How fighting Islamophobia in the US is connected to working for justice in Israel/Palestine: an interview with Donna Nevel

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Donna Nevel is a Jewish-American activist, community psychologist, journalist and the co-founder of Jews Against Islamophobia, an organization that aims to publicize and combat Islamophobia. She is also an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and co-founded the Network Against Islamophobia, a new project of JVP. Nevel visited Tufts University on April 1st, 2015 to give a talk titled, “How Islamophobia Shapes Power, Politics and Policy,” hosted by several members of Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine.

As Managing Editor for Tufts PostScript, Tufts’ independent, nonpartisan political journal, I decided to interview Nevel because JVP was becoming a hot topic on campus and, as a Jewish woman myself, I felt compelled to interview another Jewish women about Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiments within the Jewish community. PostScript’s editor-in-chief decided not to publish the interview, insisting that it was too one-sided and lacked nuance, but I felt that Nevel’s words were relevant and powerful, so I decided to reach out to other media sources and publish it elsewhere.

Miranda Willson: What is your role in Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews Say No! ?

Donna Nevel: I’m a board member of JVP and one of the founding members of Jews Say No!, and we’re part of a coalition called Jews Against Islamophobia, which is based in New York City.

How would you describe yourself—writer, activist, educator?

Educator, organizer, and I also write. I’m a community psychologist.

How has your identity as a Jewish woman shaped your opinions on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and on Islamophobia?

I became engaged with this issue as a Jewish American woman many years ago. As I learned more over the years, particularly in relationship to Israel and Palestine, particularly the Nakba, the more I understood in much greater depth about what had really happened before and during the creation of the State of Israel. The Nakba , meaning catastrophe in Arabic, refers to the forced displacement of the Palestinian community that began with Israel’s establishment and continues to this day.

I’m strongly connected to being Jewish and connected to and committed to social justice. I grew up learning from my parents to speak out against injustice, and I took that seriously. I take it seriously. That’s why I’ve become part of and connected to the Palestinian movement for justice. I particularly do this work as a Jew. I think it’s important to hold our own community accountable and do that work within our community, to address these issues, to speak out against injustice and speak in support of a global movement for justice. It’s really a global movement—a Palestinian-led movement that is building across the globe.

What connections do you see between Israel/Palestine and anti-Islamophobia work?

Donna Nevel (Photo: Jews for Racial and Economic Justice)
Donna Nevel (Photo: Jews for Racial and Economic Justice)

I’m going to talk this evening in my presentation about a case that happened in New York City, which is what got me deeply involved in challenging Islamophobia. It is the case of a Muslim American principal, Debbie Almontaser, who was forced to resign from her position as the head of the first Arabic Dual language school in NYC because of an Islamophobic smear campaign against her and the school. Since then, I’ve been deeply committed to challenging Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism, which is connected to Israeli policies and the so-called War on Terror. I think that in the U.S., state-sponsored Islamophobia is very connected to what we see happening relating to the treatment of Palestinians. You have this propaganda that vilifies Muslims, Arabs, and those perceived to be Muslim or Arab in the U.S.

Looking globally, Islamophobic acts take place in the context of ongoing state-sponsored Islamophobia in the US whose foreign policy relies on Islamophobic premises, as it has bombed countries with large Muslim populations, and they are also perpetrated by an Israeli government whose foreign policies are buttressed by its equation of Islam with evil.

In the post-September 11th era, anti-Arab racism and anti-Muslim bigotry have become an entrenched feature of the American landscape nationwide. Many of the same people who promote Islamophobia also promote anti-Palestinian propaganda. It isn’t just about individual acts but it’s institutional. There are Islamophobic ads on buses and subways, which are terrible. But they’re particularly terrible because they operate in the context of state sponsored and institutional Islamophobia.

One thing that’s happened in the Jewish community is that, when it is connected to Israel, some people simply will not speak out against Islamophobia.  In this view, the world gets divided into the “good Muslim—bad Muslim” paradigm, whereby, as Mahmood Mamdani who the terms comes from originally, said “unless proved to be good, every Muslim is presumed to be bad.” So what happens is you get scrutinized. Some  Jewish groups will only work with Muslim or Arab groups that agree not to denounce Israeli policies, which would never be criteria that, for example, Christian groups would have to meet.

So, bringing back to our work, Jews Against Islamophobia  is part of the broader Muslim-led movement against Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism, and also does community education within our own community.

I know that students at Tufts who are critical of Israel often face criticism from supporters of Israel, who accuse them of anti-Semitism. How do you address this accusation, as I’m sure you’ve been told the same thing?

I think it’s extremely important to distinguish between real anti-Semitism and criticism of a nation-state, criticisms of the Israeli government. To call it anti-Semitism does a grave disservice to the movement for justice as well as to true anti-Semitism, and in fact, the Palestinian movement for justice is deeply committed to combatting all forms of racism. Frankly this attack is hitting way below the belt. If you want to address the content, then do that, but these false forms of anti-Semitism are shameful, and that’s what we’re hearing on college campuses.

What do you make of claims that there is a crisis within Islam–that the religion has struggled to adapt to the modern world?

I think there’s absolutely no basis in that. All religions are adapting to the modern world. I don’t think there’s any basis for Islam being singled out as it relates to the modern world. I think that that’s rooted in Islamophobia and goes into this narrative of Muslims somehow being different.

I would say that if you’re asking a question, it should be, why is Islam being singled out? For me, there’s no basis in that statement, the anti-Muslim rhetoric, and it reflects the Islamophobia that’s so pervasive. I think if you look at it rationally, it’s a question that, if you put any other religion in there, people would say what the hell are you asking, but because it’s become so acceptable to make these statements about Muslims, people ask it. I think we need to be aware when questions themselves are rooted in Islamophobic assumptions, we have to resist that, and we have to refrain from accepting assumptions that are Islamophobic at their core. There’s so much of that propaganda out there and it’s buttressed by our domestic policy and foreign policy that feeds into making it okay for these kinds of things to be addressed, as if it’s a fair question, when in fact, it’s not.

Why is Netanyahu such a popular figure in Israel? What are the long-term political impacts of his re-election?

Clearly, there’s organizing going on worldwide and in Palestine that’s speaking out against Israeli policies, policies that are in full violation of human rights, international law and decency. Netanyahu’s election has brought that to the forefront and I think the elections in some ways continue to make more visible what’s been happening for a long time in terms of what the Israeli government’s commitments or lack of commitments are, and that there’s actually no interest in creating a just solution, which would of course involve Palestinians being able to have their homeland. So I think the election is very stark and makes visible what’s happening, but it’s important to note that this is a continuation of long-term policies and practices in Israel for many years, and that the elections are a result of a long history of oppression of the Palestinian people.

Is the two-state solution the best possible outcome? Is it achievable?

The solution I think is desirable is one that supports equal rights for all peoples living in that territory. For many practical terms a two state solution is not even feasible given that settlement projects have continued to build on Palestinian land. The settlement movement has made any two-state solution not a possibility. As someone who’s been involved with this issue for a long time I’ve seen that happen increasingly. So I think a solution is one that requires recognizing what’s just. I think that what’s just is supporting the solution of justice in Palestine, which is rooted in equal rights for all peoples living there, and I have no doubt a solution can be found that’s really based on justice. But that’s very different form the Israeli vision of a state that privileges Jews over others. That’s not moral, not acceptable, and that principle of a state that privileges Jews over others and denies Palestinians their basic rights to their homeland is something we’re increasingly seeing resisted throughout the world.

There’s a Palestinian-led movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) that’s committed to holding Israel accountable to violations of international law and human rights. Increasing violence and brutality and increasing expansion of Palestinian land go against every principle of fairness or justice. It’s so basic. If you really take a step back, there are basic principles so many of us say we’re committed to, and so that’s all that’s being asked here, that’s all that’s being demanded, those basic principles that Israel has violated, since the Nakba, the catastrophe of 1948, the creation of Israel. The BDS principles are clear principles based on fairness and rooted in justice, and I think it’s important that that’s looked at as a framework. There’s increasing number of members of the Jewish community that are speaking out about this as well. In fact, there’s increasing resistance going on in the Jewish community so that the movement is growing and growing, and we’re one part of a broader Palestinian-led movement across the globe. it’s heartening to see more people from all communities speaking out and taking action and joining the movement for justice.

What is your advice to a student who feels that they just don’t know enough about Israel and Palestine in order to take a stance on the issue? What is a good way to educate oneself about the issue?

I’m committed to engaging and speaking with students. I always learn so much from students I’m engaging with.

So I would say that we understand  that there’s a lot of propaganda about Israel, it’s the biggest recipient of U.S. aid. U.S. foreign and domestic policy are wrapped up with support for Israel. Go outside some of those sources that promote government support for Israeli policy and Islamophobia, and search for information. It’s out there, and it’s accessible. Connect with students on your campus who are bringing narratives to campus that are rooted in actual experiences—Palestinians who are coming to campuses and saying what it’s like living under occupation.

We need to keep challenging ourselves, to keep pushing ourselves, to learn what we can and to actually become engaged with that information. Campuses are a wonderful opportunity to link the theoretical work with actually organizing on the ground. There might be an issue of unjust labor on campuses, that links to the Black Lives Matter movement, that links to justice in Palestine, that links to indigenous rights, so I would say look for professors and others on campus who promote that kind of critical thinking, who want you to challenge your thinking.

I’ve been extremely impressed when I’ve spoken on campuses, most recently at Tufts, with the level of passion, commitment, knowledge and openness to learning that I’ve seen. As a member of the Jewish community, there were stories I wasn’t told. They were out there, but I had to find them. I had been told stories, but when I did my homework and my research I realized that there were stories that I wasn’t told and I had to let them in.

In the case of Palestine, those who have been most impacted by Palestinian injustice best understand the problems and what needs to be done. Those of us who come to support that movement need to do so thoughtfully and respectfully, and we also need to go back to our communities and insist and engage in a way that will promote meaningful conversations. I’ve appreciated the ways the SJPs and the JVPs have promoted that kind of learning together.

The three principles of BDS are so clear and rooted in an ethical framework. They are about ending occupation of all Arab lands and recognizing the fundamental rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality, and respecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees. Propaganda can try to distort it, but I would say to people to go the source of BDS’s principles.

Also keep in mind that while [JVP] and I have positions on these issues, those positions are rooted in a long history that come way before us. This movement is about justice, and we have to keep moving forward, which the movement is doing, and really focus on what’s just.

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Excellent questions! This is a great interview, thank you!

“I think that that’s rooted in Islamophobia and goes into this narrative of Muslims somehow being different” This is important but Muslim difference is merely the vehicle by which the rights of the common citizen will be curtailed see below this astonishing abuse of process that utilizes the notion of Muslim difference in a heartening example of cultural sensitivity, its beyond belief. In the UK a Muslim MP has been deposed, having be taken to… Read more »

“PostScript’s editor-in-chief decided not to publish the interview, insisting that it was too one-sided and lacked nuance”

Ah, another proponent of “balanced journalism” in which not only must both sides be told in every article, but both sides must be given equal weight and credibility even when that flies in the face of real-world truth.

The kind of balance in which a pound of gold = a pound of well-nuanced bovine fertilizer.