Muslim Leadership Initiative and Understanding BDS, Zionism and Israel (Part Two)

Muslim Leadership Initiative and Understanding BDS, Zionism and Israel (Part Two) June 12, 2015

Photo from Wikimedia commons
Photo from Wikimedia commons

Editorial Note: This two-part article was to be the last piece in the series Altmuslim ran on MLI back in January, which included this article by Samar Kaukab, this article by MLI participant Maggi Siddiqui, this article by Deanna Othman and this article by Shalom Hartman President Rabbi Donniel Hartman. Dr. Hatem Bazian, for a number of reasons, was unable to submit his piece at the time and now submitted his piece to Altmuslim. Click here for part one. Part two explores MLI, understanding Zionism and BDS and why this approach isn’t feasible.

By Dr. Hatem Bazian

In a May 22, 2015 article published in The Huffington Post, Kamal Abu-Shamsieh, the only Palestinian participant in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), officially and publically disengaged from the program. Abu Shamsieh’s disassociation concluded, “As the third cohort of the Muslim Leadership Initiative gets underway, it has become impossible for MLI to meet with any credible Palestinian. Without a Palestinian narrative, MLI risks becoming a Hasbara program, Israeli-propaganda.”

The announcement is a very significant development and brings the debate back into center stage.

In late March, both Abu Shamsieh and Imam Abdullah Antepli visited Berkeley, Calif., to discuss with me and others the MLI program and issues emerging from the intense debate and also to open channels of communication moving forward. The discussion was long and spirited, but the differences and gulf between us remained the same.  At the time, I agreed to write an article to express my own opposition to the MLI program and also to highlight the political nature of disagreement.

The issue with the MLI participants is not a question of sincerity or correctness of their faith, rather it is the pursuit of wrongful and counterproductive strategy that is carried out at the expense of and in total disregard of Palestinians. It is a Constructive Engagement approach centering on Israel’s fears and security.

In addition, accepting a fully paid trip funded by Shalom Hartman Institute (operating in an occupied city) is a major ethical failing for individuals. It ignores how one should deal with an occupying power and, at the same time, violates the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions. It dismisses the appeal by the occupied population for solidarity from those who have and can make a choice. The paid trips are mirror the South African experience.

Understanding What is BDS

It is important to set the record straight concerning the boycott, divest, sanction (BDS) efforts and what it permits and to illuminate how the MLI program is a clear violation of BDS and how it disregards Palestinian civil society’s call for a global solidarity. Certainly BDS does not oppose people visiting, touring and discussing issues pertaining to conditions in Palestine, which was the same position we held in relations to South Africa.

Imam Abdullah is somewhat correct that the Palestinians do encourage “more Muslims, especially from the United States, to come and visit Palestine, to hear their stories, to see first-hand their daily challenges and to learn about their admirable struggles.”  However, what Palestinians leaders on the ground would insist is that such visits not be done under the rubric of institutions vested in the occupation and paid for by Zionist organizations that promote the Israeli agenda first and foremost, not to mention being associated with groups that fund the Islamophobia industry.

Palestinians would welcome visitors that come to resist and struggle with them through BDS, olive harvest assistance, home rebuilding projects, innovative cultural programs, diabetes clinics, human rights observations and, more importantly, by staying in and spending money at Palestinian-owned businesses. Indeed, what BDS calls for is an economic, cultural and academic boycott directed toward institutions, since the occupation and dispossession of the Palestinians is a structural and institutional project, which Shalom Hartman is fundamentally part of it even though it represents the soft side of Israeli power.

Furthermore, accepting a fully paid VIP trip from an organization that structurally is connected to the occupying power with offices in an occupied and illegally annexed city is a clear BDS violation, regardless of the content of discussions or encounters.

Thus, it is not a mere tour of a land that is at issue here but doing so at the invitation and resources of the occupying power. The resources have been taken away and continue to be taken away from the dispossessed population, the Palestinians, and indeed the all-expenses-paid trips are indirectly using stolen wealth to promote an understanding of Zionism and Israel.

As it stands, the engagement through the MLI program is opposed by Palestinian civil society organizations inside and outside Palestine. In the collective wisdom of those engaged in the Palestine cause, the MLI project is a Constructive Engagement approach and it conveys, whether you dismiss it or take it to heart, the power of the occupier. These trips give the impression that everything is normal and Zionism is just another ‘ism’ in the world to learn from and with which to engage.

Where is the Palestinian Point of View?

More critically for American Muslims is that MLI is not the only program of this sort. Many like it are humming across the U.S., Europe and parts of the Arab and Muslim world. At their core, they are part of the ”Constructive Engagement” of Israel and Zionism, in the hope of keeping the racism, militarism and exclusionary dam intact.

In accepting an all-expense-paid trip, one joins the many who have been through Zionism ‘enlightenment’ tours — every politician, journalist, civic and religious leader, student council members, university presidents and opinion makers – who have come to understand Zionism, Israel’s history, connection to the Holy Land, and the difficult security faced by the “Jewish State” because of these kinds of normalizing trips.  Furthermore, to make the visits appear objective, a few Palestinians are invited to share their views on how best to solve the crisis that only exists because they are present and have refused to go away.

How do you speak when you are already dispossessed and invited to talk to guests who are coming to understand, not you but the dispossessor’s feelings and connection to the land? How do you speak when the premise of the trip is the suffering caused Zionists by your mere presence? When your presence is the problem that must be removed so all can feel at ease?

Let’s be clear that Palestinians don’t need anyone’s help if understanding the occupier is the framing and if it is on Israel’s dime. We all know the saying in America, “There is no such thing as a free lunch!” The question is why Shalom Hartman is buying lunch for American Muslim leaders?  Does anyone really accept that the only way to learn about Jewish attachment to the land and Zionism is to get funded by the occupying power in an occupied and annexed city — Jerusalem?

How much of this is about ‘us’ Muslims in America wanting to have access, wanting doors to be opened for ‘us’ by those whom we feel are the gatekeepers to America’s power?  If this is the case then Palestine is the instrument for access and position, which puts the cohorts in the same company as Arab and Muslim world leaders, who often sacrifice Palestinians in the deals they cut for open doors and access to power.

Certainly, at times the discussion on social media degenerates into name-calling and away from the substance of the debate. Setting aside the irrelevant issues, an important question for the participants is about their choice to disregard the Palestinian civil society’s call for solidarity by crossing the BDS picket line and participating in a program like MLI.

The published responses from participants on the whole were unconvincing and at times condescending, in my opinion.

A few felt at ease downplaying the effectiveness of the Palestinian initiated BDS strategy and at the same time asserting their role to bring about change to the current state of affairs by engaging Zionists directly through the MLI project.  Not speaking for Palestinians is very positive but acting and participating in such programs without their support is actions that speak loader than words.  Yes, Palestinians are still occupied but continue to resist despite facing Israel and its massive war machine, which is wholly supported by the United States.

Added to this is support from the European Union and numerous Arab and Muslim leaders openly or behind closed doors. It is not those who oppose us who anger or disappoint us; rather it those whom we love, whom we call friends, brothers and sisters. It is from these beloved that we expect principled actions.

A second and just as weak an assertion is that participating in this program is the way for Muslim Americans to understand Jewish attachment and relations to Israel and through it develop deeper relations between both communities in America. There are numerous places and groups that can provide as much or more critical understanding of Jewish relations to Israel.

The narrative that Zionism lays exclusive claim to representation of Jewishness and is the sole valid understanding of the relationship to the Holy Land alone should be sufficient to discredit the MLI project. This claim that accepts the basic premise that Zionism and Israel represent all Jews is a self-serving and contested one.  In fact, many Jews say this singular claim is actually anti-Semitic in nature.

What Are Better Ways to Engage?

Instead of a Zionist-funded trip, why don’t the cohorts reach out to the Israeli soldiers from the Breaking the Silence organization to get their perspective on the meaning of Zionism and how the attachment to the land translate on the ground?  Also, since some participants wear the mantel of human rights and social justice activists, why don’t they then engage with Israeli human rights organizations, such as B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories?

Notice, I am not asking them to visit or engage the Palestinians because the claim is that they know enough about it and they need to learn from Zionism, not its victims. There are a myriad of similar human rights organizations in Israel, which could greatly enlighten those presumable seeking enlightenment.

Lastly, the participants claim the MLI program will open opportunities for American-Muslims to reach groups and communities that otherwise would not have been reached or influenced by the status-quo approach pursued by existing Muslim organizations and individuals. The road to access is a fluid one without a conclusive and singular path ahead.

The big question at hand is how does participation in MLI impact the Palestine cause in the U.S. and on the ground for people under occupation?  If the MLI helps individuals gain access for themselves, then the issue is a self-serving one, not one about Palestine per say but Palestine as a stepping-stone to bigger and better things for the individuals involved.

Let’s be clear that as American Muslims we all have a choice in our actions and enjoy freedoms, opportunities and access, which Palestinians living under occupation are denied. This fact alone, if none other, should obligate everyone, Muslims or otherwise, to defer to those denied freedom and living under occupation to articulate what the best strategies are to change their circumstances.

I completely understand that individuals in the community are free to do what they want and associate and pursue whatever is consistent with their own worldview and career opportunities. The same applies to Palestinians and how they undertake their struggle to confront and undo the longstanding Israeli occupation. The Shalom Hartman Institute’s MLI program is in violation of Palestinian civil society non-violent BDS campaign, which is already globally recognized and is a successful strategy around the world.

Pure and simple, participating in the MLI project violates BDS and is fashioned to facilitate relations between American Muslims and Zionist Americans in the hope of arriving at an ecumenical deal, whereby understanding attachment to Israel is centralized over the silenced and dispossessed Palestinians.

Solidarity has no meaning if one is not open to listening to the voice of the voiceless living under occupation, facing daily assaults, dispossession and human rights violations. The calls from Palestinian civil society were completely disregarded and an ”American Muslims know it best” attitude was offered in response.

Palestine is a global human rights issue. The sad part of the MLI project is that American Muslim activists are opting for regressive political engagement like Constructive Engagement because they are motivated by access, acceptance and politics of integration, and again Palestine is left at the door as a price for membership.

Dr. Hatem Bazian Co-founder and Chairman of the Board, American Muslims for Palestine,  Co-founder, faculty and member of the Board of Trustees Zaytuna College, Lecturer, Near Eastern and Asian American Studies, UC Berkeley, and Director of the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project at Cal’s Center for Race and Gender.

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