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By Yaman Salahi
In a recent On Faith posting, Rabbi Shmully Hecht of Eliezer, a Jewish student society at Yale University, criticized a column I wrote for the Yale Daily News. Sadly, Hecht employed a tactic that has become increasingly familiar in American discussions about Arabs, Muslims, and Islam. In my column, I argued that a conference sponsored by the Yale Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism undermined the lessons to be learned from anti-Semitism because it hosted a variety of speakers with a reputation for promoting racist ideas about Arabs and Muslims. My message was simple: you cannot fight anti-Semitism without also fighting racism against Arabs and Muslims. Racism is wrong because of what it does, not because of whom it targets.
I refer to the myopic view that asserts that Islam is the main impetus behind everything a Muslim does or believes. Accordingly, nearly every feature of Muslim life and political activity can be attributed primarily if not exclusively to religion. This approach makes the crucial mistake of treating Islam like a rigid, fixed set of norms and practices when, in fact, the way Muslims conceive of their religion is ever-changing and contingent on a variety of other factors. More importantly, it neglects to consider the role that those tangible factors play in impacting the way Muslims see their world and act within it – unsurprisingly, their motivations often are not purely or primarily religious. Although Rabbi Hecht claims to use “the same standards of inquiry” for Muslims as for others, his analysis of Muslims generally and particularly of Palestinians (of whom a substantial number are actually Christians) is informed by this selective methodology.
It is for those reasons that I must vehemently disagree with Rabbi Hecht’s suggestion that a quotation from the Hamas charter be used to litmus test Muslims around the world. Against the backdrop of 62-years of Israel’s dispossession and occupation of the Palestinian people, against a long history of Palestinian resistance that has seen the rise and fall of numerous political tides, Rabbi Hecht has chosen one line–a violent one, no doubt– sourced from centuries-old scripture in a decades-old founding document for a single political movement not only in order to judge the entirety of Palestinian history and society, but also as a litmus test for all 1.5 billion Muslims around the world.
We should not look either exclusively or primarily to Islamic scriptures to understand Palestinians, Palestinian politics, or Palestinian resistance to Israel for the same reason that we do not look to the Torah, the Talmud, and the work of Maimonides in order to explain Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement expansion plans. We should not look there even to explain former Chief Rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef’s recent call for the death of the entire Palestinian people and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. I do not think so poorly of millennia of Jewish tradition, practice, and co-existence with Muslims as to attribute either Israeli policy or Rabbi Yosef’s genocidal remarks to Judaism. I would, therefore, understand if Rabbi Hecht took offense to aggressive and unwarranted requests for him to condemn violent and racist statements and policies for which I have no reason to hold him responsible merely on the basis of his shared religion.
However, there is a reason why many people choose to adopt this methodology: it provides an excuse to ignore the legitimate grievances of people afflicted by violence or oppression. Take, for example, the recent statement by Martin Peretz, the neoconservative editor of The New Republic, that “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims” as he wonders aloud whether American Muslims deserve First Amendment Rights. These unfounded and deeply offensive notions are part of a political agenda that focuses selectively on Muslims. Relying on stereotypes, selective quotations, and misinformation, it seeks to obscure the role of powerful political, economic, and social forces in shaping the identity, beliefs, and politics of Arabs and Muslims around the world.
It is thus no surprise that interested parties, like Peretz and some of those at the Yale conference I wrote about, often resort to promoting a discussion of Islamic theology that seeks to demonstrate that Muslims are, by their very nature, incapable of participating as equals in modern society. To believe this – that ancient scriptures eclipse the tangible influence of foreign intervention, domestic tyranny, economic oppression, and military occupation in impacting Arab and Muslim choices and decisions – requires us to believe that Arabs and Muslims are so unlike all other people that social and historical forces beyond their control do not affect them. Indeed, why should others hesitate to inflict violence on Muslims if not even Muslims, argues Peretz, value their own lives?
Further demonstrating the political agenda at work, Muslims were not the only targets of the Yale conference. One panel, for example, inquired into the “self-hatred” of Jews who dissent against Israeli policy, as if criticizing the structure or actions of a government were a matter of blasphemy that, in effect, justifies de facto ex-communication from the Jewish community. Other panels targeted human rights organizations, student activists, and scholars who scrutinize the Israeli state – all in the name of fighting anti-Semitism. Rabbi Hecht ignored this important part of my column, choosing instead to focus narrowly and disingenuously on a comment I made about how predominantly discussion of Muslims figured at the conference. Indeed, Hecht’s post further demonstrates the political agenda on display at the conference and the racist ideas about Muslims that came to life there.
On a final note, I must make it emphatically clear that I do not wish, as Rabbi Hecht alleges, to censor the study of Jewish persecution. Anti-Semitism is for not only Jews, but all people to study. Indeed, in light of rising anti-Arab and anti-Muslim incitement in the United States, Europe, and Israel, there is certainly a great deal left for the world to learn about the horrors of anti-Semitism. If the purpose, however, of studying anti-Semitism at Yale or anywhere else is to justify or distract from Israel’s own racist laws and policies, or from anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States and the unpopularity of US policies abroad, then we have certainly missed the point – and that is a tragedy indeed.