Nearly two months before the 2016 presidential election, I received an invitation from Robert Silverman of the American Jewish Committee to join an unprecedented endeavor: to become part of a national Jewish-Muslim advisory council convened by two organizations with little, if any, history of working together. In the wake of eighteen months of a polarizing and often alarming campaign season, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) joined forces to bring together over thirty Jewish and Muslim thought, religious, community, political, and business leaders to work on domestic policy issues that impact and concern both faith communities. The slate of the Council crosses partisan and ideological lines, and includes both Democrats and Republicans, religious liberals and conservatives.
This shouldn’t be a controversial initiative given its laudable and innocuous objectives, which are to highlight the contributions of Jews and Muslims to the U.S., fight anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bigotry, and protect the rights of religious minorities. But all of us who agreed to participate in the Council knew it could come with a price. The issue was raised at our very first convening, which took place shortly before the election. A well-known Muslim activist and educator raised her hand and asked if the upcoming announcement about the Council could downplay, or altogether eliminate, mentioning the convening organizations. She was worried how the association would impact support for her work.
Her fear was well-founded, as strange as it may seem to those not familiar with the institutional politics and community litmus tests at play here.
The AJC is, by all definitions, a Zionist organization. Among their missions is to “enhance the well-being of the Jewish people and Israel” and one of their top priorities is to “counter the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign.” On the other end you have ISNA, whose focus is to “foster the development of the Muslim community, interfaith relations, civic engagement, and better understanding of Islam.” They are decidedly pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist.
Across the Muslim organizational and activist landscape, BDS is considered near sacrosanct as a vital Palestinian-led non-violent movement to pressure Israel into compliance with international law, end the Occupation, and help bring about Palestinian equality, dignity, and self-determination. Breaking BDS by engaging with organizations that oppose it, or are the target of the boycott, is for many an irredeemable sin (regardless of the objectives), as I learned after participating in the Muslim Leadership Initiative of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Regardless of the fact that neither I nor others in the program oppose BDS in principle (in my estimation, financial boycotts are effective, while cultural and academic ones are counter-productive), numerous petitions, boycotts, and articles were propagated targeting me and others in the same program. We were branded traitors, sell-outs, and worse. More recently, a large Muslim umbrella organization in Chicago was forced to retract an award they intended on presenting to me after some influential activists raised vociferous objections based on the fact that I had broken BDS, all the while admitting that I was still strongly pro-Palestinian.
The litmus test for not engaging Zionist organizations is so fervent that a number of well-respected Muslim leaders who have spoken at AJC events in the past were then actually pressured into issuing public apologies to their Muslim constituents for having done so. The stigma is no joke.
On the other end of this controversy is ISNA—an organization that became suspect via association with the notorious “Holy Land Foundation” case. ISNA, along with dozens of other Muslim groups, landed on a list of “unindicted co-conspirators,” which was meant to be under court seal, but mysteriously leaked to the public. As I’ve written, the list was a deeply unethical, McCarthyist mechanism to forever brand these groups as nefarious without ever giving them the chance to face specific accusations or defend themselves. ISNA and others have never been charged with any crimes and continue to work closely with the U.S. government on all levels. But these facts don’t immunize them from being the target of conspiracy theorists and anti-Muslim bigots as a dangerous Islamist fifth-column organization connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. When I spoke at the AJC Global Forum earlier this year, an attendee stood up and began making these very allegations about the “Muslim agenda” in America. I was able to effectively—and to the sustained applause of the audience—shut down the misrepresentations quickly. But it cannot be taken lightly that such beliefs about American Muslims are widely known and unfortunately widely even accepted by much of American Jewry.
So when the AJC and ISNA came together to do something as simple as recommend names to the new Muslim-Jewish Council and convene its first meeting, some Muslims worried about being branded traitors for being associated with a Zionist organization, and some Jews worried about being associated with an Islamist group. And indeed, these fears came to pass.
The AJC immediately began receiving messages of concern, anxiety, and even anger that they would work with ISNA, while the message groups and social media of Muslim activists blew up with anger that ISNA (and all the Muslims involved) had partnered with Zionists. Ironically, from both sides came the charge that these organizations were being used to “normalize” the behavior and political beliefs of the other.
Shout out to all these individuals for teaming up with Zionist, anti-BDS AJC — shame on you: https://t.co/Kjnnz91Si9
— Sana Saeed (@SanaSaeed) November 14, 2016
When the concern was raised about this very backlash at our first convening though, I objected to minimizing the fact that these two organizations had brought us together. I felt strongly, as did others, that what made our convening particularly powerful and salient was the fact that ISNA and AJC looked beyond the coming attacks, beyond the concerns and disagreements they may have had with each other, and beyond the litmus tests imposed by some of their constituents, to work together on issues of incredible import to both of our communities.
In the face of rising hate crimes, anti-Muslim bigotry, anti-Semitism, and the potential appointment to high level positions of those who have shown open hostility to both Muslims and Jews by President Elect Trump, we cannot today afford to be held hostage by political beliefs about international affairs. Our first obligation is to the safety of our immediate community. It would be a grave error to think we can protect the rights of those overseas while our own rights and security in the the U.S. are weakening. This is not just pragmatism—it is the Islamic tradition to extend concern to all those impacted by injustice, but to begin by securing the safety of those closest to you.
It has never been anathema for American Muslims to work on a broad range of issues with those of other faiths, who worship other Gods, or who don’t believe in God at all. Likewise, most Muslims today welcome building coalitions with LGBTQ communities and standing up for them as they stood up for us. In both such instances, there has been protest by some based on theological grounds, but it has been overwhelmingly rejected in recognition and acceptance of the pluralism of this nation. To hold out political differences as the red line, when we have stretched and even broken religious tests, is both hypocritical and self-sabotage.
American Muslims and Jews desperately need the leadership of their organizations now to do what is best to protect them right here, in America, in this moment of great anxiety about our future in this country. That leadership must expand to organize and build coalitions and alliances with those who we may never have engaged with before, who we adamantly disagree with on any number of issues, but with whom we also share common worries. Too much is on the line to do otherwise.
In his final foreign town hall, President Obama said, “We have the power to make our own history. We don’t have to repeat the same mistakes, we can think differently.” This Council and the manner in which it was convened represents such leadership. It represents thinking differently. And in spite of any continued backlash, I remain committed to working with the group to help protect both of our communities.
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