BY: HATEM BAZIAN*
It is high time for a courageous political, social, and economic faith-based coalition between American Muslims and Jews (who are aware of the danger of Zionism) to be started in the U.S.
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 brought about a quick $120,000 online fundraising drive in the Muslim community and hundreds of volunteers to repair the damage and express solidarity. On a national level, Muslims mobilized to visit local synagogues and rightly express solidarity with 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 divergent 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 Perez, and the wounds of the campaign will not be easily healed. What happened in the lead-up to the vote and why did American Jews oppose and work hard to defeat Keith Ellison? At this juncture, it is important to ask if a Jewish-Muslim alliance against anti-Islam and anti-Semitism would succeed if the effort was directed on a superficial level while the structural empowerment of Muslims is sacrificed for Israel’s interests in the United States.
NOT HOMOGENEOUS COMMUNITY
First of all, 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 an attachment to it as the single issue to define 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 worked and coordinated activities with the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network as well as worked and partnered with Jewish liberation theologians and academics. What I write below is a critique of mainstream American Jewish organizations that are still bound to the old Zionist 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 an alliance that intends to silence the critical questions on Zionism, Israel, BDS, and the prevalence of anti-Islam within mainstream American Jewish organizations including the ADL, JCRC and AJC. How can we begin to address anti-Islam without challenging its purveyors, who posit demonization 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. In opposing Ellison, Saban called 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. Israel’s defender, the liberal warmonger Alan Dershowitz, 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 was elected, saying, “My loyalty to my country and my principles and my heritage exceeds any loyalty to my party.”
OPPOSITION OF MAINSTREAM GROUPS
Saban’s attack was echoed in an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) press release on the Dec. 1, 2016, in which Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the 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.” Jonathan’s statement, indirectly and in a sophisticated manner, smeared Ellison on anti-Semitism stating, “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 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 far more important than standing on principle. One may ask the question to 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 Keith because they deemed him not good for Israel, which would have been the only measure for acceptability.
While ADL’s case might be rationalized considering their long history 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 Keith, which urged a vote against Ellison for the DNA chair. The AJC’s effort to forge an alliance with American Muslim communities to counter anti-Islam 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 anti-Islam if AJC is committed to countering the empowerment and civil society visibility of American Muslims?
In an article by Rafael Medoff from Nov. 28, 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?.” The same article 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 Keith’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.
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, the mainstream American Jewish organizations like the ADL and AJC have been incubators for anti-Islam and provided civil society legitimacy to well-known and well-documented members of the anti-Islam industry, including Emerson himself, Daniel Pipes and Frank Gaffney, to name only the best known ones. Accountability on anti-Islam and defamation of American Muslim organizations and leaders can’t be erased or forgotten by mere attending a rally, or showing up at a mosque or an airport steps. What is needed from ADL, AJC and JCRC leaders is to publicly dissociate from individuals and groups that demonize Islam and Muslims on a daily basis.
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 anti-Islam means rejecting the structural silencing of Muslim voices including their much-needed past and present critique of Israel. 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