By now we know that hateful rhetoric provides the scaffolding upon which extremists justify their violent acts. But often, we fail to recognize when the rhetoric of our public discourse crosses the line from legitimate critique into these hateful tropes.
It’s why many Jews find Rep. Ilhan Omar’s tweets and statements abhorrent, even as many Muslims struggle to understand why what she said was so bad. Muslims hear a thoughtful critique of the Israel lobby. Jews hear the Cliff’s Notes version of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — rife with undertones of financial control and global conspiracy.
But Omar and her Muslim defenders are not the only ones to cross this line from legitimate critique into stereotype-ridden language. We in the Jewish community are often guilty of the same. To many Jews the common criticism of Muslim leaders and organizations rests on solid reasoning, even as Muslims mentally check the box of almost every recognizable Islamophobic trope. Linking Muslim public figures to terrorism no matter how many degrees of separation? Check. Accusations of Muslim intent to govern America by Islamic law? Check. Contorting and curating facts to paint a narrative that a Muslim elected official is actually a terrorist plant? Check.
There are real communal disagreements between Muslims and Jews. I personally get frustrated with our differences. In recent months, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) — a Muslim-American civil rights organization — spearheaded an effort with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for Los Angeles to refuse federal funds allocated under the umbrella of “Countering Violent Extremism.” They claimed these social programs serving the needs of at-risk youth and resettling refugees were a back door for the government to keep tabs on the Muslim community. (Fact check: They weren’t). I was heartbroken for the extraordinary organizations that did not receive needed funding because CAIR’s campaign worked. I also disagree with what I consider to be CAIR’s lack of a nuanced view of the Israel-Palestine conflict and how they wielded it as a divisive wedge at the Women’s March. I question whether such confrontational tactics are ultimately the best strategy for furthering the rights and interests of Muslim Americans.
“What will it take for us … to stand shoulder to shoulder against the rhetoric that targets us both as unwanted minorities?”
But I recognize the difference between political acts I disagree with and political acts that are acts of terror. Calling CAIR or any other Muslim organization or leader who participates legitimately in the American public discourse “terrorists” crosses the line into Islamophobia. These accusations are no less problematic than the ones leveraged against Jews of controlling American foreign policy with our money and our influence.
The deepest irony of the public conversation between Muslims and Jews is that we share the same fear — the questioning of our loyalty to America. And yet, we fail to recognize how freely we engage in this accusation of treason against each other.
In spite of our commonalities as minorities in the United States, we too have inherited and internalized the anti-Semitic and Islamophobic suspicions of the larger culture around us. We have become almost obsessively enraged with each other.
Maybe we do it because we subconsciously think that if the other is considered to be the threat, then we won’t be. Maybe we believe that our country and western civilization has to have an enemy and we’re all touching our noses to say, “Not it! Look at them!”
Muslims and Jews can continue to have the same accusation-hurling conversation over and over, but I fear that leaves both of our communities vulnerable. I fear that we feed into the rhetoric that violent extremists from Pittsburgh to Christchurch thrive off of. How many more mosque and synagogue shootings do we need before Muslims and Jews are willing to do some collective self-reflection about the stereotypes we hold of each other? What will it take for us to work through our disagreements to stand shoulder to shoulder against the rhetoric that targets us both as unwanted minorities?
Muslims and Jews alike will be better served when we do the work to examine and question our deeply held stereotypes of the other and stop contributing to the rhetoric that tears the other down. Because, when we do, we actually just tear down ourselves.
Rabbi Sarah Bassin is the associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.