Countering Islamophobia means ending the structural silencing of Muslim voices– including their critique of Israel

[Editor's note: This article was published on Mondoweiss .]

The complex and often contentious relationship between American Jews and Muslims witnessed two momentous events that produced divergent results and emotions. On the one hand, anti-Semitic attacks on a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, brought about a rapid $120,000 online fundraising drive in the Muslim community and hundreds of volunteers to repair damage to the cemeteries and express solidarity. On a national level, Muslims mobilized to visit local synagogues and demonstrate their solidarity with American Jews in a time of rising anti-Semitism and threats directed to their houses of worship and cemeteries.

On the other hand, we have an extremely discordant event–the campaign against the candidacy of Representative Keith Ellison for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship. The outcome of the election is that Ellison lost in favor of Tom Perez, the choice of the party establishment, and the wounds of the campaign will not be easily healed. It was abundantly clear that the mainstream organizations of the American Jewish community heavily mobilized to defeat Ellison by utilizing directly and indirectly the charge of anti-Semitism so as to discredit him and his campaign. Let’s be clear, the creation of the new DNC deputy chair position and appointment of Ellison to this never-before-existing post was an attempt to dress-up another ugly smear campaign against an African American Muslim candidate to protect Israel’s influence over the Democratic Party.

What happened in the lead-up to the vote and why did mainstream American Jewish organizations oppose and work hard to defeat Keith Ellison? At this juncture, it is important to ask if a mainstream Jewish-Muslim alliance against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism would succeed if the effort is directed on a superficial level while the structural empowerment of Muslims is sacrificed for Israel’s interests in the United States.

At the outset, let me be clear that the American Jewish community is very diverse and no single monolithic characterization can be used to describe it. The line of demarcation in the community covers the full spectrum from far right to far left on all issues. However, recently one can observe a gap emerging between the older and more established mainstream groups that have unquestionable commitment to Zionism and Israel as the focal point of their identity and politics, and a critical mass of post- (and one may say anti) Zionist young Jewish Americans that no longer consider Israel and attachment to it as the issue that defines their identity and politics. As a matter of fact, and across the country, many of the leaders within the ranks of Students for Justice in Palestine are themselves young Jews who represent this readily observable shift.

I, for one, have seen this and can attest to the development, and I have a close alliance and organizing working relationship with Jewish Voice for Peace, a large group that has many differing points of view on a number of issues including how to think of Israel and Palestine. Likewise, I have worked and coordinated activities with the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network as well as worked and partnered with Jewish liberation theologians and academics on a number of projects. As a matter of fact, Bernie Sanders’ campaign victory in Michigan was a clear evidence that Muslim communities rallied to support a national Jewish-American candidate based on shared progressive values and an embrace of the issues of common concern, which include a critique of U.S.’s one-sided policy in the Middle East that favors Israel. Initially, Sanders did not have a close relationship with Arab, Muslim or Palestinian communities but the Michigan win and grassroots pressure from communities of color influenced Sanders’ change of strategy and approach to these communities. However, the forged relations between Sanders and members of the Muslim community including Keith Ellison himself was met with alarm and opposition from mainstream American Jewish organizations.

What I write below is a critique of mainstream American Jewish organizations that are still bound to the Zionist old guard framework and have a singular outlook in approaching the complexity of the current period. I write this to point out the contradiction inherent in attempting to forge a Muslim-Jewish alliance that intends to silence the critical questions on Zionism, Israel, BDS, and the prevalence of Islamophobia within mainstream American Jewish organizations including the AIPAC, ADL, JCRC and AJC. How can we begin to address Islamophobia without challenging its purveyors, who posit demonization and marginalization of Muslims as the best way to protect Israel’s interests in the U.S.?

Haim Saban, the Israeli-American businessman and major Democratic Party and Clinton donor, came out early in opposition to the candidacy of Congressman Keith Ellison to DNC’s chairmanship, labeling him “an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual” whose election as chairman of the Democratic National Committee would be a “disaster” for the party’s relationship with the Jews. Saban’s relations and work within the Democratic Party are of long-standing and he has contributed greatly to bolstering Israel’s outsized position in the political arena. In 2002, for example, he contributed $12.2 million to the party, $7 million of which went to build the party’s Washington DC headquarters.

Then we have Israel’s defender, the liberal warmonger Alan Dershowitz who, in a vicious op-ed for The Hill, attacked Ellison’s “long history of sordid association with anti-Semitism.” In the same op-ed, Dershowitz declared his intention to leave the Democratic Party if Ellison is elected, saying “My loyalty to my country and my principles and my heritage exceeds any loyalty to my party.” Dershowitz is a regular at AIPAC’s conventions, is at ease in throwing the anti-Semitic charge on anyone critical of Israel, and attacks almost daily, Students for Justice in Palestine and the BDS movement. However, you will not find him attacking the Christian Right for their deeply held theological anti-Semitism because they “love” Israel, host many fundraising dinners to support the IDF and send thousands to visit the Holy Land so as to help Israel’s tourist industry.

Saban’s attack was echoed in an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) press release on the 1st of December 2016, in which Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the organization’s CEO, stated that “new information that has come to light since Rep. Keith Ellison’s announced candidacy for chair of the Democratic National Committee raises ‘serious doubts’ about his ability to faithfully represent the party’s traditional support for Israel.” Greenblatt’s statement, indirectly and in a more sophisticated manner, tarred Ellison with the anti-Semitism brush. Claiming that “whether intentional or not, his words raise the specter of age-old stereotypes about Jewish control of our government, a poisonous myth that may persist in parts of the world where intolerance thrives, but that has no place in open societies like the U.S.”. According to Greenblatt, “These comments sharply contrast with the Democratic Committee platform position.”

While Ellison did get support from J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace and 300 Jewish leaders from liberal leaning groups, the mainstream American Jewish organizations rallied to oppose Ellison’s election. The division between the older and younger generations in the American Jewish community was reflected in the DNC chairmanship campaign and, despite the outcome, it will be hardly resolved in the near future.

Mainstream organizations of the American Jewish community took a very antagonistic and hostile stand against one of the two national Muslim elected political figures in Congress at a time that called for rallying to his side in a critical period in the history of this country. Indeed, Israel’s interests are apparently far more important to them than standing on principle. One may ask the question of the same groups that attacked Ellison regarding their views on Steve Bannon and the alt-right in the White House, including Dershowitz, who mounted a vociferous defense of Bannon on CNN.

Keith Ellison’s attempt at securing the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee was foiled by pro-Israel groups and their allies who engaged in a systematic campaign of defamation to disrupt the rise of the highest-ranking Muslim serving in a public office in today’s America. The campaign took shape despite Ellison’s hard work and, may I say wrongly, to please the pro-Israel crowd by issuing a troubling statement on the BDS movement and coordinating his position on Israel with NY Senator Chuck Schumer.

Mainstream American Jewish organizations stood in vehement opposition to Ellison because they deemed him “not good for Israel,” which would be the only measure of acceptability by the avowed Zionist crowd. While I strongly disagreed with Ellison’s statement on BDS and the framing of the Palestine-Israel problem in the campaign effort this does not mean that I will not defend him when it comes to charges of anti-Semitism and the attempt to squeeze more political concessions in Israel’s favor.

While ADL’s case might be understood given its long history of policing Israel-related matters, the opposition from the American Jewish Committee raises serious questions regarding the viability of the newly formed Jewish-Muslim advisory council. An email that circulated from the American Jewish Committee illustrated a similar line of attack directed at Ellison, which urged a vote against him for the DNC chair. Thus, the AJC’s effort to forge an alliance with American Muslim communities to counter Islamophobia and anti-Semitism stands hollow considering the frontal assault on Ellison’s candidacy and the attempts at tarnishing his character. What is the point of creating an alliance to counter Islamophobia if AJC is committed to countering the empowerment and civil society visibility of American Muslims?

In an article by Rafael Medoff from the 17th of November 2016, New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind asks “Does Senator Schumer actually believe that there is literally not a single other person in the Democratic Party, anywhere in the country, who would be a better choice than Ellison? Why is Schumer in such a rush to support a candidate who is so unfriendly to Israel?”. A later article on Ellison by Medoff published on the 28th of February quotes Dr. Harold Brackman, “a scholar of black-Jewish relations and expert on the Nation of Islam,” who says that Ellison’s “near-miss” should be “disconcerting, not only to friends of Israel, but to those concerned about indications of a rising tide of anti-Semitic incidents in this country as well as worldwide.” In this article, a link is drawn between Ellison’s campaign and the rise of anti-Semitism without taking a minute to address the rise of the alt-right all the way into the White House.

The organized opposition against Ellison also included a petition initiated by the Hindu-Jewish Alliance, which–in urging people to sign–referenced a long statement by the Hindu American Foundation and the ADL’s own press release. The Alliance’s petition read in part: “We wish to acknowledge the deep and abiding ties that the Hindu-American and Jewish-American communities have to India and Israel, as well as the long-standing and loyal support that members of both these communities have given to the Democratic Party in the U.S. political arena.” It is clear that a coordinated campaign to defeat and demonize Keith Ellison on the basis of anti-Semitism was afoot with the intense participation and engagement of key mainstream American Jewish organizations.

Critically, the material that was used by the ADL and referenced by mainstream American Jewish organizations like AJC and others originated in Steve Emerson’s neo-McCarthyite outfit, the Investigative Project on Terrorism. For a long time, mainstream American Jewish organizations like the ADL and AJC have been incubators for Islamophobia and provided civil society legitimacy to well-known and well-documented members of the Islamophobia industry, including Emerson himself, Daniel Pipes, and Frank Gaffney, to name some of the best known. Accountability on Islamophobia and defamation of American Muslim organizations and leaders can’t be erased or forgotten by merely attending a rally, or showing up at a mosque or on airport steps. What is needed from the leaders of ADL, AJC and JCRC is to publically dissociate their organizations from individuals and groups that demonize Islam and Muslims on a daily basis. In this case, the right action from American Jewish organization would have been to rally around Keith Ellison and the American Muslim community and reject Emerson’s neo-McCarthyite defamation.

Muslims will defend and work to protect Jewish communities because it is the right thing to do and I do believe that American Jews will do the same in defending mosques and religious institutions. The time for alliances based on sound universal principles and indivisible justice worldview is inescapable. Countering Islamophobia means rejecting the structural silencing of Muslim voices including their much-needed past and present critique of Israel. Defeating Keith Ellison means that the Clintons’ machine, which moved the Democratic Party to the right, will continue to hold the reign of power while essentially becoming indistinguishable from the Republican Party. Here, the mainstream American Jewish organizations are participants in cementing the weakening of the Democratic Party in return for preserving Israel’s interests in the U.S. while shifting to embrace America’s rightwing worldview for the same reason.

I do believe that the moment for a courageous political, social, and economic faith-based coalition is upon us in the U.S. but a litmus test on Israel is no longer a viable or defensible position. What benefits Israel does not benefit American Jews, American Muslims or the working class across the country. Trump’s election should be a wake-up call to everyone, signaling that the existing political machine is broken and a new direction should be developed. During the development process, an honest and open debate on Israel as a domestic, disrupting factor should be undertaken, as a progressive and faith-based agenda is not possible without addressing the Israel elephant in the room.

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