An Interfaith Trojan Horse: Faithwashing Apartheid and Occupation

An Interfaith Trojan Horse: Faithwashing Apartheid and Occupation

Editor’s Note: The Islamic Monthly publishes a variety of opinions from all sides.  Abdullah Antepli published his response to this piece here.


by: Sana Saeed

Interfaith work has the potential to create and sustain profound relationships across religions. 

But what happens when interfaith work becomes a trojan horse?

In this piece I explore the Muslim Leadership Initiative, a program which sends American Muslims leaders to Israel to study Judaism and Zionism and is funded by the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Zionist and anti-BDS organization.  I’ve broken down the narrative into five parts – the actual critique and deconstruction of the institute and program are towards the later part of the article.

The Background

Last week, Rabia Chaudry – a National Security fellow at the  Truman National Security Project and New America Foundation – published a piece on TIME magazine’s website, entitled “What an American Muslim Learned From Zionists“. In the article, Rabia reveals that two cohorts of young American Muslim leaders -their identities kept hidden because of the “risk” – over the past year have gone to Israel as part of an ‘interfaith’ program, called the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), organized by Duke Muslim Chaplain Imam Abdullah Antepli and Trinity College Assistant Professor of Religion Homayra Ziad; it was funded by the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI).

Chaudry’s piece was a follow up to a June 4th article written on her Patheos blog, which discussed the difficulty she, personally,shaloam faced in making the decision to accept the invitation. This was not, however, the first time Chaudry had discussed the trip. On November 17th, 2013, Chaudry gave a talk on her first of two trips to Israel, through the Shalom Hartman Institute, at Silver Spring’s Muslim Community Center. In the talk, she also mentioned that the participants reached out other Muslim American leaders and even shayukh  – who encouraged the trip. Up until last week’s TIME article, however, the institute behind the program had been left unnamed and other participants in the program have yet to be revealed (save those who have voiced their participation vis a vis social media).

The TIME article reduces the occupation to the displacement of “dialogue” and “both sides” (unsure if Chaudry means Palestinians and Israelis or Muslims and Jews) being unwilling to speak outside “their own bubbles”. Muslims, it essentially argues, misunderstand Zionism and thus misunderstand Jews and Israel. Therefore, to have healthy and holistic interfaith dialogue back in the United States, American Muslims must understand what Zionism means to Jews and what Israel means to Jews. At the  midway point of her piece, Chaudry even explains how  it was only after she finally met Palestinians, during her trip, that she understood that the “fear many Israeli Jews have [of ending the occupation] is not a figment of [their] imagination” as “the pressure cooker cannot hold indefinitely.”

Chaudry followed up her article – which elicited, albeit relatively isolated, an uproar of condemnation from many Palestinian Americans on Twitter as well as voices of support from other groups elsewhere on social media – with another, responding to criticisms about the Shalom Hartman Institute’s program and the participation of Muslim American ‘leaders.’ This blog post was, too, filled with deeply problematic and logically unsound arguments (see: ‘don’t single Israel out’, equivocating ‘jihad’ and Zionism; claiming not to speak for Palestinians while, actually, doing that with both words and actions). Additionally, it even mentioned that it was key to enable Muslim leaders “to use the language of Zionism to remind Jews of the ethical and moral callings of their faith.”

Because Muslims have a responsibility to make Judaism  inseparable from Zionism and tell believing and non-believing Jews what’s theologically up?

Criticisms of the articles themselves aside, the majority of the social media criticism was directed towards the existence of the program itself; the fact that Muslim American leaders would consider breaking, in effect, BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) by being sponsored, supported and funded by a Zionist institution seemed to knock the wind out of many. The inclusion of participants such as Wajahat Ali and Haroon Moghul – two well-respected and prolific Muslim names in US media – as opposed to the usual fringe-esque names we may be used to, set off a scurry of alarms and a tide of confusion.

What’s going on?


Speaking to the Man Behind the Curtain

To those who know him Imam Abdullah Antepli, the visionary behind the Muslim Leadership Initiative, is a a “beautiful man” with a passion for interfaith dialogue. In February of this past year, his interfaith efforts at Duke were featured in a Haaretz article chronicling the growing challenges of interfaith dialogue on US campuses with the growth of student-led BDS movements. I had the opportunity to speak with Imam Antepli last Thursday; like many others who had caught wind of the program and trip, I was livid, saddened and at a loss for words to see what I and so many others felt was a normalization of Zionism and Israel within our community through some of our most well regarded public leaders.

In our conversation, Imam Antepli stressed that the purpose of the program was to educate Muslim American leaders – those at the forefront of being in touch with young Muslims especially – about Judaism so as to better approach the question of Zionism and Israel that is otherwise made into the elephant in any and all interfaith dialogue between Jews and Muslims. This was, he said, just a pilot run of the program; he, along with the participants and the Hartman Institute were unsure of what exactly to expect from one another and from the experience. Nevertheless, Imam Antepli trusted the Shalom Hartman Institute, which he had visited for three years straight prior as a participant at the institute’s multifaith, interdisciplinary International Theological Conference (ITC). The program consisted of curriculum by the Hartman institute, of which the majority was originally created for American Rabbis.

The institute, founded by American Progressive Orthodox Rabbi Dr. David Hartman, is dedicated to being “a center of transformative thinking and teaching that addresses the major challenges” faced by the world’s Jewry. Following a progressive Orthodox Judaism, the institute also promotes Jewish pluralism, both for religious and secular Jews, and multi-faith conversation (e.g. ITC). In particular, it is also interested in looking at the relationship that diaspora Jews have with Israel.

Because of Imam Antepli’s own experience with the institute and belief in its principles and the sort of space it has cultivated for itself within the American Jewish community as well, he felt that the institute would be best suited to house the program. The line, for him, would be groups like the ADL and AIPAC.

antepliHe admitted, however, that there were shortcomings – most glaringly (and a central criticism waged against the program) the absence of Palestinian and Arab-Americans from the cohorts. Imam Antepli explained that in the original cohorts, there were a few Arab-Americans poised to go on the trip, but due to logistics and unforeseen events they had to leave, leading the cohorts consisting primarily of South Asians, a few Turks and one Black American. When I asked him the selection process for the MLI participants, he emphasized repeatedly that his goal was to have the proportional representations of members of the American Muslim community present in the program. Thus, because there are more South Asian Muslims than Arab American Muslims there would be more South Asian Muslims present in the program. Additionally, he continued, it was of dire importance to him that the participants be half men and half women – this was something he was completely unwilling, he said, to compromise on. In addition to these representations, Imam Antepli stated that he wished that there had been a more pluralistic Muslim representation, as all those who went on the trip were representatives of the Sunni community.

The Imam also explained how he had plans for a JLI – Jewish Leadership Initiative – which would bring Israeli Jewish leaders to the United States to speak with American Muslims and learn about Islam. This would be, of course, a plan for the distant future as opposed to anything in the next near while.

When I pushed about the crossing of the BDS line by this program, the answers seemed to be less than satisfactory. Imam Antepli did not deny the deplorable conditions of the Palestinian people or the ‘disgusting’ nature of segregated Israeli society; he minced no words in condemning the occupation and treatment of Palestinians as well as the Israeli attitudes towards both. Yet on BDS, he provided anecdotes of how during his conversations with Palestinians while they agreed with the importance and strength of BDS they also believed in the importance of Muslims, from around the world, coming to see for themselves the occupation.


Faithwashing Apartheid and Occupation

It is hard to ignore the obvious; it is hard to ignore that despite whatever good intentions and explanations there were and will be, a group of Muslim American leaders – many in the very public eye and with a great deal of social authority – went to Jerusalem through a program, albeit organized by an Imam, funded and supported by an institution that is unabashedly Zionist. That a group of Muslim American leaders traveled to Israel to learn about what ‘Zionism means to Jews’ to better understand Jewish connection to Israel and thus bridges, interfaith, dialogue and other such nouns.

And yet nothing about this is, unfortunately, surprising.

One of the most common tactics of Zionist lobby groups and organizations has been sanitizing the occupation and apartheid and displacing the actual cause and reason for the conflict. Zionist groups have courted Black college students and Latino leaders (with pushback), for instance, in an attempt to, as independent journalist Rania Khalek describes it, “neutralize the brown electorate.” She explains how in an attempt to thwart identification or solidarity Latino, Asian and Black Americans may have with the Palestinian struggle there is a necessity to, quoting former US Ambassador to the European Union Stuart Eizenstat, show how the conflict “..“is not a civil rights issue. It’s rather a very different conflict in which violence is being used and Israel’s right to be a state is questioned.”

This is, in its essence, what washing the occupation and apartheid clean actually is: to sanitize the narrative in which the oppressor becomes the oppressed or, at the very least, a relatable oppressor.

levievheartAnd this where what I will refer to as ‘Faithwashing’ comes in. Faithwashing is about changing the cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or, rather, Israeli occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine) from a mid-20th century Euro-American settler-colonialist project (that brought anti-semitism to the Muslim world) to a non-existent centuries long enmity between Jews and Muslims.

Using religion to whitewash Israeli crimes and dilute the occupation is nothing new. It’s relatively well known that Christian (Evangelical and others) often travel to Israel to visit holy sites as well as pledge support for the state of Israel – although not really in the interest of the world’s Jewry. What’s not as well known is that these trips are often, albeit not always, funded by Zionist groups interested in propping up support for Zionism and Israeli policies.

Now it seems that the attention has been turned towards mainstream Muslim American leaders who are anti-Islamophobia activists and well regarded within their communities. In the case of MLI – it seems as though good intentions have been turned into an opportunity for a liberal Zionist educational institution – Shalom Hartman Institute – to further its anti-BDS agenda.

The decision by these community members and leaders to go to Israel vis a vis a Zionist, anti-BDS institution is incredibly shameful and dangerous. Good intentions matter, but actions make the real difference. The bottom line becomes that this program should not have happened and should not continue as it undercuts the plight of Palestinians and normalizes Zionism – a racist ideology and institution that is antithetical to our own Islamic traditions of social justice –  within our communities.

Palestinian workers line-up at an Israeli army checkpoint next to the controversial separation barrier in the West Bank town of Bethlehem

BDS matters. Ignoring BDS is Ignoring Palestinians.

In 2005, Palestinian civil society released a statement making a call for the international community to commit to the Boycotting, Divesting and Sanctioning of Israel (similar to the one issued against Apartheid South Africa) until it complied with international law. Part of supporting BDS, beyond divestment from corporations and groups that directly exploit the occupation and Palestinians, is not enabling the very institutions that both directly and indirectly support the occupation, the status quo; that support Zionism, a secular ideology that co-opted religious narratives for nationalist aims, propagated by European colonial officers who supported the export of the so-called ‘Jewish problem’.

When an individual, who claims to be committed to the Palestinian Cause™, makes the decision to be associated with and use the support of a Zionist organization – however good the cause – they are, without any grey, breaking the BDS line and are normalizing Zionism. And there should be no mistake about what Zionism is and what it isn’t.

The Shalom Hartman Institute is actively dedicated to and engaged in anti-BDS campaigns.
It is hard to imagine that not a single participant in the MLI checked out the Shalom Hartman Institute’s website before accepting the invitation to the program. It only takes a few minutes to discover some alarming facts and associations – facts and associations that point to an institute that is actively engaged in fighting BDS on campuses and faithwashing the existing and emerging narratives on Israel.*

In 2010, SHI launched the ”Engaging Israel Project” or, IEngage – a project which has partnered with AIPAC. The goal of the project “is to respond to growing feelings of disenchantment and disinterest toward Israel among an ever-increasing number of Jews worldwide by creating a new narrative regarding the significance of Israel for Jewish life.” It does this by  “addressing core questions pertaining to the necessity and significance of the Jewish national enterprise; how a Jewish state should exercise power; why a Jew who lives outside of Israel should care about Israel; and what the State of Israel can offer the world.”

In other, less euphemistic words: IEngage is about saving Zionism and ensuring Israel’s support, as a Jewish state, both at home and abroad.

One of IEngage’s faculty is McGill Professor of History, Gil Troy who has been at the forefront of fighting BDS. In 2009, he and Dr. Mitchell Bard presented a position paper at the  Working Group on Delegitimization at the Global Forum against Anti-Semitism (seriously, click that link and read it). Tasked with the responsibility to “respond” to the challenges that would arise from the growing BDS movement, they emphasized that the fight against BDS was an “educational one” and outlined a three-pronged vision for fighting BDS:

  1. Israel Being a Cause to Celebrate
  2. Humanize Israel
  3. Driving a Wedge between Soft Critics and Hard Delegitimizers

The Hartman website  even features an article highlighting Troy’s efforts to fight BDS on campus, in which he said to have said “the Shalom Hartman Institute iEngage Project has been working for four years to shift the negative and doctrinaire conversation about Israel toward one that is constructive, thoughtful, and educational.” SHI president Rabbi Donniel Hartman is also quoted in the article in emphasizing how the campaign against BDS must be a campaign of ideas. Elsewhere on the website, Rabbi Hartman also discusses how BDS is “repulsive” and that it must be, once again, defeated through ideas, education  and, essentially, reclaiming Zionism amongst the world Jewry.

A key program of the IEngage project is the CLI: Christian Leadership Initiative, which preceded the Muslim Screen Shot-Annual REport-MLI- 2014-07-01 at 4.24.14 AMLeadership Initiative. The program, however, was not initiated by SHI but, rather, AJC – the Global Jewish Advocacy group that is also unabashedly and openly committed to fighting BDS. In May of this past year, the AJC discussed on its website that in an attempt to thwart any American Christian movement away from  supporting Israel it had established the CLI in a partnership with SHI.

CLI is a mirror program of the MLI – beyond just sharing a name. In fact, the description of the MLI program (co-directed by Yossi Klein HaLevi, who is a former follower of Meir Kahane and member of the JDL) on the SHI website makes it abundantly clear that the purpose of the program is not to teach Muslim leaders about Judaism (at least solely) but to educate them on Zionism and the centrality of Israel to the world’s Jewry. The curriculum for the Muslim leaders was, in fact, entitled “Encountering Israel: Independence, Peoplehood, and Power.”

Until Saturday, SHI’s 2013 Annual Report included the MLI under the IEngage project. When I brought this concern up with Imam Abdullah Antepli, he said that the MLI was not a part of the IEngage project and that he would, immediately, speak with SHI staff to have it removed. And within less that twenty-four hours, it was.

Thank goodness for printscreen:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 4.26.10 AM

While Imam Antepli was adamant that MLI had nothing to do with the IEngage project, it is incredibly telling that it is modeled after AJC’s Christian Leadership Initiative and that SHI included it under its IEngage project section in its 2013 annual report.

Is this a matter of thirteen months of miscommunication?

The program description in the annual report also reiterates – contrary to the claims of those who participated – that the interfaith initiative “is not a dialogue” but rather to help “Muslims to experience how Jews understand Israel and themselves.”And, perhaps most tellingly, also claims that it aims to “change attitudes in the North American Muslim community and in Muslim-Jewish discourse in communities and on campuses across North America.”

Emphasis added. 

The Shalom Hartman Institute’s interests lie not in fostering better Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations for the sake of interfaith, but rather in fostering relationships with key leaders within these communities – specifically in the United States – who have access to the youth in their communities and can help normalize Zionism, legitimize Israel and thus delegitimize BDS.


The Need to Reject The Zionist Narrative

There are more questions than answers.

One of the first things that struck me about the program, after I learned that it was associated and funded by the Shalom Hartman Institute, was that there actually isn’t any reason for Muslim American leaders to travel to Israel to study Judaism for the sake of interfaith. Was there really a dearth of resources in the United States? Or are Rabbinical studies only possible in Israel? Just as Qur’anic studies would only be possible in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, India, Jordan? Morocco has one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the world; why not go there, where interfaith between Muslims and Jews isn’t obstructed by apartheid walls and laws? Not only would it not cross the BDS line but it would also shift the focus from Ashkenazi-centric Jewish narratives to Sephardic.

Does it make sense for American Muslim leaders to work with an institution where, by the participants own admittance, the instructors claimed they had never interacted with Muslims despite living in a country where the majority within a decade or so will be Muslim? Does it make sense to speak of bringing Israeli Jewish leaders to the US to learn about Islam when their neighbours are, in fact, Muslim?

And are we now accepting, after years of rejecting, the equivalence of Judaism and Zionism? Are we actually sidelining anti-Zionist Jewish voices that reject the modern state of Israel as an integral part of Judaism, of their Jewishness (secular or religious)? Where do we get the authority to do that? 

Palestine is central to the hearts of Muslims all around the world, but that does not mean we try to re-write the narrative of the occupation on our own terms. There is a real need for interfaith understanding and work between Jews and Muslims and if Israel is a part of that work, then so be it. But we must not, in the process, allow ourselves, our communities and our leaders to be on the wrong sides of history and justice by normalizing and accepting what was and remains unjust.  

Right now is a critical moment for our communities to have an actual conversation – not a shouting match. There are concerted efforts to drive wedges between members of communities that may and do stand up against Zionism and the oppression of Palestinians. I earnestly hope we do not allow those efforts to succeed and I encourage others to write responses and engage on this topic. Let’s keep the conversation going.

*An important note: the Chair of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America is Angelica Berrie, who is the president of the Russell Berrie Foundation. In a 2011 report for ThinkProgress entitled Fear Inc., MLI participant Wajahat Ali revealed a network of organizations creating and feeding the Islamophobia industry in the United States. Amongst the foundations mentioned, the Russell Berrie Foundation was, too, included. According to the report, the foundation “contributed $3,109,016 between 2001 and 2009 to organizations engaging in anti-Muslim work”. Some of the anti-Muslim groups who received funding included “Counterterrorism & Security Education and Research Foundation, receiving $2,736,000; the Investigative Project on Terrorism ($100,000); and the Middle East Forum ($273,016.22).”

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