Originally published in +972 Magazine
Anti-Muslim rhetoric coming from American lawmakers and presidential candidates reached a fevered pitch earlier this month when, standing before a cheering crowd aboard the USS Yorktown in South Carolina, Donald Trump called for a “total and complete” ban on Muslims entering the United States. This call came on the heels of Trump and Ben Carson calling for mosques to be monitored, Senator Marco Rubio suggesting that places where Muslim-Americans gather be shut down, and hundreds of lawmakers voting to turn away Syrian refugees.
These anti-Muslim policies, and the Islamophobia at their core, no longer reside on the fringes in America. They have seeped into the mainstream. Today, a majority of conservative voters support them, and poll numbers often rise for those Republican politicians who choose to double down by exploiting anti-Muslim sentiments. Such policies – and the hateful incitement politicians use when proposing them – are inspiring horrific hate crimes against Muslim-Americans. In the week after Trump’s Muslim ban comments, a California mosque was torched, an Arizona mosque was vandalized, two Muslim women in Florida were violently attacked, a Muslim deli owner in New York was beaten, and a Muslim child in Georgia was asked by a teacher, “Do you have a bomb in your backpack?”
I have been heartened in recent weeks to see many Jewish leaders and pro-Israel institutions, shocked by the historical reverberations, stand up for Muslims under attack. After all, in 1939 it was Jews fleeing Hitler who were demonized and blocked from reaching America’s shores. This stuff hits close to home for American Jews. Which is why 11 Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), recently signed a letter to Congress declaring that “to turn our back on [Syrian] refugees would be to betray our nation’s core values.” It is also why the ADL was quick to blast Trump last week.
However, such public pronouncements, as wonderful as they have been, conceal a troubling truth which the institutional Jewish community and U.S. Jews invested in Israel must confront if we are to root out anti-Muslim bigotry: in the post-9/11 era, pro-Israel donors, institutions and the Israel lobby have often fueled the very Islamophobia now suddenly catching fire in America, doing so as a strategy for smearing Palestinians.Promoting and showcasing anti-Muslim bigots has become a troubling pattern for the Israel lobby, particularly its most powerful arm: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). One example occurred in 2007, when Pastor John Hagee – one of the loudest anti-Muslim voices on the Christian right – was invited to give a keynote address at AIPAC’s policy conference. Not only has Hagee engaged in Holocaust revisionism, but his Islamophobia prompted the Center for American Progress (CAP) to highlight him as a prime example of anti-Muslim hatred fomenting in evangelical circles. Even John McCain rejected his endorsement in 2008, despite the huge potential gains. And yet, crowds cheered him at AIPAC, where he has been given a platform.
Another example is Steve Emerson, who has been invited to speak at AIPAC’s policy conferences multiple times. CAP identified Emerson as one of the five most influential “misinformation experts” in America. Head of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, Emerson is best known for creating outlandish claims to support the theory that Muslim-Americans are plotting jihad in this country, such as the one repeated by a Republican congressman on Fox News that “80 to 85 percent of mosques … are controlled by Islamic fundamentalists.” With AIPAC giving platforms to such purveyors of hate, it is no surprise that the organization has remained silent as Syrian refugees are smeared and anti-Muslim bigotry runs rampant.
Of course, organizations are influenced by those who financially support them. And a deep dive into the world of Jewish, pro-Israel donors reveals that some of the most influential people spreading anti-Muslim bigotry are funded by American Jews with deep connections to the Israel lobby and pro-Israel organizations. This includes the Jewish Communal Fund, which has supported Pamela Geller and the Clarion Fund, and former AIPAC board member Nina Rosenwald, who has given millions to some of the most notorious bigots. This includes Daniel Pipes, who has made spreading Islamophobic misinformation a multi-million dollar profession as head of the Middle East Forum, where he has notoriously argued that Muslim-Americans should be racially profiled and denied constitutionally protected rights.
Why are pro-Israel organizations and donors fueling anti-Muslim bigotry when most American Jews reject such hate? Troublingly, too many Jewish institutions see propagating Islamophobia as a way of supporting Israel. Matt Duss, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, once wrote that for some, “support for the Jewish state is a zero-sum contest between favoring Israel and favoring Arabs and Muslims. For too many American Jews, smearing Islam is seen as a legitimate expression of Zionism.”
I’m proud of American Jews mobilizing to fight the Islamophobia being fomented by figures like Trump. However, to fully fight such hate, U.S. Jews must confront the role pro-Israel organizations have played – and continue to play – in spreading Islamophobia as a zero-sum justification for smearing Palestinians. Otherwise, even as U.S. Jews publicly fight the purveyors of hate from without, by giving cover from within to those spreading hate, not only will Muslim-Americans continue to be endangered, so too will those Palestinians being occupied and oppressed by Israel.
For they are the true target.
This piece originally appeared in +972 Magazine, an independent Israeli online publication providing on-the-ground reportage committed to human rights, free speech and occupation abuses.
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.