The political tempest caused by Rep. Ilhan Omar’s tweets this week seemed to pit Jews against Muslims: Republicans and Democrats alike demanded that Omar (D-Minn.), one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, apologize for tweets that employed common anti-Semitic tropes about Jews controlling the world through money.
At the same time, Muslim and Jewish Americans face heightened levels of violence in our country. Hate crimes against Muslims and Jews alike are on the rise. During the deadly Unite the Right rally in my city of Charlottesville, neo-Nazis marched with machine guns chanting “Jews will not replace us.” A recently thwarted plot aimed to slaughter children, women and men in the peaceful New York enclave of Islamberg. Months ago, the single most deadly attack on Jews in U.S. history transpired, the killing of 11 congregants at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. And our government has instated an unapologetic ban on immigration by some Muslims.
Amid this hatred, debates about the U.S.-Israel alliance wrap Jewish and Muslim Americans into an international conflict at the cost of domestic unity. And we simply can’t afford that.
There is no doubt that our sociopolitical landscape is shifting and that minorities writ large face an expanded Overton Window — that is, greater tolerance of racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim positions in public discourse. And discourse is far from innocuous. Discourse underlies and upholds violent acts. Beginning in 2015, the “alt-right” reinvigorated white nationalism, bringing together groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis by combining Internet trolling with public marches that incited violence such as in Charlottesville. It is no wonder that Muslims and Jews feel increasingly unsafe in America’s present and uncertain about America’s future.
And yet, this week, Muslims and Jews have joined the fight over the meaning and veracity of Omar’s claims about AIPAC, the lobbying group that aims to strengthen U.S. support for Israel. Some have likened the severity of her remarks to the donning of blackface by two of Virginia’s highest lawmakers, with Republican Rep. Steve King (Iowa) requesting that Omar be removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Others insist that her stern critique of the AIPAC lobby is justified and overdue, likening it to the National Rifle Association.
If we are to learn from the past, we must recognize that a “divide and conquer” mentality pitting ethnic, racial and religious groups against one another has always undermined democracy: from European colonialism to the Third Reich to the pre-genocide period in Rwanda, from South Africa’s apartheid regime to America’s era of Jim Crow.
Some groups across the United States have resisted division, instead building alliances between Muslims and Jews based on shared daily realities. The Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom, for instance, aims to connect Muslim and Jewish women on a local level to collectively fight hate. Executive Director Sheryl Olitzky quotes the Talmud: “ ‘Who is a hero?’ it asks. ‘One who makes one’s enemy into a friend.’ ” Her co-founder, Atiya Aftab, says, “Muslim and Jewish women share many similar challenges to our identity in America. . . . Together we can learn from each other and also stand up against acts of hate and bigotry together, especially in our recent political environment.”
Other organizations, including the Muslim-Jewish Interfaith Coalition and the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, similarly unite these broad communities to overcome prejudices while building solidarity in the face of shared social challenges. When the Tree of Life congregants were attacked in Pittsburgh, Muslims from the area offered protection of the building during services. Following an anti-Islam rally in West Philadelphia last February, community members from Kol Tzedek Synagogue stood outside the Masjid Al-Jamia holding signs bearing words of support. Some major institutions are also taking a stand for unity. Jewish organizations have condemned President Trump’s “Muslim ban.” Muslim groups have raised money for Jewish victims of violence. The list, thankfully, goes on and on.
Still, such public alliances may come with a cost for individuals. Those advocating sustained dialogue and even friendship face critique from within their own communities. For instance, journalist Wajahat Ali’s invitation to the 2018 Islamic Society of North America Conference was rescinded after he partook in the Muslim Leadership Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute and interviewed Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Ali’s engagement with Zionists to understand another side of the same tragic story came at a cost.
When I departed from Israel, I was sent to an area for security screening at Ben Gurion Airport reserved for the most suspect travelers. As an officer asked me if I had any weapons during a thorough questioning and body search, I could not help but surmise that as a Jewish American, my work with Muslims had landed me in this select group (alongside, of course, many Muslims).
In the words of the late Israeli author Amos Oz, “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a tragedy, a clash between one very powerful, very convincing, very painful claim over this land and another no less powerful, no less convincing claim.” This tragedy came to life for me on a dusty hill in Hebron, where I stood in front of a single, ancient olive tree, a recent site of struggle between local Palestinians and Jews. “Both had papers saying that the land belongs to them,” said our tour guide, as he told the painfully ironic story of blood shed over olive branches.
If we — American Jews and American Muslims — are to debate about Israel, what about also recognizing all that we share? Anyone who has walked through the stone-scented streets of Old Jerusalem has encountered a place of unity that cannot be ignored: the Dome of the Rock literally held up by the Wailing Wall, beside lines of Muslims praying toward Mecca, above men and women weeping at Judaism’s most holy site. On my trip to Israel, I also visited the graves of our shared prophets in Hebron. On one side of the city’s divide, a shopkeeper spoke of loss in the once-vibrant city shuk. “Do you hate Jews?” asked a man in our tour group. “I don’t hate anyone,” he responded. “I just want to live with dignity.” On the other side, I entered the Cave of the Patriarchs, burial place of Abraham. Our tour guide shook his head. “I wonder how disappointed Abraham would be in all of us,” he said.
Still, Israel is not all that matters, and our fixation is blinding us from the worrying domestic reality unfolding in front of our own eyes. The haunting memory of violence in my city of Charlottesville reminds me that we — Jews, Muslims and in fact all minorities — have common perils to face in the United States today. In focusing on our divisions, we erode the opportunity to build important alliances between Muslims and Jews in a precarious time for us all. We diminish our own power when we break apart.
I wonder what great change could ensue, what new dreams may come, if we hold each other up instead of knock each other down — if we extend an olive branch.
Elisabeth Becker-Topkara is a postdoctoral fellow on the Religion & Its Publics project at UVA where she is also affiliated with the Institute for the Advanced Study of Culture. She is working on two books: her academic manuscript, “Unsettled Islam,” and a memoir on interfaith marriage, “On the Edge the Worlds.” Her research centers on Islam in Europe and the United States as well as interfaith alliances.