"I don't decide to represent anything except myself. But that self is full of collective memory." - Mahmoud Darwish, Palestinian national poet
I am the only Palestinian-American who participated in the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), a program sponsored by the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute, inviting Muslim-Americans to learn about Judaism, Zionism and the Jewish people.
My involvement in MLI is the continuation of a personal journey towards healing that began over 20 years ago, a journey that has forced me to confront layers of trauma, pain, anger, and loss. I lived under Israeli military occupation for 27 years. As a child, I have vivid memories of soldiers lobbing tear gas canisters into my grade-school classroom. I remember roaming the streets of Ramallah collecting empty bullet shell casings in the hour or two of respite after multiple round-the-clock curfews. After graduating from college, I became a journalist to give Palestinians the opportunity to tell our own story. I assisted in the production of several documentaries, most notably Journey to the Occupied Lands, a PBS Frontline film, and People and the Land. In 1991, Israel imposed a network of barriers that restricted my movement within the West Bank, banning my travel to Jerusalem and Gaza, as well as between Palestine and Israel. The combination of systematic roadblocks and the Israeli army's refusal to grant me travel permits made it impossible for me to advance my journalism career. In 1993, I decided the time had come for me to move to the United States. The reality of living under occupation sparked an inner paradigm shift: my voice and existence matter as forms of resistance.
In 2001, my late mentor Dr. Maher Hathout encouraged me to engage in Muslim-Jewish dialogue. The Los Angeles-based dialogue aimed at fostering better relations between the two communities and resisting the import of the Middle East conflict into our local neighborhoods. Discussion focused on faith, U.S. Muslim-Jewish relations, civil liberties, and the Iraq war, yet I felt frustrated: there was never discussion of the Zionist influences on American Jews, the immorality of the occupation, or how to end it.
Last year, I was saddened by the vocal opposition of some Muslim-Americans in response to the launching of the Muslim Leadership Initiative. Some questioned the all-expenses paid program and the intentions of the organizer. Others refused to rationally dialogue to understand the goals of MLI, instead jumping to their own conclusions. It seemed irresponsible to use tactical differences to accuse participants of treason, complicity with the occupation, or "faith-washing" without evidence to prove such claims.
I reached out to the Muslim co-coordinator of MLI Abdullah Antepli, a former seminary colleague. The point of MLI, he explained, was opening the doors to working with Orthodox Jewish leaders. I consulted with prominent Muslim-American and Palestinian leaders, including Palestinian Christians. Although I was aware the majority of Palestinian-Americans' response to MLI was very negative, I decided to join the program. My participation was grounded in Islamic theological values. Confronting injustice and seeking benefits have always been integral to the legal and ethical foundation of Islam. My goal was to engage Zionists to learn, address injustice and create partnerships to benefit Muslim-Jewish relations. Those goals were the measure by which I set out to evaluate the effectiveness of my participation. Disengagement would have been a far easier task after all, yet I embraced the challenge.
In January, I traveled to Jerusalem as part of the second MLI cohort. I was intrigued by the broad-based curriculum reflecting Jewish diversity politically, ethnically and religiously, a curriculum also offered to rabbis and Evangelical Christians. Lectures included biblical covenants, Jewish chosenness, Jerusalem and its significance, and political Zionism. Discussion led to challenging Zionist perspectives, which resulted in a better understanding of Zionism. Until then, I had received most of my information on Zionism from my own community, not from its primary sources.
Hardships Faced and Benefits Achieved
Was my participation in MLI worth the sacrifice and hardship? In 2005, Israel denied me entry at the Tel Aviv airport. Since then my access to Jerusalem has been restricted. It was necessary for me to return to the Holy City and experience it in all its dysfunction: the Zionist blindness to the Palestinian existence despite close physical proximity. It was critical for me to challenge and contextualize the Israeli mindset, and examine biblical narratives, political ideologies, and psychological barriers justifying the occupation and rendering my people "non-existent." For the first time in my life, I was engaging Zionists personally as an academic, yet deep inside, still I was an occupied man confronting his occupiers.
My cohort participants, on the other hand, had had no firsthand experience and lacked context for the Palestinians' suffering. I wondered if they were able to connect the ideology of Zionism introduced by MLI to the Israeli occupation's systematic policies directed against the Palestinians. The recruitment of participants naïve to the subtleties of the occupation is problematic and the orientation session failed to well acquaint cohort participants with the historical and current realities of the conflict.
Aside from teaching Zionism to its participants, MLI did not yield any benefits to Muslim-Americans that could not be reached independently. In addition, the promises of MLI becoming a gateway to creating Muslim-Jewish partnerships were exaggerated. The sponsors of MLI failed to bring Muslim-Americans and Orthodox Jews in a partnership, despite having organized two cohorts in the past two years. Addressing the cohorts' participants at a MLI-sponsored retreat, Nathan Diament, leader of the influential Orthodox Union, ruled out cooperation with anyone that would not condemn terrorism and violence against Israel. In reality, Islamic organizations and scores of Muslim leaders had already condemned terrorism and extremism, especially attacks on innocent civilians.
A Lack of Moral Foundation
In the end, the hardships, risks, and inadequacies of the program far outweighed its benefits. As a result of debating the merits of MLI, the Muslim-American community experienced unnecessary pain, all in the aftermath of the brutal assault on Gaza which further added insult to injury. In addition, MLI proved incapable of either challenging injustice or changing Israeli/Jewish attitudes towards the Palestinians. I asked Rabbi Donniel Hartman to address the 2014 Gaza war. My cohort listened as he passionately defended and justified Israeli actions, ignoring the slaughter of hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians. Furthermore, MLI disappointed Palestinians with its refusal to issue a morally-principled statement against the revocation of residency status of Jerusalemite Palestinians and the appropriation of their properties. Two weeks ago, I spoke with the Jewish co-coordinator of MLI Yossi Klein Halevi who stated the only reason for Shalom Hartman's involvement with MLI was due to Antepli's insistence. I decided to withdraw as engagement with the Muslim Leadership Initiative became far less genuine.
I have an obligation to share my concerns publicly. The leaders of MLI have vehemently rejected restructuring the program into a non-profit institution, independent of Shalom Hartman, despite Muslim-Americans' pledges to provide financial support. Criticism of current MLI funding sources is legitimate and ignoring calls for financial independence only undermines the legitimacy of MLI. Like my second cohort participants, I was unaware of the funding sources until a report surfaced while we were in Jerusalem. Furthermore, MLI co-coordinators have suppressed Palestinian attempts to give voice to an independent educational Palestinian narrative to counterbalance that which is taught at Shalom Hartman Institute. Such reforms may have bridged the gaps that led to the Palestinians' declaring MLI "a tool of the occupation". As the third cohort of the Muslim Leadership Initiative gets underway, it has become impossible for MLI to meet with any credible Palestinian. Without a Palestinian narrative, MLI risks becoming a Hasbara program, Israeli-propaganda.
As I disengage from MLI, it does not necessitate an end to my dialogue with Zionists. Dialogue with Zionists is as crucial to Muslim-Jewish understanding as outreach to Evangelicals to advance Christian-Muslim relations. I will continue my journey towards healing that I yearn to achieve. While I am done with MLI, I remain occupied with much deeper wounds inflicted by its thoughtlessness.