(March 17, 2017 / JNS) By Jonathan S. Tobin/JNS.org
One of the cornerstones of Jewish community relations work is building bridges to other religious and ethnic communities. The principle behind these efforts is sound. We know that our safety as a minority group is dependent on respect for the rights of others. Dialogue with different peoples and faiths can build relationships and broaden our understanding of the world, as well as strengthening the bonds that unite us as fellow Americans in spite of some of our differences.
But as the Jews who have made Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour into a heroine of the “resistance” against President Donald Trump have reminded us, the problem with interfaith dialogue is that it is not an end unto itself. If the end result is to both legitimize and strengthen those who are working to undermine the rights of the Jews, then what we are witnessing is a self-destructive act that does far more harm than good.
Sarsour bolted to prominence in January as one of the organizers of the women’s protest march in Washington, D.C., that was intended as a defiant answer to Trump’s inauguration. She also helped plan the International Women’s Strike earlier this month that sought to mobilize those who are upset about Trump’s rise. Shared antipathy for Trump erased any qualms mainstream liberals might have had about making common cause with an anti-Zionist who believes Israel should be destroyed.
Their argument was that one of the cornerstones of interfaith dialogue requires us to seek common ground on those issues where we agree, rather than to focus only on our disagreements. Sarsour gave her defenders even more ammunition when she helped raise money to restore a St. Louis Jewish cemetery that was damaged by vandals.
But Sarsour made the discussion even more complicated by making it clear to her liberal defenders that they needed to check their Jewish identity at the door when they joined her in anti-Trump protests. In an interview with The Nation, she said feminism and Zionism are incompatible because Zionists ignored the rights of Palestinian women. That position was reflected in the published platform of the Women’s Strike, which explicitly listed the “decolonization of Palestine”—in plain language, the destruction of Israel. Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian woman who was convicted for her role in the terrorist murder of two Israelis in 1969, signed the letter that introduced the strike. Odeh, who now lives in the U.S., is celebrated by the left as an “activist” and spoke at the national conference of the pro-BDS group Jewish Voice for Peace, another curious example of dialogue.
Sarsour speaks of respect, yet she and Odeh have no respect for the rights of Jewish women in Israel to live in freedom in their own country without fearing terrorist murderers. Asking people to embrace either feminism or Zionism is a false choice. Indeed, one might also wonder how an advocate of Islamic sharia law like the hijab-wearing Sarsour could be accepted as a defender of the rights of women. Building bridges to Sarsour requires more than just agreeing to disagree. If you are going to share a platform with her, you are signaling that Jewish rights and the survival of Israel can be forgotten in the name of “resistance.”
This episode illustrates a basic fallacy about the way interfaith dialogue is practiced with respect to Israeli issues.
Concern about desecrated cemeteries and bomb threats against Jewish community centers is praiseworthy. But when those who support a BDS movement that traffics in anti-Semitic slurs and opposes Jewish rights—as Sarsour does—join the ranks of those sounding the alarm about threats to Jews, it’s time to realize that the issue has been hijacked by some on the left for partisan reasons that have nothing to do with Jewish security.
More to the point, when interfaith efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict feature Arabs and Muslims bashing Israel, but Jews meekly agreeing with the anti-Zionist sentiments or staying silent—as all too many such dialogues have played out—it does nothing to build bridges, let alone peace.
Genuine efforts to find common ground between diverse communities can help both sides and reduce tension. But Linda Sarsour’s liberal allies need to acknowledge that she has taught us that coalition building predicated on the abandonment of the defense of Jewish rights makes a mockery of the concept.
Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.