This is an open letter, mainly to Muslims and Jews in America, but, being open, to everyone:
The latest news from Queens, NY about the horrifying double murder of an imam and his assistant is indicating that — contrary to early assumptions that this was a failed robbery or a Trump-inspired anti-Muslim hate crime — the event was the result of ongoing Muslim-Hispanic tensions in the community. I have no idea what this means in terms of background tensions, and neither am I capable of parsing why this would not still be considered a “hate crime” save for the technical distinction that interethnic feuds are considered different than religiously-motivated targeting.
It would be strange to suggest a level of relief at this new revelation involving two such senseless deaths; moreover, we must be cautious in judgement around such a dramatic event in these tense times. Nevertheless, there remains a critical distinction between- the former constituting the original and consistent human illness, the latter a particularly toxic strain of the virus that leaves streaks of destruction in its wake. It is slightly calming to know that the violence implicitly and explicitly incited against Muslims in this election season seems not to have driven this particular episode, if indeed this interpretation of the situation holds true.
Still, we are living in a moment; I know that I and many others feared the possibility that this incident marked an escalation of a phenomenon already well-documented, namely a significant uptick in violence, hostility and vitriol directed toward Muslims and immigrants as part of the sometimes-race, sometimes-religion, sometimes-ethnicity based baiting that has been a hallmark of Donald Trump’s exploitative campaign.
And therefore I want to use this moment to share a few commitments. These are not ‘guidelines’ or rules, but personal commitments I am sharing publicly. Perhaps others will find them useful and join in, in the spirit of recognizing that in troubled moments even symbolic gestures can have meaning and value — both for those they intend to help, as well as a personal way of publicly signaling what really matters.
First: it is never lost on me that I benefit from one of America’s unique gifts: the ability, the permission, to walk around with almost total impunity wearing a kippah, which I have done proudly all of my life. This is unique to most of the world over, and to Jewish history. There are those in the “liberal” West who believe that acts of self-marking through clothing by people of faith — be it kippah, hijab, cross — represent belonging to coercive and repressive structures, and therefore constitute a rejection of the moral values on which the West was built. This is simply malarkey. We are all marked differently in skin tone and features, and it is an endemic tragedy of the limits of human empathy that we interpret these differences in ways that restrict our moral responsibility towards those who are different from us, rather than use the universality of difference to cultivate obligation towards others. Similarly, religious clothing can be an instrument of articulating personal autonomy, a mechanism for individuals to express their values. We are all already different; some of us choose to make the unseen differences more public than others. America — or at least the quarters of America where I spend most of my time — can be a unique place where personal expression of difference is valued, as it has been for me; but it will remain so only if we fight for it.
To my Muslim friends clad in the garb with which you identify your faith: I see you, and will strive to see you in the ways that you want to be seen. We owe you the civility of not judging your politics based your clothing, only your self-expression of choosing to live within the parameters of your faith. I hear stories from friends and colleagues about the urgency of taking off the hijab in America, of striving to be anonymous because of poorly masked, and sometimes completely naked, hostility towards Americans of the Muslim faith. This cannot hold, and it shames all of us.
Second: to my Muslim brothers and sisters, it is okay to be afraid. In the Jewish community we have institutions whose primary, if not sole function is to be vigilant guardians against the specter of anti-Semitism. Some in the Jewish community may mock this protectionist industry, but we do so at our own peril; all too often in our history we have misjudged our degree of safety and security. A little anxiety during relative calm can be forgiven a people whose paranoia is hard earned. You too, Muslim Americans, are to be forgiven if the exigencies of the current reality force your communities to seek protection and allies against the threat of violence. Maybe our community can be of aid to your community, and can encourage self-confidence to emerge as part of, and in relationship to, the defensive mechanisms that any minority community needs in order to ensure its continued safety. Many Americans look too quickly to you to disavow a threat of violence committed by other Muslims, when it threatens you as much as if not more than anyone else. I commit to see you as vulnerable without being exploitative or patronizing; and to stand alongside you as you are bullied.
And third: through my work over the last few years, I have learned an enormous amount about American Muslims: a community more ethnically diverse than any other American religious minority, a community that in its manifold diversities defies the homogenization implied in the very word “community,” a community that shares many descriptive adjectives and sociological realities with American Jews but is experiencing the birth of the 21st century with seemingly opposite fortunes. Now, I have self-interested needs that animate why I want to continue working with, learning from, and engaging with, American Muslims. But my third commitment is to remain curious about the complexities of your realities that defy the categories others and I might use to understand you. Engaging with the Other — any Other – often requires, painfully and paradoxically, reducing the Other to crude caricatures of character and lack of complexity simply to serve our heuristics of the world and its political agendas. What the world needs now — besides of course for love, sweet love — is more listening, and learning.
It is a scary time; if it is scary for you, it is scary for all of us. But I genuinely believe that it might be through these kinds of commitments – and only commitments like these — that we may be able to get through it. And only then actually make America great again.
Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a Fellow of The Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage Project, and the author of Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past (Brandeis, 2012).