A Muslim Response to Anti-Semitism

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This speech was delivered at a special Tent of Abraham event at Temple Beth El in Aptos, California on October 29th, 2017.

There’s no question we’ve seen a sharp uptick in anti-Semitism over the past year. The Anti-Defamation League has reported that an unprecedented 167 bomb threats have been made against Jewish institutions across the country in 2017.  This is no isolated phenomena; all sorts of bigotry are flourishing in today’s environment—but especially Islamophobia. A civil rights organization has reported that the number of hate crimes in the first half of 2017 spiked 91 percent compared to the same period in 2016, which was itself considerably higher than previous years.

So, as a Muslim, I can’t help feeling a sense of solidarity with my Jewish sisters and brothers. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are parallel phenomena.

In many respects, what Muslims are now experiencing resembles the open bigotry and discrimination that Jews encountered for many decades after they first started coming to the US in great number. And I know many Jews recognize this.

Jews, for instance, were the first to come out in force against the refugee and Muslim bans. As a Muslim, I am not only grateful for this—it reinforces my conviction that Muslims and Jews must stand together against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and all forms of bigotry. On this point, Muslims and Jews have much in common.

At the same time, I have to admit that the Muslim community itself is by no means innocent of anti-Semitism.

Disagreements related to the creation and the continuing policy of the state of Israel have created tension between the two communities, which in turn has led some Muslims to adopt outright anti-Semitic attitudes. In some cases, they have taken Qur’anic passages condemning specific groups of Jews for betraying treaties with Muslims at a time when the latter were under attack, and they have wrongly generalized such condemnations to apply to all Jews—even though such condemnatory passages often point out that there were Jews who acted with integrity in those situations.

So what do we need to do in the face of all this?

First, we Muslims need to return to the traditional sources of our faith that endorse pluralism and show particular respect for “the people of the Book,” meaning, originally, Jews and Christians. We need to reflect, and call on all our fellow believers to reflect, on such Qur’anic verses as “Indeed, those who believe in Islam, and those of Jewry, and the Christians, and the Sabians—whoever among them truly believes in God and in the coming judgement of the Last Day and works righteousness—shall have their reward with their Lord” (2:62).

The Qur’an has many such verses, unmistakably advocating mutual respect across lines of race, lineage, and, yes, religion. We need to make non-Muslims aware of this too, to counter Islamophobic misrepresentations of Islam as inherently intolerant.

Second, Muslims must call out and denounce anti-Semitism whenever they see it, just as Jews must—and often do—call out Islamophobia. Muslims and Jews today are both under attack, and we need to stand together.

Third, Muslims and Jews need to get to know each other. Bigotry rests on ignorance, and both social science and common sense teach that the surest way to dispel prejudice is face-to-face contact. Bringing people together to learn from and encounter one another is precisely what my organization, the Islamic Networks group, does.

In particular, we bring Muslims and Jews together on interfaith panels and in such events as the Halaqa-Seder, where people from the two communities join together to reflect on the Exodus story as told in the Torah and the Qur’an. We consider the relations we have built with the Jewish community to be among ING’s greatest achievements. In the face of the continuing reality of anti-Semitism, as so ably depicted by Professor Deutsch, we pledge to do yet more.