Everyone begins their new year in different ways. Many run to sign up for gym memberships they’ll forget about in about three weeks and others who think it’s finally time to kick the chemical addiction of nicotine.
And then there are those who like to begin the new year by throwing their communities under a proverbial bus. Yep! It’s that time of the year when the Muslim Leadership Initiative’s first cohort for the year leaves (on Saturday) for Israel to continue an apparently new tradition of self-righteously participating in a propaganda trip meant to undermine the dominant anti-Zionist narratives in the Muslim American community–specifically on campuses.
In case you aren’t familiar, last July I published a piece entitled ‘An Interfaith Trojan Horse: Faithwashing Apartheid and Occupation‘. I had posted it at The Islamic Monthly where I was, at the time, a columnist and previously the Senior Online Editor. It was a response to a piece written by Rabia Chaudary and the ensuing defense of the initiative and trip by other participants.
The MLI is a project between Duke Muslim Chaplain Abdullah Antepli and the Shalom Hartmann Institute – an Israeli and Zionist education group based in Jerusalem and New York. The program, the institute, the chaplain and the participants claimed, was meant to educate Muslim academics, interfaith workers, media workers, and thought leaders about Judaism so they can better help their communities understand Jews and thus Israel.
When a Community Dissents
The MLI is an explicit attempt to make Zionists or Zionism apologists out of those who held and hold varying semblances of influence and respect in their communities, especially with younger Muslims. Under the guise of ‘interfaith’, the program is testament to what I called ‘faithwashing’ – making the ‘problems’ between Muslims and Jews about religion as opposed to the actual issues: the occupation of Palestine, the system of apartheid, settlements and the gross Israeli and Zionist impunity towards Palestinian life and livelihood. The MLI also, in faithwashing the root of the strain in relations between Muslim and Jews, dangerously promotes the conflation of Zionism with Judaism – a conflation that then is used to any and all criticism of Zionism into de facto anti-Semitism.
But even more disheartening and shameful than willingly participating in normalizing Zionism amongst Muslims and crossing the BDS picket line was the reaction to the criticism. Any and all criticism of the MLI program and its participants’ involvement was conflated with fringe ad hominem attacks. My article, which thoroughly broke down the issues, cited every claim and even took direct quotes and screenshots from the program’s own website and documents, was called a ‘character assassination’ piece; a ‘hack job’, ‘poor and unethical journalism’, ‘full of lies’ amongst other hollow accusations. I’m a big girl and have a hearty laugh that I used to respond to such baseless (and libelous/slanderous) responses.
But sound criticisms by myself, members of the Al Arian family, Professor Jonathan AC Brown, Hafsa Kanjwal, DC-based attorney and activist Fadi Kiblawi, Chicago writer Deanna Othman and countless others were dismissed as ‘trolling’ and engaging in ‘bad adab.’ In fact, any and all dissent and protest to the MLI program and its participants was used to turn the participants – who unabashedly crossed the BDS picket line and participated in a Zionist propaganda program – into some sort of ironic social justice martyrs. Any and all dissent was made into just ‘attacks’ and while participants and supporters of the program called for “dialogue” in a “respectful” manner, they ignored any and every chance at actually engaging in dialogue with members of their communities.
One participant even threatened me privately that I would bear great consequences for what I had written.
Yeah. That actually happened.
It even led to my own editor at The Islamic Monthly to launch an absolutely wasteful and draining ‘internal investigation’ into my piece to see if I had done my due diligence and, basically, my job (and I had). What the process did, in effect, was make it clear where the publication itself stood on dissent on this particular topic despite it positioning itself as ‘cutting edge’ and wanting ‘dissent and debate’. Suffice it to say, I resigned.
The Issue Isn’t About Going to Israel
Many people don’t seem to get the problem presented with MLI isn’t about just ‘going to Israel’. The problem with the Muslim Leadership Initiative is multi-layered:
- The Muslim Leadership Initiative is a part of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s anti-BDS project called iEngage; its sister-project is the Christian Leadership Initiative. The purpose of iEngage is to revive the Jewish connection to Israel by “creating a new narrative.” Part of this revivalism is also reaching out to other faith groups and having them see Israel’s significance to Jews.
- The iEngage project is not about interfaith. It’s explicitly about Israel through the veneer of Judaism. IEngage is about saving Zionism and ensuring Israel’s support, as a Jewish state, both at home and abroad.
- One of IEngage’s faculty is McGill Professor of History, Gil Troy who has been at the forefront of fighting BDS. In 2009, he and Dr. Mitchell Bard presented a position paper at the Working Group on Delegitimization at the Global Forum against Anti-Semitism (seriously, click that link and read it). Tasked with the responsibility to “respond” to the challenges that would arise from the growing BDS movement, they emphasized that the fight against BDS was an “educational one” and outlined a three-pronged vision for fighting BDS:
- Israel Being a Cause to Celebrate
- Humanize Israel
- Driving a Wedge between Soft Critics and Hard Delegitimizers
- Zionist groups have courted Black college students and Latino leaders (with pushback), for instance, in an attempt to, as independent journalist Rania Khalek describes it, “neutralize the brown electorate.” What is now being done under the guise of ‘interfaith’ or ‘religious education/dialogue’ (a strategy employed by Zionist groups for years now) is nothing different.
- Shalom Hartman Institute’s president, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, has been openly anti-BDS and has even mentioned how it should be fought. He writes on the website that BDS is “repulsive” and that it must be defeated through ideas, education and, essentially, reclaiming Zionism amongst the world Jewry. In an interview with The Islamic Monthly’s ombudsman, the Rabbi explicitly states that SHI is “very Zionist” and that he makes “no apologies” for it and that the MLI program is not interfaith but “educational”. See also: propaganda.
- By participating in the MLI, Muslim participants are going against the demands made by Palestinian civil society; they are crossing the picket line. And this matters. This matters because if we are claiming to be in solidarity with the Palestinians – many of whom are an integral part of our Muslim communities in this country – then we need to acknowledge what it is that they’re demanding. When we make the decision to cross the picket line, we’ve made the decision to say: we know better.
- Part of supporting BDS, beyond divestment from corporations and groups that directly exploit the occupation and Palestinians, is not enabling the very institutions that both directly and indirectly support the occupation — including those that support Zionism, the ideology by which the displacement and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is justified.
- Jews and Muslims don’t have a problem of religious understanding. By emphasizing the need for American Muslims to understand Judaism by understanding the connection of Jews to Israel is, in essence, ridding the conversation of the real political and legal crimes of the State of Israel and replacing it with an irrelevant conversation on religion.
- Judaism is not Zionism and Zionism is not Judaism. Muslims participating in the MLI program are, by virtue of their involvement, promoting the dangerous narrative the makes Judaism and Zionism one and the same — despite much Jewish protest to the conflation itself. Traveling to Israel to learn about Judaism is normalizing the centrality of the modern state of Israel to Judaism, as a religion, and thus is taking away from the land’s centrality to the past, present and future existence of Palestinians. It’s also taking away the global robust history of Judaism outside of Israel – which was an ethno-nationalist project, not a religious one. The founder of Zionism, Herzl, was an atheist.
- Zionism is (like any form of ethno-nationalism) a racist ideology and institution that is antithetical to our own Islamic traditions of social justice. Participation in MLI is a normalization of relations not with Jewish people but with Zionists.
- Not a single Palestinian is involved in the MLI. You cannot claim to want to ‘tell the stories of Palestinians’, to want to understand Judaism and Israel to better articulate arguments for Palestine while you are actively keeping Palestinians out. Participants mentioned that they met faculty at the Shalom Hartman Institute, in Jerusalem, who had never encountered Muslims before. In Jerusalem. Where 40% of residents are Palestinian, majority Muslim.
- If we are standing against racial injustice in the United States right now and chanting how Black lives matter — then why are we standing for racial injustice abroad?
So, congrats MLI participants. Some of you may have good intentions, oblivious to what participating in this program actually means. And then there are others amongst you who may not really care about how you’re hurting your communities by engaging in this project. Nevertheless, bon voyage. May you learn something about occupation, apartheid and the moral gravity of the decision you’ve made.
And don’t fret: the push for constructive and critical dialogue, dissent and protest against the program and participation in it will not stop. It will strengthen.
The goal of Hartman’s Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) “is to empower an elite group of emerging and religious and intellectual leaders—including university chaplains, journalists, academics, and cultural figures—to influence the North American Muslim community in reassessing its preconceived notions of Judaism and Israel.”
My friend’s visit to Israel couldn’t come at a worse—or a better—time. Worse, in that following last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas, the well of Muslim-Jewish relations in North America is teeming with toxins: a Palestinian-Israeli conflict that is far from resolution; growing international terrorism committed in the name of Islam; radicalized, disaffected youth, who are a grave concern to Muslim communities as well as to others—the list of problems is large and increasing.