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.