Why Some Are Calling Foul on a New Muslim-Jewish Council Affiliated with a Pro-Israel Lobby Group

The American Jewish Committee that helped launch the effort has a track record of Islamophobia.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

A new Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council ostensibly aimed at addressing “anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Semitism in the U.S.” is attracting headlines this week, with major media outlets trumpeting the initiative as a bridge-building endeavor.

“These Muslims And Jews Have Joined Forces To Tackle Bigotry In Trump’s America,” states the headline of a Buzzfeed article about the initiative, which the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) have played a role in launching. The Jewish Daily Forward ran an article posing the question, “Will Trump Bring Jews and Muslims Together To Fight Against Bigotry?” Pieces published in the Huffington Post and Jerusalem Post lean heavily on remarks from Robert Silverman, AJC director of Muslim-Jewish relations, who presents the initiative as an effort to heal divisions.

According to a public announcement released by the AJC, the Council, which so far consists of 31 members, “brings together recognized business, political, and religious leaders in the Jewish and Muslim American communities to jointly advocate on issues of common concern.”

The Council’s stated goals are to “highlight the contributions of Muslims and Jews to American society, and aim to celebrate their contributions in the best traditions of American democracy;” “develop a coordinated strategy to address anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Semitism in the U.S.” and “work to protect and expand the rights of religious minorities in the U.S., as enshrined in the Constitution, so they may practice their faiths in full freedom and security.”

Yet, beneath the public narrative about the initiative lies a troubling fact: the AJC’s track record is marred by anti-Muslim campaigning, including promotion of key figures in the Islamophobia industry, as well as disturbing remarks from its executive director. Beyond words, the organization has used its clout to lobby for policies that disproportionately subject Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians to surveillance and criminalization—from the PATRIOT Act to political attacks on the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

Critics express concern that, without a reckoning with its own part in spreading Islamophobia, the AJC’s role in the council could further normalize anti-Muslim discrimination.

“This is definitely a time for interfaith alliance, for Jews and Muslims to be working together, but together in struggles against injustice, including hate as well as state-sponsored forms of violence and surveillance in Israel and the United States,” Naomi Dann, spokesperson for Jewish Voice for Peace, told AlterNet. “The AJC is continuing to do things that harm Muslims, and—given their track record—there is a lot of concern.”

Perpetuating Islamophobic rhetoric

In his December 2000 remarks to the Herzliya Conference in Israel, AJC executive director David Harris suggested that Muslims in the United States are artificially inflating their numbers in order to undermine the supposed Judeo-Christian identity of the country.

He claimed that “Muslim organizations are aggressively promoting themselves as a rising force on the American scene and an alternative political voice to that of the Jewish community. In   interviews with the media, for example, representatives of the American Muslim Council have put the Muslim American population at ‘over 6 million,’ and the press has too often unquestioningly repeated the number as if it were fact.”

“But 6 million has a special resonance, of course,” Harris continued, “it would mean that Muslims outnumber Jews in the U.S. and it would buttress calls for a redefinition of America's heritage as ‘Judeo-Christian-Muslim,’ a stated goal of some Muslim leaders.”

According to a statement released by the advocacy group American Muslims for Palestine, this argument ultimately presents Muslim-Americans as a “demographic threat” to the United States.

An examination of AJC’s track record in the years since Harris made those remarks shows that the AJC has repeatedly backed and amplified other espousers of anti-Muslim views.

In 2003, the AJC supported the nomination of Daniel Pipes, labeled an anti-Muslim extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, to the Board of Directors of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a government-funded think tank. "Rejecting this nomination would have a chilling effect on the important political discourse about the threat of Islamic radicalism," said Harris.

One year later, Pipes published an article defending the interment of Japanese Americans during World War II and suggested that this historical disgrace offers a model for “security measures on Muslims.”

In 2003, Harris trumpeted the book Jihad in America by Steve Emerson as a “must read.” Emerson is an anti-Muslim campaigner who made headlines in 2015 when he falsely claimed that the British city of Birmingham is a “no-go zone” for those who are not Muslim.

In 2006, the AJC granted Ayaan Hirsi Ali—also deemed an anti-Muslim extremist by the SPLC—the moral courage award. Harris proclaimed that Ali is “indefatigable in her efforts to wake us up to the dangers that threaten our value system, indeed our very way of life.”

According to Hatem Bazian, a lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley and current chairman of American Muslims for Palestine, the AJC has played a critical role in “providing a national civil society stage that contributed to the legitimization of the spokespeople and operatives of the Islamophobia industry. Showering awards upon Islamophobes and lavishing praise upon them contributed to the mainstreaming of their ideas and opening access to public policy circles.”

Lobbying for discriminatory policies

Beyond amplifying the voices of anti-Muslim campaigners, the AJC has used its political muscle to advance policies that expand the criminalization and stigmatization of Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians.

In 2000, the AJC also lobbied against the Secret Evidence Repeal Act, which would “put an end to the use of secret evidence in immigration proceedings,” according to a summary from the ACLU. AJC went on to support the 2001 PATRIOT Act and pro-mass-surveillance FISA Amendments Act of 2008.

In 2003, alongside organizations including the ADL and AIPAC, AJC helped found the David Project, which aggressively maligns Palestine solidarity organizing on campuses across the country. The group played a key role in the ultimately unsuccessful efforts to Joseph Massad, a Palestinian professor at Columbia University who focuses on the Middle East.

In 2011, the AJC supported Peter King’s anti-Muslim hearings. According to Suzanne Ito, writing on behalf of the ACLU, the initiative “sought to treat an entire community as suspect” and was “the latest manifestation of discriminatory attitudes and prejudiced policies cropping up around the country that wrongly equate belief in Islam with terrorism.

Meanwhile, the AJC has played a key role in lobbying for political efforts to criminalize and stigmatize the BDS movement. A freedom of information request submitted by AlterNet revealed that the AJC played a central role in pressing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to issue a draconian executive order last June aimed at blacklisting companies and institutions that support BDS.

More recently, the AJC’s failure to speak out against Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor who formerly headed the white nationalist publication Breitbart Media, has prompted former staffers to publish an open rebuke. Their statement declares, “we saw the millions of dollars spent on combating anti-Semitism from critics of Israel. But now, a man like Bannon has risen to a position of real power and influence in the White House—and you, the AJC, have failed to condemn him.”

Kristin Szremski, spokesperson for American Muslims for Palestine, told AlterNet that AJC is employing a “divide-and-conquer strategy,” by partnering with groups they deem moderate while marginalizing organizations they define as “radicals.”

“Those of us who hold non-mainstream positions, who are trying to shift foreign policy, who want the Israeli occupation to end, are lumped into the radical camp," she said. “They are using fear to divide us, and their objective is to keep us silent on the issue of Palestine.”

“I’m not going to defend a statement from 2000”

AlterNet reached Robert Silverman, the director of Muslim-Jewish relations at AJC, by phone and asked him about the remarks that Harris made at the Herzliya Conference in Israel. “I am happy to discuss remarks from 16 years ago, but it’s not where my real energy is,” he said. “Here’s where we are now, we’re working in alliance with mainstream Muslim groups. Whatever the past history of various Jewish and Muslim groups, that's not where we are today.”

Silverman accused critics of “cherry picking things from our past,” arguing: “If you look, it is not a balanced view of our history.” He pointed out that, in 2014, AJC supported a Muslim woman’s ultimately successful bid to hold Abercrombie & Fitch responsible for religious discrimination against her based on her wearing of a hijab. Silverman also noted that the AJC opposed an Oklahoma provision to declare Sharia law unconstitutional.

However, when pressed to discuss actions from AJC’s present, such as the organization’s lobbying for anti-BDS political efforts, Silverman repeatedly declined.

Dann emphasized, “It's great that AJC has done some things that are good, and also their record should be consistent. If there are things to cherry pick in their record, it's because they've done things that really harmful to Muslim communities. Just because they've done good things doesn't absolve them of those issues.”

Silverman went on to accuse critics of being “marginal” and “fringe,” at one point accusing AMP of anti-Semitism without providing evidence. “I'm not going to defend a statement from 2000. There's a lot of stuff on our website I would not agree with,” he said. “I can promise that there's stuff on AMP’s website, along with anti-Semitism stuff on their website.”

Asked to provide specific examples, Silverman refused, instead stating: “There are anti-Semitic tropes out there, and I won't give you a specific one.”

Dann expressed concern that Silverman made an allegation of anti-Semitism without evidence. “Making an unfounded accusation against Muslim communities, particularly those organizing around Palestine, is a pattern that we’ve seen that is really concerning,” she said.

Bazian argues that “if the AJC is serious about its attempt at a partnership with the Muslim community, then an apology is needed for all the Islamophobic content that was pumped into the airwaves over the years. The election results have unleashed an avalanche of Islamophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic attacks, however the anti-Muslim bigotry utilized by Trump can be traced, at least in part, to the work of the AJC and other pro-Israel groups that felt at ease in using Islamophobia to demonize Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians.”

Strategies of “co-resistance”

In a statement released on December 5, ISNA expressed support for the goals of the Council. However, the organization indicated that their role as co-conveners of the initiative may have been overstated in the announcement circulated by AJC. The statement reads:

Following the public announcement of the formation of MJAC, an internal inquiry revealed that standard reporting and approval mechanisms were not followed to secure formal approval of ISNA leadership to elevate involvement of ISNA to the level of “co-convener” of MJAC. We were thus surprised to receive the announcement about ISNA’s collaboration with AJC on the formation of the MJAC.

The efforts to launch MJAC, while laudable, are not limited only to ISNA and AJC. Rather MJAC is a separate and independent body comprised of over thirty individuals and organizations represented on the council. The co-chairs of MJAC do not represent AJC or ISNA.

The statement noted that “ISNA staff were involved in the discussions which led to the formation of the council.”

Reached by phone, ISNA declined to comment, instead referring AlterNet to their statement.

Dann explained that communities across the country are embracing other models of resistance against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. “Our approach is working in partnership with Muslim communities that are facing state violence and working as co-resisters to hate and state violence from the U.S. and Israel,” she said, highlighting the efforts of the Network Against Islamophobia.

Szremski emphasized, “We think interfaith dialogue and action are important, and we work in coalition with other faith-based organizations all the time. We want to work with groups that stand for justice and agree with us on human rights and international law.”

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Sarah Lazare was a former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams. She coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.