Stepping out of My Bubble: An American Muslim’s Journey to Jerusalem

Sep 11

20150721_150106This summer I traveled to Israel and Palestine to be part of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) organized by a Jerusalem and New York based Jewish educational organization, the Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI). MLI is a groundbreaking program that I felt was going to expand my critical understanding of the complex political, religious, and social factors, which undergird the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in the process help me better engage with the Jewish community in America.

Given my long public record of correcting misperceptions about Islam and championing the rights of American Muslims, why was I consorting with the so-called “enemy”? If one considers Jews as eternal threats to Muslims, then discordant opposition may seem sensible and engagement foolhardy. However, I hold out hope, “that one day mankind will … be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).

My journey, which was undertaken with 22 Muslim civic leaders, has unfortunately become a source of consternation in a small circle of influential activists. Particularly dismaying is a petition that casts aspersions on the program and its founder, Imam Abdullah Antepli.

While MLI has become the subject of attack, mostly by those with limited personal knowledge about its curriculum, overwhelming majority of MLI participants, both current and past, remain committed to engagement. Critics provide two arguments as central to their opposition. First, MLI violates the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which promotes boycott of Israel as a way to end its occupation of Palestine. And second, MLI “faith-washes” the occupation.

BDS as an idea may have some merits, but by pushing social and academic boycott, it fails to distinguish between the policies of the Israeli government and the activities of its civil society. Conflating the two, not only marginalizes Jews who are striving for solutions to this intractable conflict but also Arabs who live in Israel and are engaged in finding common ground with Jews. Secondly, a decade after its inception, support for BDS is far from universal even among those sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians. For example, Turkey has significantly increased its trade with Israel, while trade with Egypt remains robust, gaining strength even under the Muslim Brotherhood government. Meanwhile, mistreatment and suffering of the Palestinian people has increased.

Critics also attack MLI based on an inflammatory and misleading claim that it “faith-washes” the occupation. The MLI program did not frame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a struggle between Judaism and Islam. It accepted the fact that the conflict is a top concern and the most incendiary flashpoint between Jews and Muslims, not just Arabs and Palestinians. In addition, MLI’s curriculum neither justifies the occupation nor dilutes the suffering of Palestinians.

Rather than succumb to the narrative of perpetual conflict, I chose the path of engagement because the struggle for peace and justice requires mainstream American Jewish and Muslim communities making common cause, which is only possible in an environment of mutual trust. Given that nearly 8 in 10 Jews in the U.S. are either very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel, and thus Zionists, any engagement effort by American Muslims will have to find creative ways to meet and dialogue with Jews in Israel. And yet I am under no illusions that my actions, as a private citizen, would magically alter the brutal politics of the region.

Faced with vitriolic opposition, saying no to MLI would have been the popular choice, allowing me to comfortably stay within my bubble without risking to ask if there is another way forward. However, the words of Donniel Hartman, President of SHI, resonated with me, “As a Jew, I do not want to live in a zero-sum-game world with Islam. I yearn to live in a world where Jews, Christians and Muslims of good faith reach out to each other, live with each other, disagree respectfully with each other and most importantly, learn from each other. That will only happen when we have the courage to meet and hear each other.” Abdullah Antepli and Yossi Klein Halevi, a Senior Fellow at SHI, provided further assurance, “Our purpose in promoting dialogue isn’t to seek consensus but mutual understanding and respect. We will continue to disagree about many issues.”

As advertised, my teachers at SHI were just as eager to listen as they were to convey. For many of them, MLI offered a rare opportunity to have meaningful dialogue with Muslims. The seminars and conversations were intellectually stimulating and emotionally challenging. But I could not overlook the obvious. Israel prides itself in being a Jewish state, which implies a significant commitment to the values of Judaism. And yet nowhere is such commitment severely undermined than in Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. My surreal experience of walking to the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron is illustrative. What should have been a short trek took well over thirty minutes. Between check-points and settler intrusions the entry way to the mosque now meanders through a mostly empty marketplace. Between arbitrary shutting down of buildings, citing security concerns, and the paucity of Israeli action to rein-in settler misbehavior, life along the alleyway leading to the Ibrahimi mosque has become untenable. And yet the unremitting spirit of the Palestinian people shone through in the meetings we held with civil society leaders in Hebron.

Perhaps most illuminating was a visit with Palestinians living in Israel, who now number 1.6 million, approximating 21 percent of the Israel’s population. I was inspired meeting with Mohammad Darawshe from the Center for Shared Society whose mission, “is to build an inclusive, socially cohesive society in Israel by engaging divided communities … based on mutual responsibility, civic equality and a shared vision of the future.” Thanks in part to his efforts, Arab share of students at Technion (Israel’s MIT), stands at 21 percent up from just 11 percent about a decade or so ago, with the ratio of Arab men and women at nearly 50-50. This success has been greatly aided by Jewish philanthropists. Such small flowers of hope bear intoxicating fragrance of optimism.

Dialogue is an inclusive process that entails learning, not just talking. More often than not, dialogue leads to sustainable resolutions of conflicts, not just cessation of hostilities, because dialogue recognizes the humanity of “others.” MLI offers a modest pathway towards improving Jewish-Muslim relations by creating a safe-space for honest dialogue about each other’s narratives.

There are no guarantees for success and yet a program that allows the development of mutual trust seems a better way forward as it also offers an opportunity to mitigate the Islamophobia and anti-Semitism roiling our communities. I look forward to continuing my journey because I do not want my children and grandchildren to inherit a world where Jews and Muslims view each other as interminable enemies. Engagement is not appeasement. Dialogue is not capitulation.

This is first of a series from my visit to Israel and Palestine earlier this summer.