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Standing Up for Muslims

The Jewish community is learning strategies for defending our Muslim neighbors

Marjorie Ingall
April 14, 2017
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Last week, I attended “upstander training” at a local synagogue Congregation Beit Simchat Torah to learn to speak up and speak out against intolerance. The word “upstander” is designed to be distinct from “bystander”: It’s not enough to witness hateful behavior and refrain from taking part—to be a just person, we need to stand up and intervene.

The session I attended was taught by Dr. Debbie Almontaser, the founder and CEO of Bridging Cultures Group, an advisory service that works on religious, ethnic, and racial inclusion. Almontaser, a 25-year veteran of the New York City public school system, has worked as a teacher, mentor, and diversity adviser. She’s especially interested in interfaith coalition-building (along with a priest and a minister, she blessed the opening of CBST’s new building last year) and serves on the city’s Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh Task Force to Combat Hate. Last summer, she spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

But I knew her name because she was the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy. Oy, such a balagan! Funded partially by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the dual-language school was intended to teach a diverse student body. Half the classes would be taught in Arabic; kids of all backgrounds would learn about Arabic culture. But it was to be a public school, not a parochial one, so there would be no religious programming.

Still, the New York Post was gunning for the school at its inception, quoting Jewish right-wingers who called it a “madrassa” and a “jihad school.” A Post reporter named Chuck Bennett learned that Almontaser, who was born in Yemen, was on the board of a Yemeni-American cultural organization that shared office space with an arts organization called Arab Women Active in Art and Media, which had made a T-shirt saying “Intifada NYC.” The Post reporter disingenuously asked Almontaser what “intifada” meant in Arabic; she replied, wearing her teacher hat, that it literally means “shaking off.” She did not justify the making of the shirts; she did say the word has negative connotations; she explicitly expressed her opposition to violence. But the damage was done. Despite the fact that Almontaser had literally nothing to do with the group making the shirts, she was accused of failing to condemn the shirts forcefully enough. As the outcry grew, the New York Anti-Defamation League published a letter in support of her, which then made some right-wing Arabs freak that she was in bed with the Jews; an Arabic newspaper in Brooklyn published a story with the headline “Zionist Organization Supports Gibran School Principal.” As the New York Times pointed out, “She was rendered a radical Muslim by one group and a sellout by another.” When the chaos refused to die down, the NYC Department of Education—which had initially supported her—asked Almontaser to step down. They replaced her with a non-Arabic-speaking, Jewish principal. Almontaser sued the city; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that she had indeed been discriminated against. The Department of Education, the ruling said, “succumbed to the very bias that creation of the school was intended to dispel.” Nonetheless, the school itself was doomed. Without Almontaser, the school foundered, went through three principals, and finally shuttered in 2011.

The notion that Almontaser is a Jew-hating terrorist would be laughable if it weren’t so offensive. Her Upstander session showed so much care for everyone’s various cultures and identities and feelings (at one point, someone referred to Trump supporters as “crazy” and it required a five-minute timeout to discuss why that word choice was triggering), I kind of wanted to make fart noises and throw things just to upend the hyperintense, hushed-voice atmosphere of supercharged kindness. (Yes, I understand that demonizing the mentally ill is bad. But still.)

I kid, but there is a profound need for training in how to support Muslims in our communities. A recent survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that Muslim kids are far more likely to be bullied in school than kids of other religions. Forty-two percent of Muslim children in K–12 schools experienced bullying, compared to 23 percent of Jews and 20 percent of Protestants. Backing these findings up is a survey of educators conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program. Over 90 percent of them said that their school’s climate had been negatively affected by the 2016 election. Since Nov. 8, teachers reported, there has been a marked uptick in verbal harassment, use of slurs and derogatory language, and images of swastikas and Confederate flags. Also, Nazi salutes! It should be clear to us Jews that a dangerous climate for Muslims means a dangerous climate for all minority cultures. And standing up to injustice is an obligation. As CBST’s Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum put it at the start of the session, “We’re here in the spirit of Abraham Joshua Heschel: ‘Few are guilty, but all are responsible.’”

About 70 people attended the upstander session at CBST; the room was at capacity. Almontaser’s first step was to lead us in creating a community agreement about how we’d interact during the session. The group came up with a list, including:

Approach others with respect
Withhold judgment
Don’t make identity-based assumptions
“Listen to learn”; use “generous listening”
Accept differences
Be aware of privilege and intersectionality
Assume good intentions
Don’t take it personally if someone says you’ve said something offensive

Almontaser led us in an exercise: We were to turn to the person behind us and discuss who we were named after. There were stories of literary characters, relatives who’d died in the Shoah, beloved family patriarchs. Almontaser had a hard time getting us to shut up. “I love that you’re so social!” she said enthusiastically. (Dude, we’re Jews. It’s what we do.) Names, she pointed out, tell us about culture, customs, religion. Almontaser herself learned that night that most American Jews have an English name and a Hebrew or Yiddish name. (See, education goes both ways!) We participated in another exercise in which two people stood back to back and walked away from each other as we called out things that differentiated them from one another. Then they faced each other from across the room and took a step closer each time we named something they had in common. There were some tense moments: Were we wrongly assuming that both people were female, that one was black, that both were “able-bodied”? Were we being hurtful in observing that one was significantly older than the other? Some participants took offense at comments by other participants. A light miasma of anxiety hung over the room. (I’m pretty sure this was not the goal.)

We came together more comfortably in another assignment: Find a symbol to represent this time in recent history. Participants suggested the Statue of Liberty, a hamsa, a torch, a lighthouse (because it cuts through fog), a pink pussy hat, the slogan Love Trumps Hate, a rainbow combined with a Star of David combined with a crescent, the slogan “Never Again”—as applied to everyone and not just Jews. “The American flag!” someone suggested. “We need to remember that the flag belongs to all of us.”

Throughout the night, I was reminded that we all view social justice through the prism of our own experiences. A number of the white gay men in the room had a tendency to make everything about white gay men. I personally got anxious about dismissive generalizations about Orthodox Jews, because I work with some and am related to some and went to school with some, and in my experience Orthodoxy is a huge tent. I appreciated the perspective of some of the oldest women in the room, who noted that the protest movements of today reminded them of the energy surrounding opposition to the Vietnam war and the hopefulness and anger they felt while demonstrating with Martin Luther King, Jr. “I just didn’t expect to be doing this at my age,” one said with a rueful laugh.

We moved on to talking about how to help Muslims in a culturally sensitive way. We should be aware of body language: Many Muslims tend to lower their gaze and have little to no eye contact with the opposite sex. Observant Muslims do not touch anyone of a different gender.

“If you see a woman in hijab getting harassed and she doesn’t look at you, she’s not necessary uninterested in your help,” Almontaser said. “It may just be because of her culture.”

Thinking about a test case of a Muslim woman on the subway getting targeted by a thug muttering, “You should go back where you came from,” and “fucking terrorist,” we learned the five stages of intervention:

1. Notice.
2. Interpret the interaction as a problem or as an emergency.
3. Assume personal responsibility.
4. Know how to help.
5. Implement the help.

If you’re “easily triggered,” Almontaser said, figure out the best intervention strategy for you. That may mean leaving the scene to get help rather than trying to speak up yourself. Because you don’t want to make matters worse by misreading a situation or freaking out in such a way that it becomes all about you.

Your voice can be your best weapon and tool, Almontaser said. We modeled different volumes, intonations, and phrasings of “No” and “Stop it.” Tone gives a message, we learned. So does repetition.

You can sit down next to the person who is being targeted (Almontaser suggested using the word “target” rather than “victim”) and murmur, “Ignore him. Haven’t I seen you on this train before? Do you think this nice weather will hold? Are you headed to midtown?” Sometimes just failing to get a reaction from others is enough to make a bully move on. If the abuse continues, get off with the target at the next station and alert a conductor. Don’t ever turn your back on someone who’s acting scary. Pay attention to what the abuser was wearing in case you have to file a police report. (And if the target doesn’t want police, respect that. A lot of immigrants are anxious about law enforcement even when they have done nothing wrong.)

If the target doesn’t want to involve the police, give him or her other contact information: The Southern Poverty Law Center, the NYC Commission for Human Rights (call 311 and ask for the Commission’s hate-crime line), The NYC Anti-Violence Project (212-714-1141), or the Council on American Islamic Relations.

If you are uncomfortable intervening by yourself, don’t say, “Hey, can someone help?!” Instead, identify someone you think might be willing to step in with you, and enlist them. (“You in the red jacket!”) If you engage someone individually, they’re more likely to get involved. Make eye contact with the people around you, creating a community of helpers by saying, “This isn’t right. We have to help.” If you feel comfortable addressing the harasser directly, you can say, “You really wanna do this? You’re gonna make us all late for work” or “Hey, cut it out—someone’s gonna call the police, and you know how that’s gonna end.”

Almontaser told the story of walking in the Ditmas Park neighborhood shortly after 9/11, when a group of young men started harassing a Southeast Asian woman. Almontaser went up to her and said, “Don’t let them bother you.” She said, “Just letting the other person know they’re not alone in that moment is helpful.” Almontaser started walking with the other woman, and the young dudes lost interest. But if they hadn’t, Almontaser would have led the other woman into a nearby store and alerted the manager; there might have been a need to lock the doors. You need to be mindful of your own safety as well as that of the target.

Intervening needn’t be a whole to-do. I am reminded of “Snackman,” the dude on the 6 train a few years ago who de-escalated a conflict simply by standing between the two people involved, eating his Pringles, not looking at either of them, just creating a physical space between them with his much taller body. My Tablet colleagues know I broke up a fight last year between a scruffily dressed young man and a much smaller woman on St. Marks Place by putting my hands on the man’s shoulders and telling him forcefully but calmly to go away: “She’ll find you later if she wants to.” When I stepped in, in all my middle-aged, chubby, short, nonthreatening, glasses-wearing glory, some of the young women who were filming the fight on their cellphones stopped, and surrounded the now-crying participant (who’d gone sprawling into the street when the dude pushed her—that was why I finally decided to step in) and offered comfort. Video can be helpful when a crime takes place, but preventing someone from getting hurt, if possible, should take precedence.

Last year, a French cartoonist named Maeril made an illustrated guide to standing up to Islamophobic harassment; look how cute! She encourages everyone to share it as long as they credit her. (Thanks, Maeril!) The psychological strategy she refers to in her note is called “noncomplementary behavior”—it means acting exactly opposite of the way someone else is acting. If the other person is screaming, speak quietly. If the other person is being very aggressive, be warm. This dovetails with what Almontaser said in her upstander training.

Come on, fam. We can do this.


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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.