Open Letter to Wajahat Ali: Don’t undermine the Palestinian struggle

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Dear Wajahat,

Like you, I’m a South Asian Muslim. I am a woman who is married to a Jewish man. I, together with my husband, am active at a progressive synagogue where we live. I’ve spent years studying Palestine, particularly on the similarities between Israel and our shared home country of Pakistan, as the only two countries in the world created for a religious group. I’ve been to Israel-Palestine more times than most American Jews. My life straddles my dual Jewish-Muslim worlds, every single day. So I’m uniquely placed to tell you why your work for The Atlantic and your subsequent defensiveness about it are both problematic.

You’ve selectively chosen to respond to some of your detractors in a disingenuous manner (“Neither am I an agent of Mossad and the CIA forged in a Tel Aviv lab and sent to infiltrate and destroy American Muslim communities”), as if people are single-handedly blaming you for the occupation (newsflash: they’re not). But you don’t respond to your many other critics – many people, who, upon careful consideration, have a moral and principled stance against Zionism, and by extension, against the normalization that your involvement with a Zionist group entails.

I’ve engaged enough with the Shalom Hartman Institute to have developed a nuanced understanding of the group and its Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI). It is not, as you claim, a “program that promotes engagement between American Muslims and Jewish scholars.” It is a one-sided exchange – to teach emerging Muslim leaders about Israel and Zionism. It presumes Muslims are the ones who need to learn from Jews on this topic. It is fundamentally set up for an unequal exchange. The organization normalizes the Kibush (Occupation) and is deeply disingenuous, not to mention patronizing in their justifications for colonialism and oppression.

I hope you can see that the disgust of many in the Muslim community towards you is not because you “talked to Zionists” (why do you like clickbait and feeding into tropes about Muslims?). Many in the Muslim community talk to Zionists, either in a personal or organizational capacity. The disdain towards you is because you chose to engage with a Zionist group about Israel/Palestine when there were many other groups you could have engaged with to learn in a more nuanced manner. You then magically gained access to The Atlantic (a publication run by a former IDF prison guard) and similar forums to write about said topic. Please don’t kid yourself about years of work paying off in having a high-profile voice. There are plenty of actual scholars on the topic who will never be given the platform you have, because their views are distasteful to those who decide what voices get a seat at the table and for what purpose. Nobody is denying the benefit of a diversity of views on a given topic. But there is a difference between disparities in opinion and participation in a program that seeks to undermine the Palestinian struggle. You’ve been incredibly disingenuous about the voice you now have and why you have it.

You may have debated with Bari Weiss about Gaza on a morning TV show. But you’re still playing within the realm of manufactured consent. The Liberal Zionist party line on Israel/Palestine is that the “conflict” is “complicated,” and that “both sides” are to blame. And you, Wajahat, through your article and documentary for The Atlantic, seem to have drunk the hasbara Kool-Aid. You don’t seem to realize that you’re a convenient tool, trotted out to parrot moral equivalence under the guise of having dialogue and exposing oneself to other narratives –  all while never challenging the root of the conflict, of course. Liberal Zionists posit the settlements as the real problem (the occupation is 50 years old, not 70, according to them) – while ignoring that Zionism, in its most charitable interpretation, is based on the minimization of Palestinian presence on the land. You have fed directly into that narrative, and are now being defensive about it. That is why there has been so much backlash against you by the Muslim community.

Your argument that Muslims have selective outrage about Zionism is straight out of a hasbara playbook. Yes, there are terrible things happening in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Myanmar, South Sudan, etc. And yet people seem to care more about Israeli injustice. Are you implying (as many Zionists do, as a disingenuous way to shut down conversations) that they care more about this particular injustice because Jews are involved and are easy to blame? Anti-Semitism is a malicious brush to tar people with, but unfortunately one that’s used all too often. Yes, Palestine is a rallying cause for Muslims all over the world. Why? Because occupiers displaced indigenous people from their land, and then act as if they’re the victim. Other countries have done that in the past, but Israel is the only one doing that right now while masquerading as a Western democracy. They don’t do that in Saudi Arabia. They say: we chop people’s heads off in public, that’s who we are. To dismiss criticism of Zionism with a straw man argument of selective outrage is intellectually dishonest. Does that mean nobody has a right to complain about any human rights issue, ever, because there is always a worse violation happening elsewhere?  Muslims (and others) have a right to be outraged specifically at Israel without being labeled as anti-Semites. We are not responsible for assuaging the anxieties of our oppressors.

Yes, all communities need to be better about dissent. But all organizations have a right to draw a line where they see fit. Do you think the Shalom Hartman Institute works with Jewish Voice for Peace, a non-Zionist group that opposes ethnonationalism? Do you think they get invited to SHI’s talks and trips? Similarly, ISNA has a right to draw a line where they see fit.

Yes, the organized Muslim community needs to be better about what dissent it tolerates. My marriage to a Jewish man likely wouldn’t be recognized by some of these groups. I wish I could drag certain Muslim organizations into accepting all Muslims (especially Ahmadi Muslims), LGBTQIA rights, women’s rights, and intermarriage, among other issues. There are many Muslim organizations that are incredibly open and accepting, and plenty that are not. But Palestine is a topic where there is a clear right and wrong, a clear oppressed and an oppressor. Would you expect there to be a reasonable discussion in this day and age about “both sides” of Native American genocide and expulsion from their land? There’s a right and wrong side of history to be on regarding Palestine, and it’s up to you which side to choose – just don’t be defensive about it.

Lastly, have you heard of the Yiddish phrase “shanda fur di goyim”? Loosely translated, it means (Jewish) embarrassment at a fellow Jew for doing something shameful in front of non-Jews. I want to say that phrase to you as it pertains to our community, Wajahat. Those in power love promoting a Muslim voice that feeds into their narrative, because it distracts from the oppression they perpetuate. They also enjoy seeing us squabble in front of them like circus animals for their entertainment. Please don’t feed into that. Please be better than that.

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Wajahat Ali’s piece on the settlers for the Atlantic should be faulted for its claim that 400,000 settlers live in occupied territories. He specifically excludes the couple hundred thousand in and around Jerusalem. Occupied Jerusalem does not figure in the piece. This is consistent with Jeffrey Goldberg’s efforts to say… Read more »

Ugh, this guy is so smug and pleased with himself. He’s Pakistani and very intent on proving that he’s a tame Muslim so the important people will let him into the Atlantic and the NYT. He’s helping Zionists shove Palestinians backstage while he takes center stage instead, loudly proclaiming, “Hey… Read more »

watching the little video at the atlantic a 2nd time last night, taking notes by the minute. just for myself, as if my original disgust might have been some trumped up memory. so many teeth grinding moments as it seemed like almost an advertisement for settlers. the utter disgust when… Read more »

I just joined and feel somewhat pressured to write something “articulate and thoughtful” as we are instructed. I doubt this will meet that standard. I just wanted to say I appreciate this article because I saw Wajahat Ali on a recent news program and had the strangest feeling about him.… Read more »

I just read the Atlantic article and now I’m even more annoyed. First of all, he went to the settlement near Bethlehem and the refugee camp but didn’t make it to the old city of Bethlehem? It’s very picturesque compared to the ugly settlements and architecturally blends in with the… Read more »