The fracas over Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis shows that Israel devotees cannot distinguish friend from foe. For obvious reasons, Jews should not count Islamophobes among our friends.
It’s Pesach again and our people still aren’t quite getting the holiday’s lessons, especially this one: ואהבתם את-הגר כי-גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים [Love the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt]
After students, faculty and civil rights groups expressed objection, Brandeis University rescinded an invitation to anti-Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali who was to receive an honorary degree at its spring commencement. Citing its commitment to the free exchange of ideas, Brandeis invited Hirsi Ali to speak at a later date in a forum that would not endorse her view. Predictably, this did not stop Hirsi Ali and her defenders on the extreme right from crying foul and declaring that she had been “silenced.” More astonishing, however, was the reaction from Tablet Magazine, a Jewish publication. Tablet obsequiously offered Hirsi Ali their first ever, impromptu “Moses award” and stated that while some of her statements “ought to be challenged,” Brandeis should not have rescinded her award. The magazine also said the university subjected an “outspoken dissident…to public pillory.”
Well, let’s pretend that a prominent university scheduled an antisemitic public figure to speak and receive an award. I’m not talking about a critic of Israel or Zionism, but someone who openly opines that being Jewish is incompatible with Western values. Let’s pretend that the antisemitic speaker is himself of Jewish origins, who claims to denigrate our religion, community, and ancestry from a place of painful personal experience. Say this individual had called Judaism “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death”and had advocated for the closure of all Jewish day schools in the United States. Wouldn’t it be more than justifiable for a Jewish organization or two to have something to say about it? I sure hope so.
But let’s say for the sake of argument that Jewish organizations were to decide collectively that our antisemitic speaker should speak. Say that Jewish groups were to affirm that our community is tough enough and savvy enough to handle a rabid antisemite in a public setting. Say the Jewish organizations were to invoke the famous words of Justice Brandeis: “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Would the Jewish organizations be at all justified in taking exception to the university offering our antisemitic speaker an award? I think they would be.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali claims (and her family disputes her account) that she was subjected to various forms of abuse as a girl growing up Muslim, including female genital cutting. She has stated that the abuse she allegedly endured is religious in its origin and that this kind of abuse is endemic to Islam, a religion which she claims has no moderate voice. Despite calling herself an atheist and a critic of all religions, Hirsi Ali singles out Islam for special opprobrium. In an interview with Reason Magazine, she states: “I accept that there are multitudes seeking God, seeking meaning, and so on, but if they reject atheism, I would rather they became modern-day Catholics or Jews than that they became Muslims.” She goes on to state that she believes Islam should “be defeated.” When the interviewer asks her if she meant radical Islam, she states “No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace.” In other words, Hirsi Ali believes that Islam is incompatible with free societies and believes that pious Muslims are more loyal to their faith and their own kind than to the countries in which they live. Shouldn’t this sound at least a little familiar and a little troubling to Jews?
At Tablet, it seems not to be troubling at all. I think this can only be due to the fact that the debate on Israel has completely blurred our moral sense and our ability to empathize with the people some want to characterize as our ‘enemies’. Even though Palestinians and their armed organizations have Christian, Muslim, and secular members, right-wing Israel fanatics seem to find it easier to perpetuate the most pigheaded, unsophisticated stereotypes about Islam. How they think this solves Israel’s many problems in the world, I don’t know. But it seems to make them feel pretty righteous and it wouldn’t surprise me if it generates some money. Tablet claims that it condemned equally the cancellation of Rashid Khalidi’s talk at the Ramaz School, but these two instances can hardly be compared. Khalidi is a well-credentialed professor, a Palestinian, and a thoughtful critic of Israel. He is not merely a ‘controversial speaker.’ He has also never claimed that being Jewish is somehow illegitimate or suspect, the way Hirsi Ali does about being Muslim. He does not say that Jews should stop being Jewish. He is a participant in a debate about policy, he does not take issue with our communal identity or creed. The fact that Tablet’s editors would draw such a comparison is cause for concern because it indicates that the crazed tenor of the Israel debate encourages us to conflate a political adversary with someone who intends harm to Jews. It also seems that there is a section of the community that believes that casting Muslims and Islam in a negative light somehow adequately rebuts questions about Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians. This is obviously very silly and avoids the issues we must confront in order to achieve peace.
The Brandeis community and Muslim organizations did the right thing in challenging Hirsi Ali’s award and the university did the right thing in inviting her to speak in a neutral forum. It is sad that a Jewish publication is offering this woman an award in response when we should be the ones speaking out the loudest against her Islamophobia. This woman is not our friend. Nothing could be further from the truth.
For more on this topic, check out Ali Gharib’s excellent opinion piece in the Jewish Daily Forward
And thinkprogress’ roundup of the issue.
This piece first appeared at Rachel Roberts’s blog.