Presbyterians: Fight Antisemitism While You Divest

**UPDATE: The PCUSA has voted in favor of divestment**

Today, the Presbyterian General Assembly will vote on whether it should divest its holdings in three companies: Caterpillar, Motorola, and HP. These three companies produce military technologies integral to maintaining Israel’s occupation. Of course, because we are talking about Israel, there has to be an overheated public debate. Many Presbyterian leaders fear that divestment will alienate the Jewish community and associate the Church with the long, nefarious history anti-Jewish persecution in Christian Europe. I can appreciate where they are coming from. Like them, I also care tremendously about combating antisemitism. I have a personal stake in making the world a safe place for Jews. But investment in these military companies, especially their complicity in clear violations of Palestinian human rights, does not achieve this goal. So, I have a novel suggestion for the Presbyterian Church on this important day: fight antisemitism while you divest.

The Presbyterian vote comes after a decade of debate on the topic within the church. An interfaith coalition of groups, representing Christians, Muslims and Jews, argues that divesting from the companies would place an obstacle into the infrastructure of Israel’s occupation, which continues and expands its reach over Palestinian lives as the peace process fails over and over again. If the Presbyterian Church is truly committed to peace in the Middle East as it claims to be, the argument goes, it would renounce investment in those companies profiteering from the ongoing violence and repression there. To paraphrase one excellent slogan, it is impossible to talk about peace while investing in violence.

So, what should a conscientious Presbyterian, who cares both about Palestinian suffering and about the history of anti-Jewish oppression do when presented with this dilemma?

The first step comes from differentiating what happened back then from what is happening now. Divesting from three military technology companies complicit in human rights violations has no relationship whatsoever to the historical Christian persecution of Jews. The resolution does not demand that Jews convert to Christianity or face torture. The resolution does not claim that Jews cannot be trusted or are conspiring to take over the world. The resolution does not target Jews collectively at all, but rather addresses specific violations of Palestinian human rights from which the Church does not want to profit. Caterpillar’s notorious D-9 bulldozers have been used to raze thousands of Palestinian homes, many of them the homes of Christian Palestinians. Motorola and HP both supply equipment used to administer Israel’s checkpoints and control over Palestinian movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In fact, 75% of HP’s products have military uses, despite the company’s warm and fuzzy image for producing standard office equipment and back to school electronics. The objective of divestment, despite assertions to the contrary, is to stop the profiteering from Palestinian suffering, not to ostracize Jews.

Some Jewish critics claim that this divestment can be analogized to a “boycott of Jews” because Israel’s activities are “singled out,” but this argument makes no sense. The Presbyterian Church has taken steps to divest from human rights violations and other violence around the world, including from apartheid South Africa. Also, many of these same Jewish critics support an end to the occupation and the implementation of a two-state solution, because they believe it benefits Jews and Israelis to do so. Divesting from military companies that strengthen occupation and further entrench Israel’s hold over the West Bank helps the objectives they claim to support. Divesting would bring them one step closer to their goal, or at least bolster their position in the debate by showing credible interfaith support for an end to occupation. If we all agree that Israel’s occupation is part of the problem, why wouldn’t we do what we can to stop it? Why would we continue to invest in the infrastructure that keeps this cycle of violence afloat? Furthermore, the Presbyterian resolution explicitly condemns violence against innocent people, as do all the organizations working to support it.

Second, the Presbyterians should stay committed to eradicating fear and prejudice against Jews and other religious minorities, for that matter. Presbyterians could use this as an opportunity to bolster their commitment to Jewish-Christian relations and make sure antisemitism has no place in the Church going forward. They could delve more deeply into the issues, theological and political, that have divided our communities in the past. They could develop educational programs to teach their young leaders about Christian antisemitism, blood libel, pogroms, and the Nazi Holocaust, and what can be done to keep these terrible events from re-emerging in the future. They could connect the plight of the Jews in Christian Europe to the plight of other oppressed minorities in the world, and perhaps discuss the connection between this history and the current trends toward Islamophobia in Europe. In this way, the Presbyterians and those of us who choose to be their Jewish allies can bring us closer together, proving that boycott and divestment can actually be better tools for positive engagement among people with differences than tiptoeing around injustice to avoid an emotional backlash.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said: “true peace is not merely the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.” Both Jews and Palestinians deserve better than the absence of tension; we need the Presbyterians to consciously and lovingly divest from violence.



Do Not Let Pamela Geller Speak for American Jews

 It is high time to uproot Islamophobia from Jewish communities #muslimjewishunity

 When I heard that Pamela Geller had decided to adorn our DC metro area buses with Islam-bashing ads featuring images of Hitler shaking the hand of Hajj Amin El-Husseini, I wasn’t outraged, just exasperated. Our nation’s cities have been dealing with her garbage for about two years now, since a district court in New York struck down an MTA policy that refused to allow on public transit “demeaning” advertisements to racial or other protected groups.

I view this latest of Geller’s public tantrums, however, as a unique opportunity and a challenge for American Jews. In the United States today, there are numerous mosques and Muslim religious centers facing hostility from their surrounding communities. EEOC reports that since the September 11th 2001 attacks, Muslims report a more than 250% increase of workplace discrimination based on religion or national origin. Countless American Muslims report harassment and discrimination at our country’s airports due to cumbersome and overbroad travel watchlists. There are reports of the FBI placing informants in Muslim institutions to sow discord and recruit terrorists. And of course, there is a whole cable news channel devoted to the idea that Muslims are trying to stealthily subvert our Constitution to replace it with shari’a law.

All of the mistrust, prejudices, and abuses that Muslims face in the post 9/11 world are things Jews should be quite familiar with. It was not so long ago that prominent public figures like Father Coughlin and Henry Ford proclaimed publicly that Jews were enemies of American values, that our leaders were secretly maneuvering to undermine the Constitution in favor of an anti-Christian state, and that we were simply not to be trusted. This resulted in pervasive discrimination that permeated all aspects of our lives, from where we went to school to where we lived and where we felt safe to walk. Our American Jewish history provides an important backdrop for the solidarity that we could show to our American Muslim brothers and sisters, should we be so inclined. So, why is Pamela Geller a welcome guest speaker at synagogues across the country? Why does she get so much of her support from right wing, pro-Israel Jews?

We certainly see Jewish organizations, such as the ADL, issue press releases with condemnations and articles like this one from Mira Sucharov that call for Muslims and Jews to “dialogue.” But Muslims need and deserve much more from us than mere words. Our Jewish leaders and rabbis should be the ones on Fox News calling out those who foment prejudice against Muslims. Our Jewish organizations should be reaching out to support Muslim civil society organizations with common concerns about the rights of religious minorities in America and putting an end to discrimination. Instead, we see organizations like ADL repeating baseless accusations of terrorist ties. This only foments unjustified prejudice against the entire American Muslim community and prevents the bridges between us from being built.

 It does not advance the interests of Jews to cherry pick verses from the Quran, distort their meaning, and then insist that Islam is antisemitic. Denigrating Islam will not solve Israel’s problems in the world. Other writers have done an excellent job of explaining why Geller’s assertions about antisemitism and the Quran are completely off the wall, but this does not stop Jewish Americans, some of whom are members of my own family, from indulging in grotesque and ugly stereotyping of Muslims while claiming they are simply defending the rights of Jews.

There is no question that American Muslims have a lot to learn about the experience of American Jews. I have personally had enriching discussions with young Muslims who had questions about Jewish religious practice, who were curious about my own experience of antisemitism, who wanted to understand the European history that led to the Holocaust, who wanted to better understand why they faced such hostility when they attempt to talk about Palestinian rights on their campuses. But, these conversations would never have been possible if I had hedged on the issue of Muslim civil rights. We cannot reasonably expect Muslims to take a strong stand against anti-Jewish oppression if we refuse to uproot Islamophobia from our own communities.

Islamophobes divide us to push their agenda, to foment fear, and thereby raise their own public profiles. Their place in our public discourse has nothing to do with keeping Jews, Israelis, Americans or anyone else safe. Instead of giving into this kind of emotionalism and demagoguery, we owe it to ourselves and to our children and to all the generations that come after them to support Muslim civil rights in America robustly, not reluctantly.

Frankly, if it weren’t for the crazed debate over Israel, it would be a no-brainer.


Tweet your thoughts on this article #MuslimJewishUnity

White Nationalists Threaten Jews, BDS Does Not

As we learn the details of the horrifying shootings at a Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas, several pro-Israel commentators and tweeters have tried to link the shooting to rising support for a boycott of Israel and the BDS movement.  Max Blumenthal created a storify which details the ugly stuff here.  The offensive remarks by zealous Israel supporters reveal their shameless opportunism and poor taste, considering the gravity of the circumstances.  When our community is faced with a genuinely frightening event, the Israel-on-the-brain crowd continues to insist that BDS is the real enemy.  Seriously.

So, let me break it down for those who might be confusing things. The shooter is an antisemite. He is a real antisemite, not a human rights group or Nobel prize winner painted to look like an antisemite through use of tortured logic and redefinitions. This is someone who actually despises us and seeks to kill us because we are Jews.

This shooter clearly has no relationship whatsoever to BDS. Perhaps to the chagrin of Israel’s most ardent supporters, racist groups are explicitly unwelcome in that movement and have no place in its ranks.  Let’s take a look at some obvious distinctions: The BDS movement invokes the language of human rights and equal protection. It looks to international law and historic anti-colonial, anti-racist struggles to support and inspire its position. It has support and participation from Muslims, Christians, Jews, secular people, labor unions, student groups, artists, academics and others who don’t wish to invest in the violence of occupation. By contrast, Kansas shooter Frazier Glenn Miller is a former KKK member who invokes the language of white nationalism, which is antithetical to human rights and equal protection.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he organized the ‘White Patriot Party’ in the 1980s and eventually ran for Congress twice in 2006 and 2010. He has raged publicly about the threat Jewish/Christian intermarriage posed to the white European demographic; he has denigrated Jewish religion by claiming that Jews killed Christ; he has claimed that Jews control media, government and international institutions; and he has posited that Jews are lying about their suffering during the Holocaust to make white Europeans look bad, and that the Holocaust is a hoax.  In other words, far from an advocate for equality and human rights, Miller instead asserts that the United States should belong only to white European people.  I don’t hear arguments like his coming from supporters of BDS.  Although, I will admit they bear an uncanny resemblance to some arguments we hear in other circles of the debate, albeit in a slightly more polished and palatable form.

The BDS movement was initiated in 2005 by 180+ Palestinian civil society organizations.  These organizations wrote to the world and called upon it for help as peace negotiations led them nowhere and Israel further entrenched its occupation.  They decided to use a peaceful tactic, the boycott, to pressure Israel and to make the occupation harder and more consequential to maintain. This tactic has been used by social movements across the political spectrum historically as a means to effect social change.  Boycott has also been affirmed as a protected form of free expression by the United States Supreme Court.  Although Israel fanatics make wild accusations of antisemitism, the movement can claim a healthy amount of support from Jews in diaspora as well as Israel, including groups such as: Boycott from Within, The Israeli Coalition of Women for Peace, Jewish Voice for Peace, American Jews for a Just Peace, Independent Jewish Voices and a number of Jewish identified groups in Europe.

Meanwhile, Israel fanatics like Pamela Geller raise money for openly racist groups like the English Defense LeagueDaniel Pipes defends Geert Wilders, who has made common cause with the French far right to form an anti-immigrant ‘trojan horse’ in the European Parliament.  David Horowitz publicizes the writing of Jared Taylor, an open white nationalist, who advocates the idea that blacks have a higher propensity to commit violent crime.  These groups hold viewpoints that decent people committed to democratic values should find abhorrent, yet Geller, Pipes, and Horowitz do not find themselves subject to accusations of bigotry from Israel’s ardent supporters. In most cases, they are still welcome inside the tent.

During a truly terrifying time for our Jewish community, the Israel zealots give real antisemites a free pass in favor of targeting advocates for Palestinian rights. The only plausible reason for this, in my opinion, is that the BDS movement has made tremendous strides around the world, finding allies in renowned artists, writers, scholars, and human rights leaders.  The connections this activism has forged between people of all faiths and backgrounds directly contradicts their extreme, hardline Zionist viewpoint, which relies on a hostile, incurably antisemitic world for its relevancy.

I believe that Jews have the capacity to discern those who endanger us from those who do not.  I only pray that we can cut through the fog and mirrors of an opportunistic political agenda that cedes vital ground to the white nationalists who truly imperil us and our natural allies.

The Jewish Community Should Not Embrace Ayaan Hirsi Ali

The fracas over Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis shows that Israel devotees cannot distinguish friend from foe. For obvious reasons, Jews should not count Islamophobes among our friends. 

It’s Pesach again and our people still aren’t quite getting the holiday’s lessons, especially this one: ואהבתם את-הגר  כי-גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים

After students, faculty and civil rights groups expressed objection, Brandeis University rescinded an invitation to anti-Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali who was to receive an honorary degree at its spring commencement. Citing its commitment to the free exchange of ideas, Brandeis invited Hirsi Ali to speak at a later date in a forum that would not endorse her view. Predictably, this did not stop Hirsi Ali and her defenders on the extreme right from crying foul and declaring that she had been “silenced.” More astonishing, however, was the reaction from Tablet Magazine, a Jewish publication. Tablet obsequiously offered Hirsi Ali their first ever, impromptu “Moses award” and stated that while some of her statements “ought to be challenged” Brandeis should not have rescinded her award. The magazine also said the university subjected an “outspoken dissident…to public pillory.”

Well, let’s pretend that a prominent university scheduled an antisemitic public figure to speak and receive an award. I’m not talking about a critic of Israel or Zionism, but someone who openly opines that being Jewish is incompatible with Western values. Let’s pretend that the antisemitic speaker is himself of Jewish origins, who claims to denigrate our religion, community, and ancestry from a place of painful personal experience. Say this individual had called Judaism “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death” and had advocated for the closure of all Jewish day schools in the United States. Wouldn’t it be more than justifiable for a Jewish organization or two to have something to say about it? I sure hope so.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that Jewish organizations were to decide collectively that our antisemitic speaker should speak. Say that Jewish groups were to affirm that our community is tough enough and savvy enough to handle a rabid antisemite in a public setting. Say the Jewish organizations were to invoke the famous words of Justice Brandeis: “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Would the Jewish organizations be at all justified in taking exception to the university offering our antisemitic speaker an award? I think they would be.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali claims (and her family disputes her account) that she was subjected to various forms of abuse as a girl growing up Muslim, including female genital cutting. She has stated that the abuse she allegedly endured is religious in its origin and that this kind of abuse is endemic to Islam, a religion which she claims has no moderate voice. Despite calling herself an atheist and a critic of all religions, Hirsi Ali singles out Islam for special opprobrium. In an interview with Reason Magazine, she states: “I accept that there are multitudes seeking God, seeking meaning, and so on, but if they reject atheism, I would rather they became modern-day Catholics or Jews than that they became Muslims.” She goes on to state that she believes Islam should “be defeated.” When the interviewer asks her if she meant radical Islam, she states “No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace.” In other words, Hirsi Ali believes that Islam is incompatible with free societies and believes that pious Muslims are more loyal to their faith and their own kind than to the countries in which they live. Shouldn’t this sound at least a little familiar and a little troubling to Jews?

At Tablet, it seems not to be troubling at all. I think this can only be due to the fact that the debate on Israel has completely blurred our moral sense and our ability to empathize with the people some want to characterize as our ‘enemies’. Even though Palestinians and their armed organizations have Christian, Muslim, and secular members, right-wing Israel fanatics seem to find it easier to perpetuate the most pigheaded, unsophisticated stereotypes about Islam. How they think this solves Israel’s many problems in the world, I don’t know. But it seems to make them feel pretty righteous and it wouldn’t surprise me if it generates some money. Tablet claims that it condemned equally the cancellation of Rashid Khalidi’s talk at the Ramaz School, but these two instances can hardly be compared. Khalidi is a well-credentialed professor, a Palestinian, and a thoughtful critic of Israel. He is not merely a ‘controversial speaker.’ He has also never claimed that being Jewish is somehow illegitimate or suspect, the way Hirsi Ali does about being Muslim. He does not say that Jews should stop being Jewish.  He is a participant in a debate about policy, he does not take issue with our communal identity or creed. The fact that Tablet’s editors would draw such a comparison is cause for concern because it indicates that the crazed tenor of the Israel debate encourages us to conflate a political adversary with someone who intends harm to Jews. It also seems that there is a section of the community that believes that casting Muslims and Islam in a negative light somehow adequately rebuts questions about Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians.  This is obviously very silly and avoids the issues we must confront in order to achieve peace.

The Brandeis community and Muslim organizations did the right thing in challenging Hirsi Ali’s award and the university did the right thing in inviting her to speak in a neutral forum. It is sad that a Jewish publication is offering this woman an award in response when we should be the ones speaking out the loudest against her Islamophobia. This woman is not our friend. Nothing could be further from the truth.

For more on this topic, check out Ali Gharib’s excellent opinion piece in the Jewish Daily Forward

And thinkprogress’ roundup of the issue