Don’t let Pamela Geller speak for American Jews

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DC bus ad (Photo: Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images)
DC bus ad (Photo: Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images)

It is high time to uproot Islamophobia from Jewish communities #muslimjewishunity

When I heard that Pamela Geller had decided to adorn our DC metro area buses with Islam-bashing ads featuring images of Hitler shaking the hand of Hajj Amin El-Husseini, I wasn’t outraged, just exasperated. Our nation’s cities have been dealing with her garbage for about two years now, since a district court in New York struck down an MTA policy that refused to allow on public transit “demeaning” advertisements to racial or other protected groups.

I view this latest of Geller’s public tantrums, however, as a unique opportunity and a challenge for American Jews. In the United States today, there are numerous mosques and Muslim religious centers facing hostility from their surrounding communities. EEOC reports that since the September 11, 2001, attacks, Muslims report a more than 250% increase of workplace discrimination based on religion or national origin. Countless American Muslims report harassment and discrimination at our country’s airports due to cumbersome and overbroad travel watchlists. There are reports of the FBI placing informants in Muslim institutions to sow discord and recruit terrorists. And of course, there is a whole cable news channel devoted to the idea that Muslims are trying to stealthily subvert our Constitution to replace it with shari’a law.

All of the mistrust, prejudices, and abuses that Muslims face in the post 9/11 world are things Jews should be quite familiar with. It was not so long ago that prominent public figures like Father Coughlin and Henry Ford proclaimed publicly that Jews were enemies of American values, that our leaders were secretly maneuvering to undermine the Constitution in favor of an anti-Christian state, and that we were simply not to be trusted. This resulted in pervasive discrimination that permeated all aspects of our lives, from where we went to school to where we lived and where we felt safe to walk. Our American Jewish history provides an important backdrop for the solidarity that we could show to our American Muslim brothers and sisters, should we be so inclined. So, why is Pamela Geller a welcome guest speaker at synagogues across the country? Why does she get so much of her support from right wing, pro-Israel Jews?

We certainly see Jewish organizations, such as the ADL, issue press releases with condemnations and articles like this one from Mira Sucharov that call for Muslims and Jews to “dialogue.” But Muslims need and deserve much more from us than mere words. Our Jewish leaders and rabbis should be the ones on Fox News calling out those who foment prejudice against Muslims. Our Jewish organizations should be reaching out to support Muslim civil society organizations with common concerns about the rights of religious minorities in America and putting an end to discrimination. Instead, we see organizations like ADL repeating baseless accusations of terrorist ties. This only foments unjustified prejudice against the entire American Muslim community and prevents the bridges between us from being built.

It does not advance the interests of Jews to cherry pick verses from the Quran, distort their meaning, and then insist that Islam is anti-Semitic. Denigrating Islam will not solve Israel’s problems in the world. Other writers have done an excellent job of explaining why Geller’s assertions about antisemitism and the Quran are completely off the wall, but this does not stop Jewish Americans, some of whom are members of my own family, from indulging in grotesque and ugly stereotyping of Muslims while claiming they are simply defending the rights of Jews.

There is no question that American Muslims have a lot to learn about the experience of American Jews. I have personally had enriching discussions with young Muslims who had questions about Jewish religious practice, who were curious about my own experience of anti-Semitism, who wanted to understand the European history that led to the Holocaust, who wanted to better understand why they faced such hostility when they attempt to talk about Palestinian rights on their campuses. But, these conversations would never have been possible if I had hedged on the issue of Muslim civil rights. We cannot reasonably expect Muslims to take a strong stand against anti-Jewish oppression if we refuse to uproot Islamophobia from our own communities.

Islamophobes divide us to push their agenda, to foment fear, and thereby raise their own public profiles. Their place in our public discourse has nothing to do with keeping Jews, Israelis, Americans or anyone else safe. Instead of giving into this kind of emotionalism and demagoguery, we owe it to ourselves and to our children and to all the generations that come after them to support Muslim civil rights in America robustly, not reluctantly.

Frankly, if it weren’t for the crazed debate over Israel, it would be a no-brainer.

Tweet your thoughts on this article #MuslimJewishUnity

This post first appeared on Rachel Roberts’s blog. 

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A really wonderful article. Thank you Rachel Roberts.

I do believe that it is only the ‘Jewish community’ that can muzzle the rabid Geller and her ilk.

Rachel, I hope saner heads prevail, however, there is a lot of work to be done. While I believe that most American Jews would balk at the kind of overt anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry and prejudice that Geller traffics in, the overwhelming support for Israel — regardless of its actions — and the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice that appears to undergird much of that support, demonstrates to me that the overwhelming concensus of the American… Read more »

If Geller can do this, it should be acceptable (especially to her) for someone to post an ad quoting Shapira/”The King’s Torah.” From Haaretz The prohibition ‘Thou Shalt Not Murder’ applies only “to a Jew who kills a Jew,” write Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur of the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar. Non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature” and attacks on them “curb their evil inclination,” while babies and children of Israel’s enemies may… Read more »

Wow, you might just bother mentioning, in the interest of full disclosure, that she recently worked for CAIR as a lawyer.

I wonder how the following would look on DC buses.Maybe a copy of both letters sent to the Nazis should adorn buses and burst Geller,s racist diatribe. “Lehi split from the Irgun militant group in 1940 in order to continue fighting the British during World War II. Lehi initially sought alliance with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, offering to fight alongside them against the British in return for the transfer of all Jews from Nazi-occupied… Read more »