UPDATE: the original version of this post listed Nihal Khan and Mohamed Uduman as participants in MLI. Though Khan posted a Twitter picture of himself and Uduman with members of the group at the airport before they departed for Israel, he told me neither of them went to Israel with MLI. I apologize for the error. The list also omitted someone who did attend, Homayra Ziad, who co-convened and planned the seminar with Imam Antepli.
Pro-Israel advocacy is as old or older than the State of Israel. Official Israel concocts ever newer ways to push the hasbara agenda. It carves up various markets (minorities, evangelicals, gays, etc.) and tailors specific branding messages to each one that’s designed to leverage maximum support. It devotes hundreds of millions (from government and private funds) to this venture.
One aspect of this project that’s less well known and deserves more exposure is outreach to Muslim and Christian communities. Yes, you read that right: Muslim. I’m referring to Muslims in the Diaspora, specifically the U.S. The Shalom Hartman Institute, a modern Orthodox think tank devoted to the study of Jewish religion and its impact on Israeli society, created a Muslim Leadership Initiative. It invited a group of prominent Muslim-American intellectuals, analysts, religious and media figures to study Israeli politics, Zionism and history.
The classes they attended were coordinated by Yossi Klein HaLevi, an Israeli-American journalist who once was affiliated with the JDL and a follower of Meir Kahane. Now Klein HaLevi has parlayed his former radical past into a selling point for a book he wrote on the subject, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist. He projects an image of someone who’s turned a new leaf and now is a wiser and older centrist, when this is anything but the case. Like many former JDL leaders, the rhetoric has become more polished, violence has been eschewed (at overt violence), and the rough ideological edges have been smoothed. But the basic ideas are the same: Jewish supermacism, support for Israeli ultra-nationalism, denial of Palestinian rights, etc.
Slick purveyors of hasbara like Klein-Halevi are only too happy to make common cause with so-called Muslim moderates like Imam Antepli. Like Margaret Thatcher once said about Gorbachev: “I liked him. He’s someone with whom we can do business.” In other words, Antepli provides a useful lever to access opinion-shapers among young American Muslims for the greater good of Israel.
The participants in the seminar were recruited by Duke Muslim chaplain, Abdullah Antepli. He is a disciple of Gulen, and devote of his controversial movement, which is currently in a deadly confrontation with the Turkish ruling Islamist party, with which it was once allied. Antepli appears to have no special knowledge of the Israeli-Arab conflict. His views are vaguely liberal. He appears to have taken on the project in a bout of extreme naivete or for other benefits it might offer him.
One of them is this invitation by Jewish Theological Seminary to participate in an interfaith panel at the Milstein Center, that is sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation (more on it later). I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a generous Foundation grant in the Duke imam’s future.
Some of the participants, like Rabia Chaudry, a national security fellow at the New America Foundation, appear quite naive about what they got themselves into. She wrote a Time Magazine puff piece with the deliberately incendiary title, What a Muslim Learned from Zionists. Others should’ve known better–including Wahajat Ali, a Al Jazeera American TV host, who co-wrote the Center for American Progress report, Fear, Inc, about the Islamophobia industry in the U.S. (more on that later).
For some reason, the participants wished their identities to remain secret. Though they may fear for their physical safety, I think refusing to take public responsibility for a decision to join such a project is impermissible. That’s why I’m going to name the participants I know (and though they’ve tried to protect their identities, their participation has been publicly noted in various social media platforms, and they themselves have publicly posted pictures of themselves and tweets in Israel). They are Rabia Chaudry, Wajahat Ali, Haroon Mogul, Homayra Ziad, Tahera Ahmad, Adeel Zeb and Omer Bajwa.
I asked Los Angeles Rabbi Sharon Brous, one of the faculty for the program, to tell me what subject she taught. She replied:
The session I taught was called Reclaiming the Dream and I taught about the perils of aspiration fatigue in all of our religious traditions, the sacred heart of Judaism and the ritual system we create to ensure that it is maintained.
Besides a bunch of new age gobbledy-gook, I wondered where the interchange with the Muslim students occurred as I saw no interreligious exchange in her “curriculum.” Which made me wonder how much of a dialogue MLI was.
The first Muslim-American response to MLI was written by Sana Saeed in The Islamic Monthly. One of the coinages I especially liked in her article was the term “faithwashing,” which this effort clearly is.
Tremendous pressure was exerted, presumably by Antepli and his supporters, on the editors to change or tone down her contribution and an addendum was added (and I believe later removed). Eventually, the publication asked Imam Antepli to write a reply which he did. Another strong piece of criticism of MLI focusing on the issue of BDS was written by Prof. Hatem Bazian in Jaddalyia. He also noted the hasbara value for Hartman of MLI and the ways in which participants were used in the fight against BDS.
One of these is noted by both Saeed and Bazian in their articles. Hartman proudly features this quotation from an MLI participant on its website:
“I think the breakthrough for me was coming here [to Israel, to the Hartman Institute] as someone who has always been very careful to frame herself as an anti-Zionist but not an anti-Semite and now not quite sure if I am an anti-Zionist anymore. I am not saying I am a Zionist. I am saying I do not know what I am anymore.”
This is precisely the sort of breaking down of Muslim solidarity for which Hartman strives. Rather tellingly, it describes MLI in words that can barely be mistaken for a propaganda initiative:
This program is unprecedented. Unlike typical interfaith initiatives, MLI is not a dialogue. Rather, the program invited Muslims to experience how Jews understand Israel and themselves. We believe that helping emerging North American Muslim leaders to develop a deeper understand of Judaism, the Jewish people and Israel has the power to change attitude in the North American Muslim community and in Muslim-Jewish discourse in communities and on campuses across North America.
In other words, MLI is yet another campus initiative designed to counter the impact of “anti-Israel” propaganda offered to college students across America. In this way, it is an offshoot of such program offered by Aipac, The Israel Project and Standwithus, except that it’s geared specifically to Muslims, rather than Jews. It’s no accident that the Muslim leader of MLI is a college chaplain and that close to half the participants were chaplains on other major U.S. campuses.
This passage also offers a telling portrait of the ideological goal of MLI:
The curriculum, entitled Encounter Israel: Independence, Peoplehood and Power, addresses a lack of understanding among Muslims about the way Jews see themselves not only as a religion, but as a people and a nation connected to a particular land. The curriculum deals with peoplehood…Zionism…and the challenges of Jewish sovereignty and power.
If that isn’t hasbara, I don’t what is. The question I have is–did the Muslim leaders invited to attend this program bother to read the material Hartman offered them describing it? If they did, how could they agree to join?
Another question that I’ve never heard asked regarding such pro-Israel advocacy is: we Jews detest proselytizing by Christians and other religions. We’re especially sensitive to this because as a religious group we’ve been decimated by mass violence and forced conversions. That’s why we’re angry when evangelicals attempt to “poach” our co-religionists. So how is this sort of pro-Israel advocacy much different? True, we’re not trying to convert them to our religious creed. But in effect, if you read the above passages closely, they posit a Judaism in which Israel has replaced religious belief or ritual as the centerpiece of Jewish identity. Israel becomes a religious creed. So when we proselytize among Muslims, attempting to convert them to Zionism or pro-Israelism, how is it different than what evangelicals try to do to us?
One of the most important and damning pieces of evidence that Saeed unearthed was that the chair of the Hartman Institute of North America is Amanda Berrie. She is the president of the Russell Berrie Foundation (and his widow), which has given to Hartman since 1986, and contributed $2.4-million to it in 2011, the latest year whose records are available. Wahajat Ali’s own Fear, Inc. report lists Berrie as one of the most generous donors in the Islamophobia industry ($3-million between 2001-2009). Major gifts went to MEMRI, the Investigative Center on Terrorism, Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Reut Institute. One wonders how Ali could possibly justify participation in MLI given this connection.
Yet another pro-Israel think tank announced a similar initiative to Christian community in the past few days. Yoram Hazony, an American-Israeli libertarian and Orthodox Jew who founded the Shalem Center, has become president of the Herzl Insitute. Herzl’s name has been appropriated of late by all manner of Israeli ultranationalists including Im Tirzu and Hazony. They proclaim the need for a rebirth of Zionism and the need to make it relevant once again to a new generation. By which they mean they seek to rebrand otherwise controversial or unpopular ideas like settlerism in new packaging.
Hazony has developed a close relationship with the Christian evangelical philanthropist John Templeton, on whose board he sits. Templeton just donated $2.2-million to fund what will be outreach to students at Christian colleges, who’ll come study Jewish sacred texts and theology in the Holy Land. The article linked above also claims that students will come from “Wesleyan College in Connecticut.” There is a Wesleyan University in Connecticut, but no college by that name. There are several Wesleyan Colleges around the country which are Christian-denominational. I’m unclear to which school it’s referring.
The portrayal of the project in the media has been purposely vague and non-political. Here’s the closest you’ll get to any detailed description:
Courses will include studying Hebraic tradition, the impact of biblical ideas on modern-day Israel and the Middle East, and the relationship between Jews and contemporary Christianity and Islam.
This quotation from the organization’s website is also suitably vague:
The Herzl Institute welcomes the participation of Christian and other non-Jewish scholars and students who see the sources of Judaism as offering an opportunity for foundational renewal within the context of their own nations and faith traditions.
But any perusal of Hazony’s political-ideological background leaves little doubt that he’s going to be drilling these young undergraduates with the Word embodied as hasbara, and proclaimed from Jerusalem to the world.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.