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Debate over trip to Israel reveals fissures in Muslim American community

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Controversy is flaring anew in the Muslim American community over engagement with Zionism, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and what type of actions to take to address the Israel/Palestine conflict. The at-times bitter debate, mostly taking place on social media among politically engaged Muslims in the U.S., has centered around a trip to Israel a handful of Muslim Americans are currently on. The Muslim Leadership Initiative trip, which first caused a storm of controversy online last year, is being sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute, an Israeli and American think tank that has ties to the Israeli army and works against BDS. The institute receives funding from foundations that also fund anti-Muslim groups in the U.S.

Conversations about the trip have highlighted a big question amongst Muslims in the U.S.: what’s the best way to change U.S. policy in the Middle East? Is it through sitting at the table with U.S. government leaders, or is it through outside activism?

The Muslim Leadership Initiative trip is a 13 month-long program that includes two trips to Israel and Palestine, meetings with Israelis and Palestinians, and education in the U.S. about Israel/Palestine. “The goal of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), launched in summer 2013, is to empower an elite group of emerging and religious and intellectual leaders—including university chaplains, journalists, acedemics, and cultural figures—to influence the North American Muslim community in reassessing its preconceived notions of Judaism and Israel,” the Shalom Hartman Institute’s website reads. (The program page on the site appears to have been taken down; I accessed the page through the Wayback Machine.) Participants included lawyers, academics, chaplains and more.

A second group of U.S. Muslims on the trip is currently in Israel/Palestine. This second, ongoing program sparked a renewed debate over Israel/Palestine and the Muslim American community. (It is unclear who, exactly, is participating, though one writer, Amanda Quraishi, has been blogging about it.)

This week, groups including the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, the US Palestinian Community Network, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee released an open letter calling on the U.S. Muslim community to refrain from participating in the trip.

“We pledge to not give a platform to any MLI participant to speak about their experiences at our community centers, places of worship, and campuses and call on a complete boycott of MLI. We pledge to be in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and to do so by honoring the BDS call,” the letter reads in part. “We pledge to engage with Palestinians in our communities and support delegations to Palestine that are meant to highlight the reality on the ground of occupation, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing.”

The back-and-forth among Muslim activists began last June, when Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer and fellow at the New America Foundation–and now more known for her role in jumpstarting the Serial podcast-penned a piece for TIME Magazine titled, “What a Muslim American Learned from Zionists.” In the article, Chaudry said she has always been an anti-Zionist, and that it was a difficult decision to go on the trip. But ultimately, she wrote, she came to understand the “fears” Israeli Jews have of ending the occupation.

“After a year we built the trust necessary for a needed exchange of admissions. The Muslim fellows understood Jewish fear and the Jews’ deep desire for a homeland after thousands of years of being a mistrusted minority,” wrote Chaudry. “And Israeli Jews affirmed to us the daily devastation of the occupation and the shattering of Palestinians through which Israel was born. These exchanges between Zionists and pro-Palestinians were monumental.”

The backlash was immediate. In the Islamic Monthly, Sana Saeed harshly criticized Chaudry and said the trip was “normalizing and accepting what was and remains unjust.”

Haroon Moghul, a scholar of Islam and a prominent writer, was one of the participants on the trip. He told me that the trip was full of intense conversations that highlighted irreconcilable difference between the institute and the Muslim participants.

“People have suggested that this is somehow a co-opting program, that we’re basically being used as puppets. There’s absolutely no evidence of that. People have conspiratorial imaginations,” he said. He told me that he went on the trip because he “wanted to understand the mindset and the perspective of what is mainstream Israeli Zionism.” Moghul added: “I went in supporting a one-state solution. I think I got a new perspective on why a two-state solution is valuable. But I think I came back even more convinced that a one-state solution is the only realistic or viable option.”

But activists like Ramah Kudaimi say the trip is deeply problematic.

“You’re going on a trip with an organization that trains the same soldiers that oppress the Palestinian people,” she said, referring to a Shalom Hartman Institute program with the Israeli army. Kudaimi explained another central criticism of the trip: that it violates the BDS call.

“Any action that put Israel in the normal light goes against everything the BDS movement is going for,” she said. “The people who go on the MLI trip can come back and criticize Israel. That’s fine. But their engagement in this trip goes against the whole goal of isolating Israel and forcing Israel to be held accountable for its war crimes.”

No establishment Muslim group has come out against the trip. But New York University’s Imam Khalid Latif, one of the most prominent religious figures in the U.S., recently criticized the trip on Facebook.

Latif linked to an article by the Electronic Intifada‘s Ali Abunimah, who detailed how the Russell Berrie Foundation, which funds Islamophobic activism in the U.S., also funds the Shalom Hartman Institute. Moghul told me that the foundation also funded the trip itself.

The foundation was named in the Center for American Progress’ landmark 2011 report, “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America,” which was co-authored by one of the first participants in the trip, Wajahat Ali. Moghul told me, though, that the reason why representatives from the Russell Berrie Foundation were part of the trip was because of the report, and that Ali held a discussion about Fear, Inc. with the MLI participants and the Russell Berrie Foundation. The foundation, Moghul said, wanted to open a dialogue with Ali and others about Islamophobia, though Abunimah reported that the foundation continues to fund anti-Muslim activists.

The discussions over the trip highlights a larger issue Muslim American activists are debating: how to change U.S. policy towards Muslims around the world and in the U.S. The battle lines drawn over the MLI trip reflect those drawn around another issue—whether to attend the White House iftar last summer.

As Israel’s assault on Gaza was ongoing, the White House invited a diverse range of Muslim Americans to attend an iftar featuring President Barack Obama. Some Muslim activists like Kudaimi, and well-known groups like the American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, called for a boycott of the iftar because of U.S. support for the attack on Gaza, the drone war and surveillance of Muslims. The call for a boycott engendered an intense debate over the best way to advocate for changes in U.S. policy.

Moghul was against the call for a boycott, saying that “it accomplished absolutely nothing except to make us look incredibly weak and useless.”

Kudaimi was one of the boycott organizers. She said the calls for a boycott aren’t about whether to engage with the U.S., noting that many organizations that called for a boycott want to impact U.S. policy. But the boycott calls stemmed from a conviction that the U.S. government was seeking to whitewash its policies that harm Muslims–and that Muslim Americans should not participate in that whitewashing.

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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25 Responses

  1. Kris on January 13, 2015, 3:04 pm

    It is called “faith-washing.”

    “A Jerusalem resident was physically assaulted and battered as he attempted to speak to participants in an Israeli-backed US “Muslim leaders” delegation at the al-Aqsa mosque on Monday evening.

    “Some of the incident was captured on video by the victim of the assault, a frequent contributor to The Electronic Intifada who goes by the pseudonym Zalameh.

    “Members of the delegation are taking part in the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), a faithwashing junket sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute.”

    • American on January 14, 2015, 10:08 am

      ” “Members of the delegation are taking part in the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), a faithwashing junket sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute.”

      Nothing but a Zio program to see which Muslims are for sale that they can buy.
      There are always individuals in causes available to a higher bidder.

  2. ritzl on January 13, 2015, 3:35 pm

    A boycott of #MLI participants and experiences is just as wrong as the Hillel exclusion policy.

    Further, but diametrically unlike Hillel, it’s wrong because the overwhelming body of historical and ongoing facts and conditions that would be discussed as a totality favor the open forum. They profoundly support increased Palestinian solidarity and the rejection of Zionist mythology (and its effects) from an institutional/community perspective.

  3. JeffB on January 13, 2015, 3:59 pm

    FWIW the author of the Time piece (Rabia Chaudry) has a nice article addressing her Twitter critics that I think is worth a link:

  4. bilal a on January 13, 2015, 5:21 pm

    Being a Muslim in the West feels like Being “Charlie Coulibaly.”, especially after a few drinks.

    France’s First Free-Speech Challenge After Charlie Hebdo
    Provocateur and “comedian” Dieudonné could face charges after posting a controversial statement on his Facebook account.

    On Monday, the Paris prosecutor’s office announced that it will investigate a (since-deleted) Facebook post in which Dieudonné wrote a short missive about the solidarity march in Paris, ending it with the words “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.”

    “Charlie Coulibaly” appears to be a mash-up referring to Charlie Hedbo, the satirical magazine targeted last week, and Amedy Coulibaly, the shooter who killed a policewoman last Thursday and died during a stand-off in a kosher supermarket in which four Jewish hostages were killed.

    In a sign that French judicial authorities were using laws against defending terrorism to their fullest extent, a man who had praised the terror attacks in a drunken rant to police was swiftly sentenced Monday to four years in prison. AP

    • bilal a on January 13, 2015, 10:31 pm

      Recall that the Charlie mag ridiculed protesting Muslims shot dead by the thousands in Egypt, in a cartoon, “this Quran is trash, it doesnt stop bullets”. A new cartoon mimics the same message featuring the slain satirist.

      • Walid on January 14, 2015, 11:40 pm

        “C’est de la merde: it is is trash….”

        Bilal, the actual word used “merde” is “shit”. You are being too delicate. The initial affront is compounded by a poster that shows within it a poster of the original.

    • chet on January 14, 2015, 7:42 pm

      In the country where free speech is a supreme value. the allegedly criminal words:

      “Tonight, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.”

      For a full discussion of this case, plse see Greenwald’s article:

      • Walid on January 15, 2015, 12:08 am

        Chet, Greenwald is right about the double standard issue since France goes on applauding the trashy magazine as we can see by the success of its latest issue, but in the case of Dieudonné, it has to be put into the context of what the guy is about. He has made a career of mocking Jews and the holocaust and his Coulibaly outburst is more of the same provocation. Why didn’t he say he was one of the brothers?

      • OyVey00 on January 15, 2015, 12:22 am


        Coulibaly is black, that’s why.

      • Walid on January 15, 2015, 6:22 am

        I suspect it was because Coulibaly went specifically after Jews.

        I still think the whole thing from the magazine’s offices to the supermarket is a gimmick.

  5. Blaine Coleman on January 13, 2015, 5:36 pm

    When I think of boycott, I think of the loud public campaigns to boycott South Africa that landed in the newspapers and helped to abolish the entire apartheid state. Marches on the university President’s office demanding boycott. Marches on city council demanding boycott. That’s a boycott. That’s worth spending your energy on.

    But all of this huffing and puffing about a few pitiful saps who allow themselves to be paraded around Israel by Zionists? Yeah, they are wrong to do it, sure. Yeah, ADC and the rest are right to say so. But is that what they want to spend their energy on?

    I would feel a lot better about ADC (and the rest) if they were marching into city councils demanding resolutions to boycott all Israeli products. That’s a real boycott. Until they do that, they won’t be heard by anyone outside of little websites like this one.

    A movement requires loud marching in front of news cameras, demanding something. Otherwise, you won’t be seen or heard.

    • Walid on January 15, 2015, 12:24 am

      Blaine, what percentage of the success of breaking SA’s apartheid was attributable to the activities on college campuses?

  6. raincatsgalore on January 13, 2015, 5:45 pm

    As Machiavelli wrote – “divide & conquer”.

  7. wondering jew on January 13, 2015, 7:29 pm

    From the letter opposing participation in the Hartman program:

    “We strongly believe in the need for increased engagement by Muslim Americans with the issue of Palestine but only in ways that promote Palestinian liberation and comply with Palestinian demands.”

    Now isn’t that special?

    • Walid on January 15, 2015, 12:14 am

      “Now isn’t that special?”

      No, Yonah, it’s lipstick on a pig, as are all other Arab normalization measures with the Zionists.

  8. jon s on January 14, 2015, 3:57 am

    Personally, I’ve had the priviledge of attending several Hartman Institute seminars and functions. The institute is a bastion of humanism , pluralism and learning

  9. a blah chick on January 14, 2015, 4:10 pm

    When are we going to see members of the Zionist elite touring a refugee camp or an Arab town?

    • JeffB on January 14, 2015, 5:47 pm

      I went to several Arab towns a few weeks backs. I’m not part of the “The Zionist elite” or anything but Jews go where they can. Heck my family and myself would have liked to have seen more (i.e spent more) if the Palestinians had a more developed tourist infrastructure. But a lot of the good stuff has decayed since 2nd intifada.

      • Walid on January 15, 2015, 12:20 am

        “but Jews go where they can …”

        JeffB, Jews go where they want, they have the guns.

    • jon s on January 15, 2015, 1:24 am

      Last time I toured a refugee camp it was in an Armoured Personnel Carrier.
      But that was a long time ago , and I’m not a member of the” Zionist elite”.

      • amigo on January 15, 2015, 10:39 am

        “Last time I toured a refugee camp it was in an Armoured Personnel Carrier. ” jon s

        The trials and tribulations of being a member of the occupying forces .Did you have a lawn mower on board.

        All zionists are elite. At least they think they are.

      • a blah chick on January 15, 2015, 1:22 pm

        Nothing like showing up at your cousin’s BBQ in an APC to put everyone at ease.

  10. JeffB on January 15, 2015, 12:47 am


    “but Jews go where they can …”
    JeffB, Jews go where they want, they have the guns.

    No they don’t. There are restrictions on their movement and activities. For example this very group got to go inside Al-Aqsa and took some nice pictures for their blog. I wasn’t allowed to go and was there almost exactly the same time. The limited times it was open to non muslims the buildings themselves were kept closed. There are towns I’m not allowed to go to.

    I’m not going to argue it isn’t in my favor of where I can go vs. where a native or tourist Muslim can go. But it isn’t 100-0.

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