U.S. Jewish community's needed apology to Muslim Americans on Yom Kippur

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In the past week, Republican presidential candidates have turned hatred for Muslims into a principle campaign platform. Donald Trump gave sanction to a questioner calling for the United States to “get rid of” all Muslims, and Ben Carson said Muslims are inherently unfit to lead this nation, a notion with which 40 percent of Americans agree.
That these two figures are leading in the polls – and that a call to get rid of all Muslims is actually reverberating in America – reveals just how normative Islamophobia has become within large swaths of our society.
As a Jew whose surviving family sought shelter in America after the Holocaust, I shudder at the hatred being directed today at Muslim Americans. Last night around the dinner table, we all shuddered at this question:

Can you imagine if they were talking about Jews?

I cannot. Nor can I imagine the stress Muslims in this country are feeling right now. Knowing that crowds are cheering their genocide. Knowing that people in the streets eye their children and whisper, terrorist. Wondering whether their place of worship or the very house in which they sleep will last the night, or whether it will be consumed by a hatred being stoked on television.
If anyone should be coming to Muslim Americans’ defense, if anyone should be collectively shouting against such hatred, it should be Jews in this country. Sadly, the American Jewish community – or rather, institutional leaders of the country’s largest Jewish organizations – have been mostly silent.
Indeed, Bernie Sanders is one of the only prominent American Jews to forcefully denounce both Trump and Carson (as did the ADL). In contrast, Jewish leaders as a whole, witnessing rampant bigotry and calls for genocide against Muslims on the national stage, have turned their heads.
As Peter Beinart notes, this is partly due to the anti-Muslim bigotry in certain segments of the Jewish community, personified by figures like Sheldon Adelson:

American Jewish leaders cannot effectively confront the anti-Muslim bigotry marring the 2016 presidential race because they cannot effectively confront the anti-Muslim bigotry in their own ranks. That’s not just a failure of moral courage. It’s a failure of moral imagination. It shouldn’t be hard for American Jews to imagine ourselves on the other side when politicians scapegoat a vulnerable minority. But privilege can be a narcotic. On Monday, after a weekend in which Trump and Carson’s hateful words dominated the news, the websites of the Presidents Conference, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Federations of North America, and AIPAC said nothing on the topic at all. The message: It’s not our problem.
We claim to be a people with a long memory. Sometimes, sadly, it’s not long enough.

Tonight, Yom Kippur will begin, a day which for many Jews is the culmination of a month-long period of introspection, a period of seeking forgiveness for wrongs comitted. While many consider Yom Kippur to be a day of personal cleansing, the reality is that it’s just as much about communal responsibility.
In fact, the central prayer constantly repeated in many synagogues on Yom Kippur (על חטא) is written in the first-person plural. Forgiveness is asked for the many things we have done, for the many things we have allowed, for the many things we have ignored.
I certainly cannot speak for the American Jewish community, nor can any institutional leader or figure. However, in light of Jewish leaders’ collective silence as Muslims in this country are threatened by hatred, I propose this as a communal apology to the Muslim American community:

While there are those among us who have spoken against the hatred you face, please forgive us our larger collective silence, for our aligning with those who hate, for our failure to invoke “never again” swiftly and immediately. We must do better, for both your sake and our own.
As minorities in this country, we are allies in the fight against bigotry, and must never forget this.

As an agnostic Jew, it’s not God I fear, but the lessons of history being ignored by my community, and by far too many Americans.
May this apology resonate among those who agree with its message, and may it give what small comfort it can to Muslim-American families holding their children close, afraid for what tomorrow might bring.


What Do You Buy For the Children
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.