Religion

Fighting antisemitism and Islamophobia in one breath

(RNS) — Months before Oct. 7, I was invited to be on a panel to discuss why American Jews work to counter both Islamophobia and antisemitism. The invitation came from the Shoulder-to-Shoulder Campaign, a multi-faith coalition of religious denominations committed to ending anti-Muslim hatred, discrimination and violence in the United States, which the Reconstructionist Judaism movement was instrumental in initiating. I wholeheartedly said yes.

Then came Oct. 7 and everything that has happened since. Since the attack, hate crimes against Muslims, Arabs and those who appear to be either have increased dramatically in the United States. Between Oct. 7 and Nov. 4, the Council on American Islamic Relations received 1,283 reports of bias, hate speech and violence directed at members of Muslim or Arab communities, a 216% increase over the same period in 2022.

At the same time, the Anti-Defamation League reports a 388% increase in incidences of antisemitism over the same period.

Before Oct. 7, I understood that those who harbor these forms of hate share a view of America as a white, Christian, heteronormative, able-bodied nation increasingly threatened by our growing diversity. As Eric Ward wrote in his seminal 2017 articleSkin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism,” “American White nationalism, which emerged in the wake of the 1960s civil rights struggle and descends from White supremacism, is a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core.”



The chants of “Jews will not replace us” that we heard in Charlottesville or the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in other words, are animated by the same hatred as the attacks on Asian Americans in Atlanta and the shooting at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, as well as the anti-immigrant fervor of the Trump years. The same ideology has taken a terrible toll on American Muslims and Arab Americans since 9/11, for which they were unfairly blamed.

We can see this repeating itself in the shocking explosion of hate aimed at Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities, in posts on the internet, in spray-painted graffiti, boycotts, tearing off head-coverings (Muslim women’s hijabs as well as Jewish kippot), threats of violence and actual violence.

Some bad actors are clearly using this moment to incite fear, suspicion and a drive toward extremism by flooding the internet and social media with misinformation, malicious bigotry and confusion. According to some reports, Chinese state agencies have trafficked in antisemitic rhetoric on social media, and the governments of Russia and Iran are also actively spreading hate. Their aim, according to Imram Ahmed, director of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, is to wreak havoc on American democracy and “mobilize real-world violence against Jews and Muslims, heaping more pain into the world.”

Others with real-world ties to the conflict in the Middle East are seizing the opportunity to express the most extreme views of their position. In the Jewish community, I know, these trends are not monolithic. The legitimate fear for a Jewish future lead some to double down on binary good vs. evil, us vs. them thinking and to paint all Arabs, Muslims and especially Palestinians with a broad brush. More calculated right-wing Jews are using this moment to support expansionist policies, inciting violence against Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and even here in the U.S.

We need to reclaim the connections, the partnerships and the spaces we have been driven from in fear. 

Those of us who care about these issues are the best situated to stand against this frightening trend. As a Jew, I must find the courage to stand against the bigotry coming out of my community. I need to question statements that seem overbroad or unsubstantiated, to counter one-sided narratives that deny the humanity of the other, to remind my fellow Jews that it is never OK to say, “all Muslims” or “all Arabs.”

I am painfully aware that to do that work, to bring that voice to the table, I need to know that my Muslim and Arab friends are doing the same work in their community. This is not a time to turn our back on interfaith and interethnic partnerships. Rather, it is exactly the time to hold on to each other.

It is much more complicated to say this today than on Oct. 6. Still, it is much more profoundly urgent that we recommit to fighting antisemitism and Islamophobia, both externally and internally, together.

How do we do that in this fraught, divisive and painful moment?

We must first counter misinformation when we see and hear it. Refrain from reposting or sharing things that are not verifiable or from trustworthy sources — question people’s assumptions when they ascribe motive or meaning before knowing the whole story.

Practice saying, “Not all Muslims,” “not all Arabs” and “not all Jews” until it is clear that you won’t abide anyone making broad-based and collective accusations in your presence.

Reconnect with your friends and acquaintances from the other community — the Muslim friend you haven’t seen in a while, the Jewish cousin you have meant to call. It matters, it’s essential.

Listen to friends expressing pain over what their community is experiencing, even if you disagree with their analysis and policy positions. Connect over the pain and let the policy go for now.



Read President Biden’s first national strategy to combat antisemitism that he announced over the summer and his more recent announcement to create a similar plan to combat Islamophobia. Share this information with others and look for ways to get involved. Urge Congress to allocate the financial resources needed to follow through on these critical steps.

Fight book bans and support education that teaches factual history, civics and social and emotional learning so American children grow into well-rounded, fully developed adults who value and welcome difference and diversity.

Finally, let’s help all Americans feel and be safer by pushing Congress to re-enact rational gun laws. An assault weapons ban is the most direct way to make Jews, Muslims and Arabs feel safe. If Cornell University’s Jewish spaces didn’t have to go into lockdown because someone has threatened to bring an AR-15 to campus, or if three young Palestinians could walk to dinner in Burlington, Vermont, trusting they won’t be shot, if we could all go to our mosques, synagogues and churches without the threat of mass shootings, we would all be a lot calmer, safer and able to take on the other challenges before us.

All people with a stake in diverse America must stand together to counter the rise of a white Christian supremacy that marries racism, antisemitism, patriarchy, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, transphobia and homophobia. Our democracy, freedom and our very lives are at stake.

(Rabbi Elyse Wechterman is CEO of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)


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