Protesters outside the Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York City. (Photo: Bud Korotzer)
A coalition of progressive Jewish organizations on both coasts yesterday slammed the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s honoring of the civil rights-era Freedom Riders while “engaging in anti-Muslim bigotry that is no less destructive than that against which the Freedom Riders protested,” as Alan Levine, a New York activist and civil rights lawyer who worked in Mississippi in 1964 and 1965, put it in a press statement.
Simultaneously, Jewish peace groups, Palestine solidarity groups and the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California held a protest against the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. The central demand of the protests was for the center, which runs the Museum of Tolerance, to be “a voice for justice on behalf of the Muslim community,” instead of a voice disrespecting Muslims.
It was the latest action to try and turn the heat up on the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which came out against the Park 51 Muslim community center and is building a Jerusalem branch of its Museum of Tolerance on top of a historic Muslim cemetery.
Jews Against Islamophobia, a coalition consisting of Jews Say No!, Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and American Jews for a Just Peace, has targeted the Simon Wiesenthal Center since mid-September. The coalition has conducted frequent demonstrations outside the Museum of Tolerance, holding up signs calling out the center’s “hypocrisy” and passing out flyers to passer-bys and those going into the museum.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, appeared on Fox News last August to say that the location of the proposed center, known as Park 51, was “insensitive.” The executive director of the center, which describes itself as a Jewish organization that “promotes human rights and dignity,” expressed similar sentiments to Crain’s New York Business.
The protests highlight the split within the American Jewish community over Park 51 and Islamophobia. For instance, Marc Tracy of Tablet pointed out last August that “out of the [Marist] pool of registered New York City voters, only 20 percent of Jews approve of the center, while 71 percent oppose it.”
In interviews, members of the coalition say their aim is to highlight alternative Jewish voices against Islamophobia and in support of the Park 51 project as well as attempt to pressure the center to reverse what they say is a hypocritical position. “As much as [mainstream Jewish organizations] want to marginalize others in the Jewish community, I think there are lots and lots of Jews who stand for the principles of justice together with other communities,” said Donna Nevel, a member of Jews Say No!
The coalition’s actions are meant to “let institutions such as the Wiesenthal Center know that they can’t get away with Islamophobic and anti-Arab racist comments and just assume that there’s not going to be any pushback,” said Jon Moscow, a leading member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a New York City-based social justice organization. Jewish groups’ opposition to Park 51 shows a “real misunderstanding of Jewish history in America, and to use the old phrase, ‘what’s good for the Jews,’” Moscow said.
In an emailed statement, the Simon Wiesenthal Center said that “the issue is not the right to build the Islamic Center, but one of sensitivity by religious leaders to the suffering of innocents. The Simon Wiesenthal Center believes that the feelings of the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks are paramount.” The statement went on, saying, “if the families agree to the Islamic Center’s proposed location, fine; if they ask that it be moved, we would hope that the organizers would be sensitive to those feelings and move the location elsewhere in Manhattan.”
Those involved with Jews Against Islamophobia are also highlighting the connection between Islamophobia here and abroad by denouncing the Simon Wiesenthal Center for the building of a Museum of Tolerance on top of the Islamic Mamilla cemetery in Jerusalem. The Center for Constitutional Rights, which has filed a petition with several international bodies to halt construction of the museum, says the project has resulted in the “disinterment of hundreds of graves.”
A three-part investigation by the Israeli daily Haaretz documented the building of the museum, reporting that “hundreds of skeletons that were buried in Jerusalem’s central Muslim cemetery over a period of some 1,000 years” were “cleared away from the site swiftly and clandestinely during five grueling months of nonstop work.”
Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, says that the Wiesenthal Center is using the word “tolerance as a fig leave, to engage in behavior that is anything but tolerant. There is a sort of fetishization of Jewish victim hood, but it doesn’t translate into identifying other forms of oppression, such as Islamophobia. In fact, by opposing Park 51, they are engaging in Islamophobia themselves.”
Vilkomerson says that given the history of discrimination against Jews in the U.S. and Jewish struggles in solidarity with other marginalized groups, the Jewish community should be standing firm against Islamophobia.
“It’s ‘never again’ for everyone, not just ‘never again’ for us. Therefore, its our responsibility to speak out when other groups are being targeted.”
Alex Kane is a freelance journalist and blogger based in New York City. He blogs on Israel/Palestine and Islamophobia in the United States at http://alexbkane.wordpress.com/. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.