslim experts on racial hatred to speak as well.  So Brenda invited Mark Potok, the chief researcher of the Southern Poverty Law Center to address us.  Both Brenda and I were impressed that SPLC had recently added to its national list of prominent hate groups several Islamophobic organizations like Pam Geller’s Stop the Islamization of America and the Jewish Task Force, a successor to the Jewish Defense League.  And Mark wanted to come.

It seemed that SPLC might be ready to branch out from its bread and butter reliance on white supremacist groups to include far-right anti-Muslim scapegoat groups as well.  However, Brenda and a number of us were disappointed when Potok and SPLC’s president informed us that because CAIR was a co-sponsor of the conference, SPLC couldn’t participate.

Though I don’t know a whole lot about SPLC’s internal structure and politics, you can be sure that there are many liberal Jews among its major donors.  The group’s president, Richard Cohen, seems concerned among other things about preserving his six-figure paychecks by not rocking the boat in any substantial way.  Even liberal Jews get spooked by spurious charges that CAIR supports Hamas and Islamist terror.  It probably won’t even help much that CAIR publicly approved of the death of Osama bin Laden.  Some people are just too frightened to give up those fears.

Apparently, the campaign of demonization by the likes of Peter King and Frank Gaffney prevented even a group like SPLC from associating itself, in even the most distant way, with a mainstream Muslim entity like CAIR.  This is what hate, fear and ignorance does to us, folks.  It twists our judgment, prevents us from trusting our instincts.  It turns us away from alliances we should be making with like-minded individuals and groups to advance our respective goals.

I don’t know whether my primary emotion should be anger or disappointment regarding SPLC.  Mostly I just feel sorry for their caution and ultimately cowardice.  Groups like this who refuse to address the most divisive issues of the day out of such fear, either are, or will shortly be irrelevant to the concerns of most Americans.  If we want to make a difference as a religious community or as NGOs, we have to take a stand, even if we risk alienating those sitting on the fence.

Mosque-Synagogue Twinning

Now, I want to tell you about another small local tragedy with which I was intimately involved.  The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding was founded by New York Rabbi Marc Schneier.  It organizes a mosque-synagogue Twinning project each year that is devoted to education around the issues of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.  Several years ago, I spent months with my friend, Jeff Siddiqui, desperately searching for two such partners here in Seattle.  We had a very hard time of it, frankly.  This was just after the Haq shooting and memories may’ve been tender on both sides.

At my synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom, our rabbi enthusiastically agreed to participate.  She delegated me to search for a local Muslim partner.

With Jeff’s help I identified MAPS as our Muslim partner.  I had a wonderful meeting with several mosque members and we mapped out what I thought would be a warm, stimulating series of programs for both communities.  We’d go to MAPS and they would come to us.  We’d pray there and they would pray with us, much like Imam Rauf did so movingly here in Church yesterday night.  Our rabbi would address them and their imam would address us, each from our respective religious altars.

Then I reported back to the rabbi.  In the meantime, the Stand With Us members of the congregation had pressured her into backing off on her commitment.  She apologetically told me the time wasn’t quite right to do this.  She didn’t know how she could’ve possibly agreed to an imam speaking from the bima of the synagogue.  It just couldn’t be done, she told me.  She needed at most another month to bring the shul’s membership and leadership around.  She promised the idea for the program would not die and that she was committed to making it happen.

It never did.  And my relationship with this rabbi has never been the same nor will it likely ever be.

The issue of Muslim-Jewish relations is too important to allow our leaders to fumble their commitments to it.  There are other communal leaders who try to mollify both sides.  Two years ago, the rabbi at Temple De Hirsh Sinai sponsored a highly-partisan Jewish federation program at which representatives of Aipac and the Israeli consul general for the Pacific NW spoke about the dangers posed by Iran to the Middle East and the entire world.  They claimed it was seeking to develop nuclear weapons and that it supported terrorism, among other things.  The fact that Israel had nuclear weapons and engaged in wars against its neighbors was not considered relevant to the discussion.  After the program ended I asked the rabbi how he could allow his temple to a venue for such partisan propaganda.  Unfortunately, this escalated into a heated discussion during which he affirmed that he was in favor of regime change in Iran.

This same rabbi invited Prof. John Esposito, a colleague of Prof. Haddad’s, to speak a few days from now at his temple about the role and history of Islam in America.  There is a major disconnect among some Jews regarding relations with Muslims and Islam.  Like Rabbi Weiner, they seem to think they can compartmentalize Islam into good guys and bad.  That they can demonize bad Muslims in Iran while embracing good ones here at home.

I am not arguing that the Iranian regime is worthy of anyone’s support.  But I am arguing that rhetoric which accuses the Iranian regime of being mass murderers and supports its violent overthrow, while ignoring the negative role that Israel often plays, is not conducive to constructive dialogue with any Muslim, whether Iranian or American.

Peter King Hearings

After 9/11, the Republican Party discovered there was gold in them thar’ hills of Islamophobia and Muslim-bashing.  It was joined in this by a group I call Jewish neocons, whose hatred of Islam is bound up with a devotion to a far-right brand of Israeli nationalism which embraces the settler movement.  That is how Peter King and Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy created a match made in heaven.  With the new Republican majority in the House, King became chair of the Committee on Homeland Security.  Looking for an issue to call his own, and hailing from a state with a substantial Jewish population, he made common cause with Gaffney over the alleged issue of Sharia law and the alleged plot by Muslims to take over the U.S. government and replace it with one governed by Sharia.

King’s hearings were originally conceived very much in the mold of Gaffney’s histrionics which warn of the Muslim menace to American life as we know it.  But due to critical media coverage and criticism from fellow members of Congress, King presented a still offensive, but watered-down version in his hearings last month.

Anti-Sharia Movement

Gaffney is joined in his anti-sharia jihad by Jewish far-right figures like David Yerushalmi.  The latter, who is a devout Orthodox Jewish attorney and supporter of the settler movement in Israel, is Gaffney’s chief legal counsel.  Mother Jones has profiled the Yerushalmi-Gaffney national campaign to write anti-sharia sentiment into state law.  Such provisions have either passed, or are being seriously discussed in 11 states.  Yerushalmi is the author of such bills and paid handsome consulting fees no doubt for his “expertise,” and much sought after on the Tea Party circuit.

I’m pleased to tell you that the organized Jewish community is beginning to wake up to the perils of the anti-Sharia movement because it could hit Jews where they live.  Just as Muslims conform their religious lives to Sharia so observant Jews conform theirs to halacha.  Just as Sharia may be applied to normally civil functions like marriage, divorce and estate planning; so too Jews often use halacha in place of civil code in these important life milestones.  If state laws criminalize the application of Sharia to civil matters then there is no reason this wouldn’t happen to halacha as well.

I’m pleased to tell you that last month in St. Louis, the ACLU and Jewish Community Relations Council joined together to denounce publicly the effort to ban Sharia under Missouri state law.

I want to tell you something that may be a bit cynical.  In truth, I don’t think most observant Jews would normally care to make common cause with American Muslims on this issue.  But it’s the beauty of the American system that you must create political coalitions if you wish for your own communal, religious or ethnic interests to be addressed.  In our system, if you try to go it alone you won’t go far.  That encourages groups to look beyond their own narrow interests and consider the interests of other groups when they overlap yours.  It is this making of alliances, as opposed to confining oneself to a separatist ghetto, that makes this country great.

The Yerushalmis and Gaffneys favor an atomized America in which every individual or group is out for its own good and some mythical Judeo-Christian majority can impose its own will on the rest of us. That’s not my America and I know it’s not yours either.

Yerushalmi’s views are so far to the right that Mother Jones, the Jewish Forward and I in my blog have called him different variations of the phrase “Jewish white supremacist.”  Hard to believe that there can be such a person or thing, given Jewish history in the last century.  But I’m sorry to say that there can be and is.

Yerushalmi didn’t take kindly to my critique of his political views.  He threatened to sue me for libel in Arizona, where he resides, making himself right at home with the anti-immigrant movement that presides in that state.  I, of course, had to scurry to find pro bono counsel to represent me in what I feared could be a long costly case.

But in a bit of providence, the Anti-Defamation League came out with a public statement denouncing Yerushalmi and likening his views to the white-supremacist New World Order.  I’m guessing that the anti-Muslim attorney decided that now might not be the right time to sue someone for calling him a white supremacist.  He withdrew his threat.

Yerushalmi also crusaded against the Khalil Gibran Academy in New York City and its Muslim principal, Debbie Almontaser, eventually getting her fired.  He sued her for libel too and she won at both the lower court and appeals court level.  She also won a substantial settlement from the City of New York for wrongful termination.

Ground Zero Mosque

Yerushalmi has also made common cause with Pamela Geller, author of the Atlas Shrugged blog, and the chief instigator of the campaign against what she branded the ‘Ground Zero mosque,’ an institution with which our keynote speaker, Imam Faisal Rauf, was intimately involved for some time.

I watched the Jewish-led campaign against the mosque– conveniently timed during the 2010 Congressional election campaign–with horror. The arguments against it made no sense whatsoever.  They were clearly fueled by fear and ignorance.  They mixed up the tragedy perpetrated by Al Qaeda against this country on 9/11 with an entirely separate matter of building a Muslim house of worship.  In the minds of the hysterics, there was no difference between the two.

This is a profoundly un-American attitude.  One the hallmarks of America’s greatness is our tolerance toward religions.  Our Founding Fathers wisely chose not to create a national religion and this in turn enabled America to become a powerful engine of democracy, which could incorporate hundreds of ethnic groups and their respective religions into a single whole.  In diversity there is strength.  Alternatively, you’ll remember that slogan on our dollar bills: e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”).

But contrary to Yerushalmi and Geller, I don’t believe we become one by denying our difference, by papering them over or by forcing those who are different to conform to some artificial notion of what is properly American.  We gain the strength to be united by coming together over our shared interests and by respecting our differences.  That’s the beauty of America.

The opponents of the Park51 mosque lost sight of an American trademark: religious freedom.  In this country, you can worship your God and your religion as you please.  You can build a house of worship where you want and how you want as long as you obey zoning codes.

America doesn’t police religions as other countries do.  We don’t tell people where they can build a church, synagogue or mosque.  We don’t interfere in their religious teachings.  We don’t demonize them because their religion is different from ours.

The movement led by Pam Geller, David Yerushalmi and Frank Gaffney which seeks to criminalize being a Muslim is profoundly offensive to American values.  I’m proud to say this as an American and as a Jew.

This article first appeared at Tikun Olam

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board.

Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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