Written on July 15, 2014. Publication delayed due to conflict in Gaza

Should Muslim leaders attend the annual iftar at the White House given America’s military aggression in the Islamic world? Should Muslims engage with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation given the founder’s apocalyptic decision to wage an illegal war in Iraq? What if a Zionist organization wants to co-operate with the American Muslim community, show we reciprocate or turn our backs to protest Israel’s war crimes?

The dilemma associated with establishing such delicate and ethically ambivalent alliances recently surfaced again amongst American Muslims. This is time it is the Muslim Leaders Initiative (MLI) which is at the center of controversy. Organized and sponsored by the Israel-based Shalom Hartman Institute, the MLI is an educational initiative designed to ‘addresses a lack of understanding among Muslims about the way Jews see themselves’. It was created by Chaplain Abdullah Antepli of Duke University who describes it as ‘a unilateral, sincere Muslim attempt to learn and make sense of Judaism, Jews, Israel and Zionism through the eyes of the people and communities who self-identify this way’.

Designed to teach Judaism in an Israeli context, the program runs for 13-months and includes year-round long distance learning, two 12-day seminars in Jerusalem in addition to two retreats within North America. Rabia Chaudary, a Muslim activist and writer, graduated from the program’s first class and published here experience in TIME magazine. Several other notable Muslim leaders, chaplains and activist participated in the program as well. Their participation has garnered much attention, earned the ire of many and has started an important conversation about the relevance of such collaborations.

So, what are the ramifications of participating in such a program? How do Muslims go about collaborating with Zionist*organizations, if at all? I hope to discuss some of the key factors that come into play when engaging in such collaborations; first at a general level and then specifically as they apply to the Muslim Leadership Initiative.

Opportunities, and opportunity costs

If a Zionist group is willing to engage with Muslims who are outspoken critics of Israeli occupation and are prominent activists in the Palestinian solidarity movement, why should we be the ones to shy away? Remember the Irvine 11? Imagine if Ambassador Oren invited them over for tea- why shouldn’t they go? If there’s any one I want having tea with the Israeli ambassador, it’s the Irvine 11.

My point is that these could be opportunities to gain influence with people in authority and potentially build alliances with like minded individuals on the other side; any headway with them could lead to very real impacts. It is likely that the opposing side is reaching out to us for the same reason, but do we not have faith in our activists and leaders? To think that they’ll ‘convert to the dark side’ or somehow soften up is an unsubstantiated claim made in poor faith. If American Imams are meeting with the President, it is unlikely they’ll act like servile sycophants around him.

Collaboration with a Zionist group is an opportunity to reach out to an audience which we rarely interact with. It is a chance to share with them a narrative that they never get to hear because of the silos we live in. It is also a chance to understand their narrative, challenge it and critically assess the methodologies we employ in our own activism. Perhaps we can learn more effective ways of gathering support for Palestinian human rights from American Jews? Zionists need to understand that the Middle Eastern conflict continues because of their unflinching support for Israel – I think American Muslim leaders have a role to play in that conversation.

Furthermore, if we cut ourselves off from anyone with the slightest inclination towards Zionism, we are effectively cutting ourselves from mainstream Judaism. Zionist thought is entrenched in the modern Jewish psyche to an extent that they are indistinguishable to many. While things are changing, most American Jews still have a meaningful attachment and affinity to Israel; many still proudly identify as Zionists (though not always understanding the connotations of that term).

So, are we to abandon inter-faith dialogue with Jewish organizations out of fear of whitewashing Israeli occupation? Holocaust education and awareness could also be funded by Zionist institutions, what about participating in that? The key to navigating this conundrum is to understand that not all engagements are tantamount to approval, acceptance or legitimization of the one we engage with. Interaction is not an absolute endorsement; it is possible to collaborate with groups with opposing political views on matters of mutual benefit – provided that these groups are not working to actively harm our primary interests.

Legitimate Concerns, Ground Rules

The primary concern of engaging with a Zionist institution is its degree of affiliation with the State of Israel. There are hard Zionists that are active enablers and apologizers for Israeli aggression and its war crimes (think AIPAC, StandWithUs, JNF), and then there are soft Zionists. These could include anyone from groups like the Shalom Hartman Institute or a Jewish seminary that has pro-Israel tendencies. Collaboration with the former is essentially inconceivable while there may be opportunities to work with the latter.

The important question to ask is: What is their agenda? What’s the primary objective of their work? If their primary work isn’t conflicting with our interests, then there could be room for an engagement. This criterion essentially leaves religious and educational establishments as potential candidates for collaboration. A concern often raised is: are we not normalizing occupation by working with a Zionist group? This is a possible risk and it needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. If the institution is not complicit in defending and sanitizing the Israeli occupation then this risk can be mitigated.

Another import factor to consider is the source of funding; where’s the money coming from? Again, any program funded by Israel’s government or any of its parastatal agencies should be off-limits. What about organizations funded by individual donors who have a pro-Israeli stance? This is a grey area and requires more investigation; things to look at include donor profiles, the track record and the degree of independence the organization has from its funding sources.

Lastly, the objectives of the engagement have to be made clear- what are we trying to achieve and who’s the target audience? Are we working together on holocaust awareness, an educational event or perhaps a debate? Sure, we can discuss this. Are we to take high school students on a tour to learn about the bastion of democracy that is Israel or the high ethical standards of the IDF? No, thank you. Any kind of program that tries to remotely whitewash Israel’s occupation and apartheid under the banner of ‘dialogue’, especially to a naïve audience, is not up for a discussion.

There is also the question of the BDS (Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions) movement against Israel; what if the institution opposes the BDS? While opposition to BDS is a concern it doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. Similar to my earlier point, the vast majority of Jews still oppose BDS, so how far are we to get if we work only with pro-BDS groups? Making BDS a strict condition would also mean having to cut ties with many in the pro-Palestinian camp who oppose it. There’s room for discussion on how to go about implementing BDS, as highlighted most recently by Noam Chomsky. BDS is arguably the best strategy to combat the occupation; however, it’s not the only one. One has to consider their situation and act accordingly; as Chaudary puts it, ‘We need some people to push, some people to pull, some to protest, some to partner, some to litigate, some to negotiate.’

On the MLI 

So, what’s the verdict on the MLI? The program is certainly a unique initiative; its creation by a trusted American Muslim chaplain well aware of the Palestinian struggle certainly makes it stand out. However, in light of the discussion above, there are a few concerns that arise and despite Hartman Institute’s pluralistic vision, it’s not obvious that it is the best host for it.

First is the funding source for the program. I was unable to find details on this, but if it turns out that the initiative is state sponsored then it should raise red flags. Secondly, as pointed out by Sana Saeed, Hartman Institute initially listed the MLI under the ‘iEngage’ project in its annual report; a program designed to garner support for Israel by ‘creating a new narrative regarding the significance of Israel for Jewish life’. While this has now been changed, it raises questions about the ultimate goals of this initiative.  Also problematic is the institute’s collaboration with the IDF as part of the Lev Aharon program which is designed to train Israeli soldiers on military ethics and morality.

Lastly, as articulated up by Abdullah al-Arian, the program “promotes an Israeli narrative that seeks to conflate Zionism with the Jewish faith and legitimize an apartheid system as the fulfillment of Jewish nationalist aspirations.”  While this was one of my first concerns, I am not convinced the program accomplishes this based on the information available so far; especially considering the accounts given by Chaplain Antepli and Rabia Chaudry. Most of the program is consists of distance education on Judaism and during the 24-days that the participants spend in Jerusalem, there’s a considerable degree of interaction with Palestinians in the West Bank. If their goal was to legitimize apartheid, I could see more effective ways of doing that. I would like to hear more feedback from participants on this point; if they did sense this was a problem, I would hope that the first batch of graduates would speak up and voice this issue.

Choosing to work with those who hold views contrary to ours is always a contentious decision. Some try to reduce the stakes to binaries and absolutes, which is almost never the case. We can’t pretend to solve conflicts in bubbles; engagement does at one point become an uncomfortable option that needs to be entertained. It also takes an incredible amount of courage to explore these options and assess the benefits; for that I respect those who chose to participate in the MLI. While I have my reservations about it, I believe we need to be open to those who choose to explore alternative ways of supporting the Palestinian struggle.

It remains to be seen whether the risks of participating in this experiment will yield any constructive benefits and if the concerns raised will be addressed in the future. I believe there is value in bridge building initiatives such as these; they should, however, not come at the price of comprising our principles.

*I wish not to get into the complex discussion of what Zionism means in this article; the term has vastly different connotations for Jews and pro-Palestinians. For the purposes of the article, I am simplifying the meaning of the term to what would be agreed upon in general colloquial  use: Those that politically take a  pro-Israeli stance, subscribe to Jewish nationalism, have a common aversion to the Palestinian narrative and overtly sympathetic to Israel’s ‘security’ concerns.

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