The firestorm around Rep. Ilhan Omar’s recent tweets about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and criticism of Israel has drawn attention to what language rises to the level of anti-Semitism, the shameful double standards for Muslims and people of color, and how anti-Semitism is often hypocritically used as a political bludgeon. GOP leadership has called for an official censure and her removal from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and House Democrats called for a resolution this week denouncing anti-Semitism after Omar recently tweeted, “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country,” which some have said plays on the anti-Semitic trope of dual loyalty. Notably, no such outrage from Republican members of Congress emerged after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy used anti-Semitic tropes during the 2018 midterm election or during much of the tenure of Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has a long history of making offensive comments about race and white nationalism.
In response, #IStandWithIlhan has trended with people, including Jews, who support the Muslim congresswoman. Omar (D-Minn.), who has faced anti-Muslim hate linking her to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and death threats, is being unfairly demonized for her critical comments on Israel and AIPAC, especially when compared to white Republican men like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) who recently used “$teyer” in a tweet to refer to Jewish American billionaire Tom Steyer.
Monday night, President Trump tweeted that Omar’s comments are a “dark day for Israel!” which is rich coming from the man who falsely blamed George Soros, a Jewish billionaire, for funding a “caravan” across the border and praised white supremacists, who chanted “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, as “very fine people.”
Despite the clear double standards being employed against Omar, most certainly because of her religion, one thing is certain: Different communities hear words differently and we all need to listen, engage and communicate with one another to understand why. We are now trudging forward on an uncomfortable uphill, but necessary, journey through this minefield through our own recent history of engagement with Jewish Americans and Israelis.
As Muslim Americans, we are painfully aware of Islamophobia that harms our communities and is promoted openly now from the Oval Office. Anti-Semitism is on the rise globally. In response, we have spent six years trying to learn from and listen to Jewish Americans about Israel, Judaism, Zionism and anti-Semitism.
In 2013, we participated in the launch of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), a year-long program that begins and ends in Israel and the Palestinian territories. MLI brings 15 or so American Muslims in every cohort to engage with and learn from Jewish scholars. In Jerusalem, we also visited the occupied territories and met with Palestinians in Hebron, Ramallah and Jenin.
We participated with the hope and prayer that we could have a meaningful, honest and blunt relationship with some Zionist Jewish communities who wouldn’t make us agree to narrow litmus tests, stringent audits and absolutist talking points. Maybe we could initiate a relationship based on respectful listening without preconditions. We learned how Jews who identify as Zionists — which encompasses a broad political and religious spectrum but includes the majority of American Jews — debate and understand themselves and their relationship to Israel.
Wajahat Ali was curious if engaging these Jewish community members, some of whom are progressive except when it comes to the Palestinian territories and Muslims, could stem the damage. If we listened to each other and talked about immense pain caused by Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, could this spark a moral dialogue and sincere relationship that at least would not inspire the worst demons from our communities to rise up and destroy each other in America?
For Rabia Chaudry, engaging in over a decade of interfaith work in the United States was frustratingly limited. Muslim and Jewish communities would break bread, talk about Abrahamic roots, build houses for habitat together and support each other through hate crimes, but retreat to opposite corners when conflict broke out in Israel and the Palestinian territories. More importantly, there was the question of how and why many liberal American Jews did an about-face when it came to the Occupation. How could American Jews be on the forefront of civil and human rights in this country, but identify as pro-Israel Zionists?
At the center was that word: Zionist. Many American Muslim communities’ line on Jewish engagement has always been, “We are not anti-Semitic, we are anti-Zionist.” What it meant to be a Zionist was never deeply interrogated; rather, some Muslim and pro-Palestinian activists themselves defined what Zionism was and is without ever actually engaging Zionists.
If you told our younger selves that we’d eventually be conversation partners with Zionist, pro-Israel Jews, we’d say you were high, call ourselves “sellouts” and proceed to punch ourselves in the face. We’d initiate and promote the same boycotts that have been directed toward us by some community members and organizations. We’d publicly shame us as “faithwashing Trojan horses” and believe harmful conspiracy theories that we are being used by influential, intellectually superior Jews to weaken and divide Muslim communities, erode support for a Palestinian state, and undermine international boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel and Israeli companies. We would agree with the chorus of some sincere, well-intentioned activists and religious leaders that we are throwing our Palestinian brothers and sisters under the bus just to kiss up to “Jewish power” and promote our careers.
We have been blackballed from certain Muslim spaces for our participation in MLI. Excommunication is never fun, especially by a community that you love and have spent your life defending.
So, why do we continue?
Because the current path of doubling down on talking points, isolating ourselves in tribal silos and engaging in scorched-earth tactics will ultimately poison the American landscape for Muslims and Jews, both of whom who are popular targets for white supremacists in North America and Europe.
We also recognize that we often hurt each other’s communities without meaning to by falling into anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim tropes, relying on messengers hurtful to the other community, and failing to deeply examine each other’s histories and narratives.
As college students, we were aware that being outspoken about Palestinian rights as a Muslim or Arab meant being labeled “anti-Semitic” and retaining a scarlet letter throughout your professional career, as we are witnessing against Omar. Many Muslims see the current hazing of Omar as the continuation of this troubling trend, bashing any Muslim politician who gains national presence. These fears are not unfounded. And yet sometimes it isn’t our criticism, but how we criticize, that’s problematic.
The problem of not listening to each other and retrenching to cocoons is that it’s easy to essentialize a person, a community, a region in its entire complexity and depth, reducing them to one negative characteristic or trope or stereotype.
Recently, Wajahat Ali was invited to Poland with multifaith and multiethnic activists and leaders to discuss the rise of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy and how to combat it in America. We saw firsthand how dehumanizing language slowly but surely paved the way to the Auschwitz gas chambers. Our tour guide told him, “It always begins with words.” For those paying attention to the Trump presidency and his comments about immigrants and refugees, this should raise alarms. During our intense but productive conversations in Warsaw, we realized that all of us, despite our best intentions, still have a lot to learn and process when it comes to recognizing historical anti-Semitic tropes and images.
What’s harmless to us is trauma to others.
We can and should criticize Israel and the occupation of Palestinians without using anti-Semitism, just like we can and should criticize Saudi Arabia’s horrific human rights abuses without being Islamophobic.
Omar is learning that lesson and, thankfully, enough people of goodwill are using this moment to heal our communities, bridge the divides and welcome her as an important ally moving forward. It is important to note and credit the Jewish allies who turned the incident into a teaching moment instead of joining the beatdown bandwagon populated by many on the right who are hypocritical and insincere in their condemnation of anti-Semitism.
We all should be morally consistent and principled, calling out hate against marginalized communities and not conveniently using it to score political points. We should ask all our elected officials to do better as well.
We will make mistakes, but it’s important that we don’t let absolutists guide our destiny as a pluralistic society. For Jews and Muslims, it’s of utmost importance that we recognize our shared values and challenges, especially in 2019 America. We’re going to need each other as we move forward on the long road ahead.
Wajahat Ali is a writer and attorney. Rabia Chaudry is an attorney, advocate and author of the New York Times bestseller “Adnan’s Story.”