As Twitter continues it’s meltdown over my Time article yesterday, which I fully expected, I thought it may be best to address some of the concerns, criticisms, and rage about the article and the program itself. So here is a list of ten things that are important to understand as you think about this program. I ask you to momentarily put aside your angst and take the time to absorb this:
1) The MLI program was not created by Shalom Hartman. It was envisioned and created by Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University who saw an opportunity to work with an institution that is both influential in Israel and with American Jews, and provides the space to discuss the conflict with people we otherwise are never in the same room with. The program and curriculum was further developed with the leadership of another Muslim, Dr. Homayra Ziad. It was designed keeping our concerns and sensibilities in mind, included meeting with Palestinians, and traveling to the West Bank. Before accepting, many of the participants consulted with national and international Muslim leaders who overwhelmingly urged us to be part of it.
2) Though the cohort was ethnically diverse, it did not include Arabs or Palestinians. Not because they were not invited but because a number of them were prevented for personal reasons (taking off for two weeks at the beginning and end of the year to be in Jerusalem just not possible for some folks because of work and family), others were not comfortable being part of the pilot cohort but intend on being part of it in the future, and of course some outright disagreed with the program. The 2015 cohort does include Arab Americans. And we have all been privately supported by Palestinians who support the program, but cannot risk doing it publicly.
3) None of us, including Hartman staff and leadership, knew how this program would play out. Hartman of course had it’s agenda, and we all had ours. As I said in my previous Patheos piece, we participated for different reasons. But from the time we began until it was over, there was no clear mission statement for the program because it was entirely experimental. We were not expected to do anything in particular with what we experienced. It was left up to us. Some folks asked if I was expected to write about this. I only started contributing to Time a few months ago, but beyond that fact let it be known that I insisted on writing the piece and had to convince others involved to let me proceed. But at no time have we ever been told what to do or how to do it.
4) It was also kept under wraps for the most part because it was risky for all involved. Hartman lost funding, donors, and board members over this program. One of the organizers, Yossi Klein Halevi, lost credibility, friends, and supporters when he wrote this piece along with Imam Abdullah. Rabbi Sharon Brous, one of our lecturers, was destroyed in the Israeli media when she wrote a piece sympathetic to Gazans. Hartman is being accused of hosting terrorist sympathizers and we are being accused of being Occupation sympathizers. This is the cost of trying to work in gray spaces, I knew it, and I accepted it.
5) Not a single one of us was there to speak for Palestinians. We can’t do that. We also can’t make a direct difference in what’s happening on the ground there. But we did constantly convey our support for Palestinians and our disgust and anger at Israeli policies. We did not mince words. Occupation, disenfranchisement, colonization, genocide, apartheid. It was all said and done. But it was said and done between people who now had grown to respect each other. So the words didn’t fall on deaf ears. And we also were not deaf to their words. We aren’t, as I said in my piece on Jerusalem previously, arrogant enough to think we can solve a complex conflict. But if the standard for activism is “if you can’t fix it, go home”, I’d say not only will nothing ever change, but other pro-Palestinian activism fails that bar too.
6) Most of us recognize the only real impact we can have, other than on our hosts themselves, is on discourse in the US between American Muslims and Jews. This is not insignificant. Israel relies on unconditional US support, which is based greatly on pressure by American Jewry. But that support is changing, wavering, uncertain. Israelis know it and worry about it internally. J Street is emerging as a new American Jewish consciousness, one that can replace AIPAC, and one that can gain momentum with the support of American Muslims.
7) For those of us who work on interfaith initiatives, being able to use the language of Zionism to remind Jews of the ethical and moral callings of their faith is vital. For some Jews being Zionist means unconditional support for the state of Israel. For others it means a connection to the biblical land of Israel. Both may identify as Zionists, but they mean very different things. I can understand this distinction because while I feel a rightful connection to Mecca and Madina, I oppose many policies of the Saudi state. When it comes to Zionism, our best bet is to urge Jews to be critical of Israeli policies while still allowing them to call themselves Zionists. In the same way you’ll never get Muslims to relinquish the tenant of jihad (Islamophobes and counter-terror folks will just have to accept that), we will not get Zionists to give up that word. But we may be able to help them think about it differently.
9) Which brings me to BDS – a movement working hard to change conditions for Palestinians. How can I support BDS while studying at an Israeli institute? Divestment and boycott by institutions and internationally known personalities can and will have an impact, not the boycott of one unknown Rabia Chaudry. The only influence and impact I could possibly have on this issue is building relationships that humanize Muslims and Palestinians for Israeli supporters. Being part of this program, understanding their narrative and internal debates, helps me do that. And BDS is does not have one face, it can be exercised in many ways. The recent divestment by the Presbyterian church is based on selling it’s stock in three companies whose products are used in the occupied territories, but still supports interfaith cooperation, Israel’s “right to exist”**, and does not ban travel to Israel. In the same way I can both respect Muslim activists who boycott working with federal agencies and Muslim activists who work closely with federal agencies because I know they both want the same final outcome, I respect and understand both BDS activists and those who continue to dialogue. Because we all want the same final outcome.
10) A 700 word blog post, with a title I strongly opposed, cannot include and cover every single emotion, discussion, and experience of a year long program. The Time piece was meant to focus on how building a relationship allowed us (us as in specifically the people involved in the program, not all Jews and all Muslims as some idiot out there will jump to fight about) to hear the other side for the first time. For those who are pointing out every injustice against Palestinians I failed to include, a couple of things: the piece was heavily edited by Time, which is normal but it still included the following crimes: the nakba, an ethnic cleansing, a brutal occupation, militarized neighborhoods, checkpoints, political prisoners, daily humiliation, blockades, collective punishment, stolen resources. I pointed to Palestinians being full of rightful rage (and yeah Israelis should be afraid of millions of their victims, which is the point I was trying to make) as a “young, unemployed, restricted, dislocated population which carries with it the pain of generations”. I mentioned the restricted access to Aqsa that we witnessed. In many ways the piece was heavily critical of Israel. But instead of focusing on the fact that Time would publish such a critical piece of Israel, something to applaud them about, critics are focused on the fact that I learned a new version of Zionism I had not previously heard about. As if suddenly we all walked away honorary Israelis, no longer concerned about justice for Palestine. Missing the forest for the trees is something we seemed to have mastered.
The Time piece was a beginning, and I plan to write other pieces on different issues. What I learned from the Palestinians we met, what I learned about internal Israeli conversations, how I experienced the religious sites, etc. There is more, there is much more to say. Including much to say about the current collective punishment being delivered upon Khalil, and the ongoing devastation and crimes against Gaza. But despite the bullying, the anger, the concerns and criticisms by both Muslims and Jews, I stand by this program. I deeply respect the sentiments of activists who oppose the program, and I understand why they strongly disagree with this methodology. But I hope, at least, that they’ll accept our intentions are the same as theirs.
*If you live in the US and are critical of people who visit Israel, I’d ask you to at least be consistent in your principles. Move from the US. Or don’t accept invitations from US government entities. Or refuse to pay taxes. Or destroy your American passport. Or never travel to any nation state that has a terrible human rights record. You get the point.
**The “right to exist” language is beyond problematic. But that discussion can’t be done in a footnote. Future post inshaAllah.