The local Seattle Jewish “lifestyle magazine,” Jewish in Seattle, features a story this month promoting a “Jewish -Muslim dialogue group.” The group is composed of 20 individuals, who are Muslim members of MAPS, a Redmond-based mosque; and Temple Herzl Ner Tamid and Congregation Kol Ami of Mercer Island.
I was struck by the photograph that accompanies the article, which profiles both a Jewish and Muslim member of the group. The Jewish individual is Robert Wilkes, who’s also a board member of StandWithUs. It is a an international organization known for its Islamophobia and support for the hardline policies of Israel’s current government. Wilkes also penned a fact-free attack on me in the pages of the now-defunct Jewish newspaper, JT News. I demanded that the editor provide me a platform to respond to Wilkes’ attack. Initially he refused, but after some negotiation it published my response. Unfortunately, the Jewish federation, in one of those unfathomable history-erasing decisions, completely removed the site from the web. Thus only my response is available because I republished part of it here.
Wilkes also penned this venomous screed attacking both Black Lives Matter and the Palestinians:
Both have perfectly wretched leaders. Black leaders in America are con artists and a disgrace. They are a race-hustlers in a “business” fueled by anger. As long as blacks remain angry their “leaders” will continue to have a lucrative career. Similarly, the corrupt, undemocratic Palestinian leadership is equally unconcerned about the human aspirations of their own people.
Wilkes has also spoken on SWU’s behalf to a Christian Zionist group called El Shaddai Ministries, here in the Northwest. Video of Speeches by Rob Jacobs and Wilkes to the evangelical group are available here. Notorious Islamophobe, Brigitte Gabriel also spoke before El Shaddai audiences. It is also affiliated with Christians United for Israel, a group which detests Islam.
Needless to say, I was quite shocked to see Wilkes featured in the Muslim Jewish dialogue group considering his views about Muslims. This also made me question the motives and substance of this dialogue group, and those who participate in it on both sides.
In reading the profile, my concerns were confirmed. The woman who appears to be the leader of the Muslim participants talks about the best part of the dialogue for her being the Jewish desert called rugelach:
Muslims and Jews share the same ethical universal values connecting us to family and community service,” says Farida Hakim, who is active in interfaith programming around the region. She recognizes that they must sometimes respectfully disagree on politics. “We eat rugelach together,” she adds. “That’s my favorite dessert.”
This might even be called “gastro-washing,” the exploitation of ethnic cuisine to normalize the Israel-Palestine conflict. A perfect example is this New York Times profile of a culinary trip through Israeli-Palestinian communities in northern Israel. The writer appears to pride herself on identifying the hippest Palestinian cuisine and restaurants in the country. She visits them and speaks with the chefs about how they have adapted Palestinian dishes to the Israeli palette. Ironically, the Palestinian chefs never introduce any political or cultural content to their interviews. One of them had this to say about how to define his cuisine:
Arab food in Israel is modernizing, he said, because the Arab community is modernizing, its once-insular towns and villages slowly expanding toward the Jewish-majority cities that surround them.
As for how to categorize his cuisine, however, Mr. Alelam had less to say. “I don’t involve politics with my food.”
Of course you don’t. Politics complicate the enjoyment of food. Commerce and the dining experience trump any other “peripheral” matters. There are also Israeli Jewish chefs included, who have appropriated the cuisine of Palestine for their own purposes. It’s curious the author of this article never bothered to visit a restaurant in Palestine proper, or interview a chef based in Palestine. Why does an article ostensibly about Palestinian cuisine erase Palestine?
Returning to the Seattle dialogue group, the rabbi, in turn, reveals that he asked all the Muslim participants if they could ever embrace the idea of the Jewish State anywhere in the region. He seemed mystified when none of the hands of Muslim members were raised in affirmation:
One night, after facilitating the interfaith group for a few years, Herzl-Ner Tamid’s Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum turned to the Muslim participants. “Forget about specific borders,” he said. “Do you believe that the Jewish people have a moral right to sovereignty on any piece of the land we call Israel?” No hands went up.
He had no idea why his articulation of the issue would have aroused such an underwhelming response among Muslims.
The passage following this one reveals the rabbi’s motives and utter cluelessness concerning Muslim sensitivities:
It was a moment of truth. What could all this work be for, if Jews have no right to self-determination in Israel? Yet no one dropped out. “In the end,” Rosenbaum says, “I decided, look, we have a lot of work to do. These are good people. This is a long process. This is generations.”
This effort is yet another iteration of perhaps a well-meaning intention among liberal Zionists to find common ground with Muslims. However, the Jewish impulse to wrap Zion in the project dooms it to failure. And these liberals Zionists seem to have no clue about why that is so.
The Shalom Hartman Institute under the leadership of former JDL leader, Yossi Klein Halevi, and with the cooperation of the Gulenist Muslim cleric, Abdullah Antelpi, has also brought contingents of American Muslims to Israel to study Zionism. Despite the protests of Muslim American journalist like Sana Saeed, who wrote an exposé of this project, it has brought four different groups of willing Muslims to Israel on an all-expenses-paid junket under the tutelage of the right-wing Zionist, Klein Halevi.
I consulted with a Muslim American friend who explained to me what might be the motives of Muslim participants in such efforts. He said that Muslim-Americans are extremely sensitive about their role in this country. They desperately want to be accepted. They see Jewish Americans as fully accepted and integrated into American society. They see Jews as successful, wealthy, and powerful. They see them in the federal cabinet, they see them in powerful national, state, and local elected officials. They see them on corporate boards and leading major American corporations. They want the same for themselves. In order to get it, they are willing to submerge their political interests and downplay them in order to gain acceptance.
That’s probably why the leader of the local Muslim dialogue contingent restricted her comments to how much she likes rugelach. She knew that to articulate her views of the Israel-Palestine conflict would introduce conflict and diminishing the ability to reach out to Americans Jews.
For their part, the Jews in the group, whether they realize it or not are using it for distinctly political ends. They see it as a means to “educate” Muslims about Israel. They see it as a way to turn Muslims into Friends of Zion. They do not see it as a means to learn about Palestine or the suffering or interests of the cousins of these American Muslims. They do not see it as a way to understand the criticisms that Muslims may have of Israel. Which has occupied them for the past 50 years. This ultimately dooms the project to failure.
Muslim Jewish dialogue that is genuine cannot avoid the hard questions. It cannot paper over differences. It cannot minimize the pain and suffering of either party. It must fully explore them even at the expense of opening wounds. There is no compromise that permits an attenuated version of such a dialogue.