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Reimagining Jewish-Muslim Relations: A Response to My Jewish Critics

Yossi Klein Halevi responds to the criticism on his piece supporting the Brandeis University decision to rescind awarding Ayaan Hirsi Ali with an honorary degree.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Together with Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University and Jennifer Raskas, he co-directs the Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative. Yossi is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor and co-host with Donniel Hartman and Elana Stein Hain of the Institute’s award-winning podcast, For Heaven’s Sake. He is also the author of Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli

This piece was originally published in the Times of Israel.

Last week, I wrote, together with Imam Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain of Duke University, an article that attracted considerable debate. We wrote supporting the decision of Brandeis University to rescind awarding an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born women’s rights activist. The Brandeis administration reached its decision after becoming aware of the fact that Ali had not only criticized Islamism but Islam itself – calling Islam an enemy against which war must be waged.

The central argument of the piece was that both Muslims and Jews need to stop demeaning the other community by promoting and even honoring each other’s renegades. Imam Abdullah and I defined a renegade as someone who damns his or her community, as opposed to a dissident who seeks to change aspects of that community.

I agree with my critics that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is courageous and does admirable work. But our argument was not about Ali’s character or her work. Neither was it about Ali’s freedom of speech. Brandeis has made clear that she is welcome to speak on campus. Everyone is entitled to be heard; no one is entitled to an honorary degree.

Our question to both our faith communities is this: How can we begin to heal our increasingly pathological relationship? One answer, we believe, is that Muslim and Jewish institutions must show restraint in celebrating those who characterize the other as evil.

The point of our article was not to draw a symmetry between those Muslims and Jews who repudiate their own communities. Rather, the symmetry we did draw was in the need for both of our communities to refrain from promoting, let alone honoring, those who demonize the other.

Can we demand that other faith groups – whether Muslim or Christian – stop championing anti-Zionist Jews as examples of “good Jews,” if we endorse former Muslims who call Islam an enemy faith? And is it really in the interests of the Jewish people to identify with those who advocate war against a faith with over a billion adherents?

I am concerned about a blindness within our community that either minimizes the seriousness of expressions of contempt for Islam or else ignores those entirely. Writing on the website of Commentary, for example, Daniel R. Benson noted that Ayaan Hirsi Ali has said that her comments against Islam were taken “out of context” – and he left it at that. Would Benson accept that response from someone who called Judaism an enemy against which war must be waged?

The failure to distinguish between Islamism and Islam may explain a curious ommision on the part of many of our critics, who seemed to miss the fact that my article was co-written by a prominent Muslim American leader. Imam Abdullah chose to go public, together with a Jewish Israeli, in urging both of our communities to stop delegitimizing the identity and cherished beliefs of the other. (That fact was not missed by Imam Abdullah’s Muslim critics).

Jews often ask: Where are the Muslims who condemn their own extremists? Yet when confronted with a Muslim leader who does precisely that, the response is often either to render him invisible or to patronizingly dismiss him as the exception that proves the rule.

Imam Abdullah is rehardly a marginal figure in American Islam. He is the founder of the Association of Muslim University Chaplains and is revered as a role model by young Muslim Americans seeking a way to live as devout Muslims within the American mainstream. Several years ago, Imam Abdullah led a delegation of fellow imams to Auschwitz, to counter Holocaust denial in the Muslim world.

Through Imam Abdullah, I am in contact with a growing number of prominent young Muslim Americans who want to understand the Jewish people and our story. I have been invited by Muslim university chaplains to speak on campuses and by community leaders to speak in mosques.

In my encounters with American Muslims, I hear a great deal of anger against Israel. But I also hear a profound respect for their Jewish neighbors, and a need to understand why Israel is so important for the American Jewish community.

This is hardly my experience alone. Former Israeli ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, sponsored an annual iftar – the nightly meal breaking the Ramadan fast – at his residence in Washington. Dozens of prominent Muslim American leaders attended, sending a clear signal to the Jewish community.

I believe that something different can happen between Muslims and Jews in America, in part because it is America. But to begin a transformative dialogue, both sides need to show the other minimal respect.

Finally, a word about Brandeis. Some of our critics noted that Brandeis had, in the past, awarded honorary degrees to Desmond Tutu and Tony Kushner, both vicious critics of Israel who have challenged Israel’s very legitimacy. Those decisions, made by a previous Brandeis administration, are hardly worthy of a Jewish-affiliated institution.

But Brandeis’ current president, Fred Lawrence, who assumed office in 2011, was not responsible. Lawrence’s critics have ignored his principled stands on Israel, including severing Brandeis’ relationship with the Al Quds University in Jerusalem following a Hamas march on campus, replete with the Nazi salute, that wasn’t condemned by the Al Quds administration.

I appeal to Brandeis’ Jewish critics not to turn Fred Lawrence, a lover of Israel and of his people, into an enemy. In defending our principles, let’s refrain from devouring each other.

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