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


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.”

Rabbi Paley was, as the Forward noted, “speaking from experience.” In 2007, his employer, the United Jewish Appeal (UJA), had ”ordered him not to speak on the issue anymore” after he had publicly defended Debbie Almontaser, principal of the country’s first Arabic dual language public school, when she and the fledgling school she helped found were under attack by Islamophobes. Those campaigning against her tried to link her with “Intifada NYC” T-shirts made by members of an Arab young women’s group—a connection her opponents fabricated and that even anti-Islam ideologue Daniel Pipes admitted was “most tenuous.” Islamophobes who had already attacked the proposed Arabic dual language school as an attempt, as Frank Gaffney said, to establish an Islamist “beachhead in Brooklyn” stepped up their smear campaign when a New York Post interviewer distorted Almontaser’s response to a question about “the origin of the word ‘intifada.’” Almontaser was forced to resign in 2007 after public officials, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission later determined, "succumbed to the very bias that creation of the school was intended to dispel...."

Explicit or not, the “good Muslim-bad Muslim” construct is, along with Israel politics, intertwined with issues of funding. We learned about one such instance in our September 2011 interview with Rabbi Joseph Berman, who, as a rabbinical student, was a member of Jews Support the Mosque, one of the Jewish groups that stood up to opponents of a mosque in Boston. The David Project, a Jewish group that supports right-wing Israeli politics and targets those critical of Israeli policies, led a campaign (together with other hard-line pro-Israel groups and individuals) against the proposed mosque. This campaign, also supported by the local Jewish Community Relations Council, Combined Jewish Philanthropy, and Anti-Defamation League, had as its centerpiece allegations that current or past local Muslim leaders included “bad Muslims,” whom other Jews should oppose. People were afraid to support the mosque, Rabbi Berman said, because they feared that the David Project would “go after them” by persuading Jewish philanthropists that they were supporting the “bad Muslims” and should, therefore, stop funding their organizations.

Similarly, some Jewish funders set guidelines designed to prevent activism they consider anti-Israel and to deter groups, including those challenging Islamophobia, from working with individuals or organizations that the funders don’t consider “kosher.” In 2010, for instance, the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation issued new funding guidelines for the Bay Area stating that the Federation won’t fund organizations that through “their mission, activities or partnerships, endorse or promote anti-Semitism, other forms of bigotry, violence or other extremist views” or “advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a secure independent, democratic Jewish state.” The Federation suggests that groups check with the Jewish Community Relations Council about “potentially controversial programs.” (According to the Center for American Progress, the Federation gave $75,000 between 2008 and 2009 to the Clarion Fund, which was a major force behind the distribution in 2008 of the virulently anti-Muslim film, Obsession, which links Nazis to both Palestinians and Muslims.)

The Federation clearly instituted its guidelines to target groups organizing for justice for the Palestinian people and to prevent their political work. In doing so, these guidelines encourage organizations to conflate anti-Semitism with particular political positions on Israel/Palestine. As a result, the Federation is doing something quite different from refusing to support groups that promote anti-Semitism (or racism or other forms of oppression). In this context, Jewish groups that are trying to get funding—perhaps to co-sponsor a Muslim-Jewish film series, to partner with groups in support of proposed mosque construction, or to speak about Islamophobia at a Shabbat service—are expected to apply an Israel-related litmus test to identify the Muslims considered “appropriate” to work with. In the Bay Area, Jewish groups might find that working with “bad Muslims”—or with Jews who support them—can have a steep financial cost.

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.

As part of a vicious Islamophobic campaign, charges that she was “anti-Israel” weakened support for educator Debbie Almontaser in the Jewish community. As Almontaser describes it (in Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions, and Complexities):

I think that the majority of those from the Jewish community who publicly supported me are also individuals and organizations who have engaged openly in the search for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They have not made their litmus test of potential partnerships with others dependent on support for Israeli government policies, deciding accordingly which Arabs or Muslims are therefore considered “safe.” I do not think this is a mere coincidence.

The good Muslim-bad Muslim paradigm reinforces the Islamophobic assumptions on which it is based. Sunaina Maira speaks of engaging in "political resistance" to this offensive labeling of Muslims as "good" or "bad" as part of "an ethical defense of the collective right to express dissent, even 'radical' or heretical ideas." Within the Jewish community, as well as more broadly, such dissent must include refusing to apply Israel-based litmus tests and challenging the use of such tests. As with many other efforts to oppose Islamophobia, such acts necessarily involve addressing head-on how Islamophobia intersects with Israel, as well as considering how these issues interact within the broader context of U.S. foreign policy and the "war on terror."

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