During the process of jury selection for her trial for attempted murder in New York, Dr Aafia Siddiqui alleged that she could not get a fair trial because she felt “everyone here is” a Jew. She said she would “boycott” the trial unless the Jews on the jury were removed. Because defendants have the right to have jurors removed from their trial, Dr Aafia was successful in having Jewish Americans taken off the jury.
Dr Aafia’s outburst was widely reported in the media but there was little reflection on the allegation itself. This comment investigates the specific allegation that being Jewish would automatically render a person unfit to reach a fair judgment in the Dr Aafia case.
In simple words, this is not a discussion of Dr Aafia’s guilt or innocence or the morality or justice of her detention. Instead, it is a dissection of the belief held by many Muslims around the world that being a Jewish American automatically leads to bias against Muslims in general and Muslim Americans in particular.
As Muslims fight against the evil of being judged as a group because of the actions of the Osamas and Hakeemullahs of this world, they should in turn refrain from passing judgment on a community, based on the actions of a few of its members.
Since Dr Aafia’s trial is taking place in the US it is pertinent to focus on Jewish Americans. The construction of this group in the eyes of most Muslims has been defined by the actions of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that has over the decades been instrumental in constructing US foreign policy’s uncritical stance on Israel.
AIPAC’s influence on American foreign policy is clear but its status as the only political voice of Jewish Americans is no longer true. The year 2009 saw the emergence of another Jewish lobbying group called J Street that has since garnered the support of many liberal and progressive American Jews. One of J Street’s foremost political platforms is the advocacy of the two-state solution and “the right of Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own”. The organisation overtly opposes the construction of new settlements on Palestinian land.
The J Street website features a press release condemning the arrest of Palestinian political activists in Sheikh Jarrah and the increasing repression of political dissent by Israeli authorities. Another press release issued on Jan 28, 2010 commends US Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman on his statements emphasising the urgency of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The politics of J Street and its pronounced distance from the unquestioning approval of all actions of the Israeli state is but one illustration of the fallacy of assumptions that portray all Jewish Americans as accepting of atrocities committed by the Israeli state.
The irony of Dr Aafia’s allegations against Jewish jurors is exacerbated further when one considers the fact that Jewish American activists and lawyers have been at the forefront of ensuring that those imprisoned in Guantanamo and other terrorism suspects are produced in courts of law. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is at the forefront of these efforts, was not only founded by a former justice of the US Supreme Court and a Jewish American, but is headed and largely funded by Jewish Americans.
Not only has the ACLU been at the helm of leading the fight against indefinite detention and torture, most recently it filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding that the US government provide accurate information on the number of drone attacks and give the correct casualty figure for those killed in such attacks. It was the ACLU that recently forced the US government — in line with another Freedom of Information Act request — to reveal the names of detainees held at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan.
On Jan 25, 2010 the International Justice Network (IJN), a monitoring group, issued a statement on behalf of Dr Aafia’s brother saying that the group and family were disturbed that the defendant was not acting in the manner she usually did and they were concerned that the stress she had undergone in recent days had affected her behaviour.
The IJN — selected to speak on the family’s behalf by Dr Aafia’s own brother — has on its board a Jewish American attorney named Buz Eisenberg. The latter is a member of the Centre for Constitutional Rights’ Guantanamo Global Justice Initiative, which provides free legal representation to inmates detained at Guantanamo Bay. Mr Eisenberg’s first client was released and repatriated to Saudi Arabia thanks to his efforts. He is currently representing two more Algerian Muslim detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Simply put, even as Dr Aafia casts aspersions on the Jewish Americans that may have been present in her jury, it is Jewish Americans who are working at the request of her own brother to monitor the fairness of her trial and the condition of her mental state.
Undoubtedly, many questions can be raised about the flawed mechanisms through which Dr Aafia and many others accused of terrorism have been treated by the US authorities.
But this has little to do with being Jewish American. It is a myth that all Jewish Americans are against the two-state solution and to feel strongly against the community obscures Jewish American efforts to stand up for the rights of those detained in Guantanamo and Bagram.
Explaining their efforts does not suggest that prejudice against Muslims does not exist or that individuals who are Jewish are never prejudiced. Instead, it is meant to stress that reflection is needed on the notion that religious identity necessarily translates into certain political views. It is also meant to stress that there are those who are not Muslims but who are nevertheless fighting for the rights of Muslims and perhaps owed a similar favour in return.
Rafia Zakaria is Associate Editor of altmuslim.com and an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy. An edited version of this article was previously published in Dawn (Pakistan)