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The American Jewish establishment’s Islamophobia blunder

A couple weeks ago, I challenged the wisdom of the American Jewish establishment in choosing to issue a statement against Islamophobia in the aftermath of Joseph Czuba’s erratic murder of a Palestinian 6-year-old in Chicago rather than one condemning the Hamas-sponsored, meticulously planned, handsomely financed mass murders, rapes, and kidnappings in Israel. I argued that while we, of course, decry any murder – especially that of a child – the American Jewish organizations’ choice of focus lacks any sense of proportion or order of priorities and feeds into the myth of moral equivalency.

Since then, I’ve gotten some feedback from American Jewish leaders who defend the choice.

Here is a composite distillation of their argument:

“While the JCPA statement might not be perfect, its essential content accurately reflects the Jewish community’s disgust with the despicable murder of a Palestinian child and our opposition to hatred of all kinds.  Beyond that, it has strategic value.  By taking the high road, we challenge Muslim groups to reciprocate when it comes to anti-Semitism and terrorism; and strengthen the support that Israel and the American Jewish community need in Washington.”

This is my reply:

The American Jewish community’s opposition to Islamophobia has been a matter of record for decades.  When, a number of years ago, rabbinic colleagues and I organized a huge Jewish turnout at a solidarity gathering outside the Islamic Center of Long Island in response to the bombing of a New Zealand mosque, the President of the Center greeted me with a broad, appreciative smile saying, “It looks like a rabbinic convention!”

Such scenarios have occurred all over the country.  In fact, four Chicago rabbis – three of them Orthodox – attended the Palestinian boy’s funeral, several weeks ago, in a demonstration of sympathy and solidarity. Repeatedly, Jews have condemned Islamophobia, along with all forms of hatred, and have expressed horror at murder, whoever the victim.  But the content of the JCPA’s nationally-issued, top-heavy statement cannot be divorced from its context.  By twinning Joseph Czuba’s meltdown, however horrid, with the Hamas-directed, Iran/Qatar-funded deployment of thousands of premeditated kidnappers, rapists, sadists, arsonists, and murderers in the name of Islam into sovereign Israel, the JCPA statement fed into the deleterious myths of equally shared victimhood, moral equivalence, and mindless “cycles of violence.”

This was the perspective chosen by our organizational leaders within days of an onslaught that exacted the worst toll of casualties on the Jewish State in its history, made the notorious Chmielnicki, Kishinev, and Kristallnacht massacres seem modest in contrast, and invited comparison to the Holocaust itself – some even observing that while the Nazis tried to hide their unspeakable crimes, the Palestinians went up to their armpits in blood and gore, bragged about it, and through such atrocity exhilarated millions around the globe.

The JCPA statement was not only tone-deaf to proportion in drawing its parallel, it was oblivious to the truth.  For all our opposition to Islamophobia, there is no denying that anti-Muslim hate crimes in America are a fraction of anti-Semitic ones.  Anyone who doubts that simply needs to consult the FBI statistics or pay a visit to America’s “elite” university campuses.  Moreover – though the FBI doesn’t track perpetrators when publishing its statistics — a sizeable proportion of the most heinous anti-Jewish crimes are committed by Muslims.  This is true not only in Europe and Asia – witness the slaughter of Jewish schoolgirls in Toulouse (2012), the siege at the Hypercacher Supermarket in Paris (2015), and the massacre at the Mumbai Chabad (2008) – but in the United States, as well.  The Riverdale bombing plot (2009), the beating of Joey Borgen in Manhattan (2021), the assault on chair-throwing Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker’s Colleyville, Texas synagogue (2022), and the current macroaggressions against Jews on the nation’s college campuses simply serve as examples.

During that entire timespan, you won’t find a single analogous act of terror against Muslims committed by Jews anywhere in Europe, Asia, or America.  Islamophobia is condemnable – as are anti-Catholic, anti-Protestant, anti-Hindu, and anti-Sikh hate crimes – but it should not be mentioned in the same breath or document as anti-Semitism without a bright red line to distinguish the nature of one from the other.  There is no comparison.  The American Jewish organizational community should not be promoting the false narrative of our worst enemies in the vain hope that it will give us the leverage to demand reciprocity of our Muslim neighbors.  The Jewish community has invested considerable time and effort in Muslim-Jewish relations over the past twenty years.  Sadly, during the past several weeks, we’ve had little to show for it.  What the Muslim community needed to do in the wake of the Hamas massacres was express its mortification over them, condemn them as anti-Islamic, call for the eradication of Hamas, and advocate for its replacement by enlightened Muslims who will work with the Jewish State toward a better future.

Does that sound like an unrealistic expectation?  Let’s perform an unthinkable thought experiment:  Had the shoe been on the other foot — had Israel, on a quiet day, initiated an arbitrary, mass blood orgy against Palestinians — I have no doubt that the 161 Jewish organizations that signed the JCPA’s statement would have been doubled over in shame, loudly condemned the actions as anti-Jewish, called for the dissolution of such a government, endorsed an investigation to hold those culpable accountable for their crimes, and insisted upon a replacement cabinet dedicated to peace and reconciliation.  To expect any less of our Arab/Muslim counterparts is to treat them as a subhuman species.  To expect less of them is none other than racism.  Arabs and Muslims have been endowed with human agency, just like Jews.  We should expect them to know evil when they see it and condemn it without qualification.

If the ultimate result of the JCPA statement is no more than an anodyne Arab/Muslim declaration that they are against all hatred and eschew violence against all people – i.e., simply doubling down on their propaganda of moral equivalence — then the JCPA initiative was not only fruitless; it was counterproductive.  Rather than pandering to the Arab/Muslim community by promoting untruths that serve only its cause, we should have challenged it four weeks ago to step up and unconditionally condemn Hamas — as any decent faith community should have readily done.  So far, the response not only of the international Muslim community, but of the American Muslim community has been dismal.  I make that observation based on highly reliable and gut-wrenching rabbinic testimony I have received from colleagues in my own Nassau County, NY; Manhattan; Bergen and Passaic Counties, NJ, and North Carolina.  I also speak from personal experience.  When I reached out via email on October 9 as “an old friend under missile attack” to the President of the Islamic Center,  I was answered by silence.  My rabbinic colleagues on the Island received the same treatment from him and other local Muslim leaders.

As shameful as has been the absence of an American-Muslim response and as great a failure as has been the JCPA statement in eliciting one, the 161 organizations that signed it committed an even greater blunder.  Last week, the White House Press Secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, was asked about antisemitism in America.  Instead of addressing the question asked, she immediately pivoted to an elaborate discourse on the pervasiveness of Islamophobia in America.  Later, she was rightly and roundly criticized for her deflection.  But why?  When the American Jewish leadership, confronted with overwhelming Hamas atrocities, pivots with a statement about the threat of Islamophobia in America, what can you expect from the White House Press Secretary?  Literally or figuratively, she took her cue from them! Those organizations – which should have known better — provided the wind beneath the wings of Hamas and other hostile forces determined to insinuate their narrative into the Oval Office at precisely the time we need the President of the United States to stand firm in the defense of Israel.

In my title to this essay, I use the term, “American Jewish Establishment,” as shorthand for the 161 organizations that endorsed the JCPA statement.  That said, there were numerous veteran Jewish organizations that had the commonsense not to sign.   Among those that do not appear as co-signers are AIPAC, the American Jewish Congress, the American Joint Distribution Committee, B’nai B’rith International, Emunah of America, Friends of the IDF, JNF, ORT America, the RCA, the Religious Zionists of America, UJA Federation of NY, the Orthodox Union, the World Zionist Organization, and the Zionist Organization of America.  Though it is possible that some of those organizations do not appear as a result of oversight, it is my educated guess that most of them made a conscious decision.  Despite their disgust at the senseless murder of a six-year-old in Chicago, they understood that the JCPA statement was clueless to context and global impact.  They recognized that its poor messaging would undermine our friends and embolden our enemies.

Simply put, too much of the American Jewish organizational community invested its time and effort in the wrong statement.  Rather than producing a myth-feeding declaration on Islamophobia, it should have applied its energy to a full-throated endorsement of Israel’s determination to eradicate Hamas.  American Jews must quickly digest the fact that the Jewish State has undergone a paradigm shift since October 7.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, Unity Government Partner Benny Gantz, and Opposition Leader Yair Lapid might disagree on many issues, but they stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the necessity of fundamentally transforming the reality on the ground here.  What the American Jewish community needs to say is: “We back Israel’s wall-to-wall determination to destroy Hamas, knowing full well that — however mightily the Jewish State might try to avoid collateral damage — eradicating Hamas will entail unsought but inevitably high costs to Gaza’s infrastructure and population, which are so inextricably bound to the terrorist regime.  We regret the reality created by poor Palestinian choices, but will not be deterred by it in backing Israel’s right and responsibility to vanquish the enemies who wish to destroy it.”  Only by adopting that difficult but principled stance — and repeatedly stating it loud and clear — can we expect the White House to stand firm with Israel until the distasteful, but necessary, task is completed.

Not since the Holocaust has American Jewry’s leadership been put to such a test.  As the Jewish State moves ahead with its response to the true face and meaning of Hamas, the question confronting American Jewry will be whether it chooses to flatter the narratives of our enemies or back the life-and-death battle of our brethren without self-delusion or apology.

About the Author
Rabbi Bruce Ginsburg is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Sons of Israel in Woodmere, NY. A product of Boston University, New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, and Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, he holds a doctorate in Hebrew literature. Known for his decades-old activism on behalf of Israel, Soviet Jewry, and intra/interfaith cooperation, he has served both as president of the Long Island Board of Rabbis and as president of the Union for Traditional Judaism. His essays have appeared in Newsday, the Christian Science Monitor, the Jerusalem Report, and other publications. He and his wife, Rachel, moved to Israel in the summer of 2022.
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