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How the Jewish Establishment's Litmus Test on Israel Fuels Anti-Muslim Bigotry

Islamophobic assumptions are at the core of the “good Muslim-bad Muslim” paradigm.

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When Jewish groups and individual Jews don’t apply such a litmus test, they can easily find themselves criticized by others in the community for having relationships with those considered “unacceptable” Muslim partners. As Jane Ramsey, executive director of Chicago’s Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA), has said:

When the social justice people are talking about health care for everyone, there is general agreement and interest. In Chicago, we are working with the [Jewish] federations on some of these more traditional issues. But when we had a coalition-building project with the Muslim community, the federation tried to tell us whom we could and could not talk to.

Some of the Jewish organizations whose leaders we interviewed have firmly rejected an Israel-related litmus test in their work with Muslim or Arab American partners. Asaf Bar-Tura, coordinator of the JCUA’s Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative, told us in an August 2011 interview, that the JCUA opposes a strategy that involves “urging a coalition to drop a member. JCUA won’t do that.”

Such an approach has strengthened JCUA partnerships with the Muslim community. A joint Jewish-Muslim statement made “under the aegis” of the JCUA, at the time of Israel’s winter 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza, articulated the link between Islamophobia and Israel/Palestine and reiterated the commitment of the JCUA and other Jewish signatories to maintaining “open communication and continuous dialogue” with the Muslim American community, even during tough times. The Chicago-area signatories affirmed the belief that “the life of a Palestinian child and the life of an Israeli child are equally precious.” While the organizations, rabbis and imams, and community leaders who signed the statement condemned anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and “wanton violence, human suffering, and targeting of innocent civilians,” they also expressed their commitment “to our ongoing relationships, not contingent upon agreement (our emphasis).”

The Chicago-area mainstream Jewish groups were conspicuously absent among the signatories, with only three Jewish groups—JCUA, the Jewish Labor Committee and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom/Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace—signing on. Thirty-one rabbis did sign the statement, including the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, North America’s “oldest and largest rabbinic organization.”

Other activist Jewish groups have also refused to consider limiting their interactions to those Muslim and Arab Americans considered acceptable to the mainstream Jewish community. Journalist Esther Kaplan recalls the impact of such Jewish community monitoring (and self-monitoring) when she was director of New York City’s Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). In the months before 9/11, JFREJ had initiated an anti-Arab racism campaign in which it would work with different Muslim and Arab American organizations. The campaign began with a teach-in on racism that JFREJ developed in collaboration with Arab-American allies. As Kaplan says (in Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz’ The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism):

. . . there were Arab groups we were working with that mainstream Jewish organizations wouldn’t speak with because they [the Jewish organizations] had a litmus test around [Arab] groups’ positions on the Middle East and whether they had sufficiently condemned terrorism or Hamas. JFREJ got all these phone calls from mainstream Jewish groups who felt like they should be doing something as this wave of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim violence was erupting, but they couldn’t talk to any of these organizations directly. So they were phoning JFREJ to secretly find out what these groups were saying and planning. That moment clarified for me a role that JFREJ is able to play with Jewish groups who are so bound by intensely pro-Israel ideology that it blocks them from being able to confront some of the major issues of our time, like anti-Arab racism, the Patriot Act, the crackdown on immigrants, all the stuff we’ve made the center of our campaign work.

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