What’s holding back Jewish-Muslim cooperation in America?

The debate over whether or not anti-Zionism is essentially antisemitism may be rooted in how we define Zionism.

A crowd attends a vigil outside the Tree of Life synagogue Tree of Life synagogue, marking one week since a deadly shooting there, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., November 3, 2018 (photo credit: ALAN FREED/REUTERS)
A crowd attends a vigil outside the Tree of Life synagogue Tree of Life synagogue, marking one week since a deadly shooting there, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., November 3, 2018
(photo credit: ALAN FREED/REUTERS)
On October 27, it will have been one year since the largest mass shooting against Jews in the history of the United States where 11 Jews were murdered on a Shabbat morning at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Congregation. It was, unfortunately, only the first of several terror attacks conducted by white supremacists against both Jews and Muslims in America and throughout the globe over the past 12 months.
On March 15, a gunman killed 50 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, while they were trying to recite their Friday prayers. Then, in April, another gunman raided a Chabad in Poway, California, where he killed one Jew and, not coincidentally, that same gunman was linked to an arson attack on a mosque in Escondido, California, just a month earlier. And most recently, a shooter attempted to raid a synagogue in Halle, Germany, on Yom Kippur that left two people dead.
All of these treacherous attacks were done in the name of white supremacy, and the attackers made virtually no distinction between Muslims or Jews. That said, it may seem natural for Jews and Muslims in America to work together to combat their common enemy in white supremacy. Yet, we rarely see formal partnerships between Jewish and Muslim organizations to fight for this common cause.
There may be several factors holding back Jews and Muslims from cooperating with each other, but one reason that may be overlooked is their different opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Naturally, most Muslims in America stand in solidarity with the Palestinians while the majority of American Jews are proud Zionists and supporters of the State of Israel. However, our conflicting alliances may then develop a zero-sum mentality that prevents us from cooperating on other issues that we do agree on. Indeed, many American Muslims may not want to work or normalize with people who are Zionists because they see it as a form of racism while most American Jews do not want to work with anti-Zionists because they see it as a modern form of antisemitism.
This zero-sum mentality may be further enhanced by their unwillingness to expose themselves to the other side. For instance, most American Muslims may only be willing to work with the few American Jews who are “halal” (the Jews who are opposed to Zionism, such as members from Jewish Voices for Peace), and the majority of American Jews will only work with Muslims who are “kosher” (the few Muslims who have embraced Zionism).
Nevertheless, if we are going to see more comprehensive partnerships between our communities, we will need to find a way to overcome this zero-sum mentality by developing more nuanced conversations about anti-Zionism and antisemitism.
BASED ON the discussions I have had with my Muslim friends and fellow Jews, I see the debate over whether or not anti-Zionism is essentially antisemitism to be rooted in how we define Zionism. For most American Jews, Zionism and the State of Israel represent their right to self-determination and core identity. Thus, to be anti-Zionist means you are against Jews practicing their right to self-determination and dehumanizes them by taking away their ability to define themselves. However, many American Muslims who describe themselves as anti-Zionist object to being labeled as antisemites and emphasize that they have many Jewish friends. This is because they see Zionism as a form of colonialism that has denied the Palestinians their right to self-determination. Looking at it from that perspective, anti-Zionism has nothing to do with antisemitism at all.
Rather than trying to come to a unified definition of Zionism, a possible way to overcome this division is by beginning conversations that allow Jews and Muslims to first understand what Zionism means to the other. For example, more American Jews need to understand what Zionism means to their Muslim counterparts and thus what anti-Zionism means to them. Reciprocally, more American Muslims need to understand what Zionism means to Jews and therefore what anti-Zionism means to them.
By better understanding what Zionism and anti-Zionism means to each other, more American Jews and Muslims may become willing to work together on their common interests, as they will begin to see that their opinions may not be so different. Indeed, American Jews may realize that many American Muslims may not be against the idea of Jews practicing their right to self-determination when you frame Zionism in that way. Similarly, American Muslims may realize that many American Jewish supporters of Israel are also critical of many of Israel’s policies and do support the establishment of a Palestinian state through a two-state solution.
Of course, much of this is all easier said than done and we should not expect the majority of Jews or Muslims in America to start having these sensitive discussions overnight. What may be possible, however, is for the few Jews and Muslims who do have connections with each other to serve as the bridges between their respective communities. The Jews and Muslims in America who work together or are friends in other contexts will need to be brave and begin these difficult conversations about what Zionism means to them and then bring back what they learned from each other to their own communities.
I hope that by Ramadan we will see more American Muslims telling their friends and family over Iftar what they learned about Zionism from their Jewish friends and more American Jews will tell their friends and family over Shabbat dinner what they learned from their Muslim brothers.
The writer is a contributing writer for the Israel Policy Forum and is currently pursuing his MSW at Boston College.


Tags Muslims