An article and postings on social media have brought to light the names of some of the American Muslim “leaders” most recently invited to take part in an Israeli propaganda effort.
“Moving Beyond Our Comfort Zones” is Dr. Saud Anwar’s Huffington Post article rationalizing his own participation in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) and framing it as part of a search for peace.
But it is really part of a new deal, in which ambitious American Muslim public figures will reap rewards for throwing Palestinians under the bus.
The Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute has received millions of dollars from some of the leading funders of extreme Islamophobic groups in North America and is a major contractor to the Israeli military, as The Electronic Intifada reported in January.
Its president, Donniel Hartman, has described the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions to hold Israel accountable for its abuses as “repulsive.”
Recently back from an all-expenses-paid MLI trip to an occupied land and city, he is more likely than anything to have experienced the “comfort zone” of apartheid.
“Palestinians, whose land and homes have been occupied and confiscated by soldiers and settlers, face the challenge of making a simple livelihood every day. Israelis must contend with the prospect of attacks on their homeland from radical [Palestinian] factions,” Anwar writes.
This typifies the deceptive narrative he presents, in which Palestinians and Israelis are two peoples locked in a seemingly inexplicable tragedy, neither of which wants war. What remains invisible in his analysis is the overwhelming imbalance of power between a nuclear-armed, US-backed regional superpower, on the one hand, and an occupied, colonized people, on the other.
Anwar also asserts that the conflict “takes place within the historical context of centuries of mistrust.” But this is not true.
The start of the Palestine conflict can be dated precisely: the end of the First World War and the British issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917.
This paved the way for European Jewish colonists to create “a Jewish national home” in someone else’s country — an effort supported by many anti-Semitic European Christian elites eager to rid Europe of Jews or to pursue imperial goals such as creating a strategic buffer zone north of Egypt.
By speaking about “centuries of mistrust,” Anwar plays into an orientalist, Islamophobic and indeed anti-Jewish narrative in which Jews and Muslims are locked in mystical ancient hatreds. This suits Israel, because, unlike a political conflict, a religious one has no obvious solution — although it may justify a lot more “interfaith” junkets and endless “dialogue.”
To accurately understand Zionism as a colonial movement usurping the land, resources and rights of the indigenous Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, imposes a moral obligation to take sides and to act to end historic and ongoing injustices.
Existing in a comfort zone with power, by contrast, is not the same as speaking truth to power. It is not the same as challenging the daily killings and home demolitions Palestinians suffer at the hands of the Israeli military and settlers, or the ongoing siege which confines 1.8 million Palestinians in a devastated and barely livable Gaza Strip.
Kamal Abu-Shamsieh, the only Palestinian confirmed to have participated in MLI, challenged Anwar in a Facebook post: “Did the MLI ‘leaders’ move beyond their comfort zone when extreme Zionists stormed al-Aqsa mosque during their trip? Did they walk out of Shalom Hartman’s classroom in protest of the desecration of Islam’s third holiest shrine, or did they continue ‘business as usual?’”
Terming the initiative “Israeli propaganda,” Abu-Shamsieh quit MLI in May over its refusal to take a “morally principled stand” against Israel’s revocation of residency rights and its theft of property from Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem.
Compare the MLI junket to the recent Dream Defenders solidarity delegation to Palestine.
These young Black activists from across the United States were not welcomed and entertained by the Israeli government and its complicit institutions.
Most importantly, they did not come back to the United States to spout talking points that obscure Israel’s primary responsibility for perpetuating violence as the occupying and colonizing power.
They went to express solidarity with and learn from Palestinians rather than to blame them for their condition.
The MLI cohort, by contrast, met with Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador in Washington, who has been in the forefront of efforts to suppress the movement for Palestinian rights, particularly boycott, divestment and sanctions.
Turning history on its head
“Think about the reconciliation that has taken place in South Africa,” Anwar pleads. “Listening to people and creating strategies which promote coexistence are prerequisites to peace.”
It takes a lot of gall for Anwar to turn history on its head in such a cynical manner. Reconciliation in South Africa could only come after the apartheid regime had been defeated. During the long, painful and costly struggle against white supremacist rule, South African liberation fighters called for boycott, and specifically rejected what President Ronald Reagan and others called “constructive engagement” with the regime and its supporters.
If a historic analogy is warranted, then MLI participants are like those who worked to undermine efforts to isolate apartheid South Africa by advocating toothless “dialogue” that served as an excuse not to pressure the regime.
There is no difference between MLI and a delegation that might have been hosted by the apartheid South Africa government to learn about the concerns of whites while meeting with a few hand-picked Blacks who would reinforce the narrative of “two sides” who just fail to understand each other.
The only difference is that MLI comes wrapped in a fuzzy “interfaith” blanket.
A prime example of Anwar’s whitewashing — or faithwashing — of Israel’s institutionalized racism is his description of meetings with “Arabs (Palestinians with Israeli passports), who have been active in Israeli politics.”
“They are working to increase the influence of the Muslim voters in Israel’s electoral process,” he writes, erasing the existence of Palestinian Christians. “Their goal is to gain more funding for schools and municipalities. If they are able to increase the number of seats held by Arabs in Israel’s governing body, the Knesset, they hope to move the government toward a more centrist position.”
This faith that Palestinian participation in Israel’s “democracy” will result in positive change ignores the existence of dozens of laws that discriminate against Israeli citizens just for not being Jewish. It fails to address the alarming levels of anti-Arab incitement from government figures, starting with the prime minister.
It ignores the ways Israeli “democracy” has always served, as historian Ilan Pappe put it, as liberal “window dressing” for a Jewish supremacist state that will never tolerate real equality.
Having a few Palestinians in Israel’s parliament does not alter the separate and unequal reality embedded in Israel’s basic laws and government policies.
Such stage-managed encounters seem to have served their purpose: to have Anwar and others promote a misleading image of Israel as an open democracy for those with the pluck to work within the system.
Instead of such contrived meetings, MLI participants genuinely interested in interfaith work should engage Jewish liberation theologians on the question of Zionism and Judaism so as not to conflate the two, and to refuse to operate within erroneous and pernicious nationalism.
They should learn from the mistakes of Christian leaders in the US who long made what theologian Marc Ellis has criticized as the “ecumenical deal,” where Christian-Jewish “dialogue” is structured around a quid pro quo: Jews absolve Christians for historic anti-Semitism on condition that Christians remain silent about Israel’s abuses of Palestinians.
Muslims are being invited to strike a new ecumenical deal with Zionism in the United States, which may result in access to circles of influence in civil society as well as other benefits.
The only precondition is that critique of Israel is set aside and boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) or other effective forms of solidarity with Palestinians rejected.
This Zionist effort to co-opt Muslims, under the guise of “interfaith” understanding, comes at precisely the moment when the ecumenical deal with Christian denominations is eroding, as more and more people, including churches in the US and Europe, embrace BDS.
But sadly, there are too many self-selected, self-promoting and self-absorbed American Muslim “leaders” who are happy to go along.
It is time for those among them who do not want to be remembered as tools of Israel’s propaganda to end their shameful complicity and join with people of all faiths and convictions in expressing real solidarity with Palestinians.
Dr. Hatem Bazian is lecturer in Near Eastern Studies and Asian American Studies at UC Berkeley. He is co-founder and professor of Islamic Law at Zaytuna College, the first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in America, and co-founder and chair of American Muslims for Palestine.