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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.

Photo Credit: Morgan Rauscher /


One of the ways Islamophobia is perpetuated is through dividing Muslims into two categories—“good Muslims” and “bad Muslims.” Islamophobic assumptions are at the core of the “good Muslim-bad Muslim” paradigm. Mahmood Mamdani, who introduced this concept in his book,  Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: American, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, explains that it rests on the notion that, in a post-9/11 world, “unless proved to be ‘good,’ every Muslim [is] presumed to be ‘bad.’ All Muslims [are] now under an obligation to prove their credentials by joining in a war against ‘bad Muslims.’” 

In “Islamophobia and the War on Terror” (a chapter in the book Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Cenutry), Sunaina Maira characterizes as “Islamophobic and troubling” the assumptions behind “the categorization of good, ‘moderate,’ or bad Muslims.”These include basic Islamophobic beliefs that Islam is an inherently violent, evil, and dangerous religion and that all Muslims are guilty until they prove themselves innocent of the charge that they are actual or potential “terrorists” who pose a threat to the United States and its allies. The routine conflation of Muslims with Arabs, as well as with "those perceived to be Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim, such as South Asians,” means that the good Muslim-bad Muslim paradigm, like anti-Islam stereotypes and other aspects of Islamophobia, has an impact well beyond Muslim communities. 

In the United States, the separation of the world into “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims” is integral to U.S. domestic and foreign policy, which encompasses the “special” relationship between the U.S. and Israel and the “war on terror.” Within the mainstream Jewish community, the litmus test that determines which Muslims (or Arabs or others) are “good” or “bad” relates most often to Israel.

As American Jews who work with groups to challenge Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism, we are particularly committed to engaging with the Jewish community about the ways that Israel and the war on terror intersect with Islamophobia. 

Many groups in the Jewish community routinely set preconditions that determine which Muslims are deemed “good,” that is, “acceptable.” The pattern has been for these groups to scrutinize Muslim and Arab American individuals and groups before agreeing to work with, or even talk to, them. This often translates into Jewish groups working only with Muslim or Arab American groups that do not (or agree not to) publicly criticize Israeli policies, and insisting that these groups explicitly and publicly denounce anti-Semitism—a standard that, for example, Christian groups that are prospective partners do not have to meet. It also means that many Jewish groups work only with Muslim and Arab American organizations that publicly disassociate themselves from any Muslim or Arab groups that have been accused (evidence not necessary) of supporting pro-Palestine groups or having any alleged connections to Hamas or to “terrorism.” This strategy attempts to control which Muslim and Arab Americans are suitable to work with, while discrediting all others.

While there is often an abstract public commitment within the Jewish community to working in coalition with Arab and Muslim Americans, that commitment is often compromised by the “good Muslim-bad Muslim” paradigm. For example, at the 2009 Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) conference, the JCPA overwhelmingly adopted a resolution encouraging local and national Jewish groups to expand coalitions with Muslim Americans and to “urge public officials to take all available steps to prevent and end any harassment of and discrimination against Muslim Americans, Jews or others in our country who have been targeted by hate and discrimination.”

But Rabbi Michael Paley of New York City, speaking to community leaders at the JCPA conference, made clear that he had been hearing a very different message about working in coalition with Muslim Americans. He described such work as “dangerous” because of “how it will be perceived by other Jews,” rather than by “what is being said inside the room” when Jews meet with Muslims. As he said at the conference, “If you’ve gone on a panel with someone [Muslim] who 10 to 15 years ago took a picture with someone who is objectionable to some in the Jewish community, you’re in trouble.”

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