American Muslims must not become tools of Israeli propaganda
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
“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 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.”
Anwar happens to be the mayor of the Connecticut town of South Windsor, exactly the kind of figure targeted by MLI.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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