Why I Went to Israel

Yes, I confess: I went to Israel. With the Shalom Hartman Institute, which is proudly Zionist, unlike me, and entirely opposed to "BDS" (boycott, divestment, sanctions), unlike me. More than that, I didn't go alone. I went with 15 other American Muslims leaders. They had their own reasons, just as I had mine: America -- and the Iraq War.

Back in college, I was the very picture of the earnest activist: "Enough demonstrations and we'll change the world!" I helped bring tens of thousands to the streets to stop a belli without casus. Forget the Arab street: This was the American street. But Operation Iraqi Freedom, a war as unnecessary as it turned out tragic, proceeded as if our numbers meant nothing.

We were steamrolled. Ignored. Disregarded. Even though we were in the right, even though we could've saved our country so much harm -- and Iraq so much more. I wondered what I might do to prevent this from happening again. For one thing, I needed to contribute to the conversations that led to these kinds of decisions. That meant I needed to be in the rooms where they happened. But I also needed to bring more than my identity to the table.

Because I was usually reduced to an identity. Muslim. Pakistani. Foreign. Other. Which meant biased. Partial. Insufficient. This is why Reza Aslan gets challenged (not very successfully, I happily might add) over his 'right' to write a book about Jesus, while Duck Dynasty gets to pontificate about radical Islam while looking like radical Islam.

So I enrolled at Columbia University, where I study the modern Muslim world. I worked for prestigious think tanks in New York City and Washington, D.C. I traveled the world to educate and to be educated. I wrote widely. But time and again, Israel and Palestine stopped the conversation, especially when it was between most American Muslim and American Jewish communities. It was the giant rampaging elephant in the room, sucking up all the oxygen and destroying the furniture.

So Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI) entered the picture at exactly the right time. For those who don't know it, SHI is a very influential Jewish academic institution headquartered in New York City and Jerusalem. SHI teaches many prominent American and Israeli Jewish leaders, and works with the Israeli military, unaffiliated Christian leaders, and, so they hoped, Muslim leaders. I was asked to join the inaugural class of the Muslim Leadership Initiative, or MLI.

Together with 15 other Muslim leaders, we'd learn how Israeli and American Jews understand Judaism, Zionism, and the idea of a holy land. (We weren't paid for this -- our transportation and accommodation expenses were covered, but nothing beyond that.) I did not make the decision to go lightly, but I also knew that my work could proceed no further without firsthand knowledge of Israel -- and Palestine.

Having spent the previous few years working in American foreign policy, I recognized that there could be no productive change without taking into account my country's relationship with Israel, and lack of relationship with Palestinians. Indeed, Israel remains inseparable from much of what our country does, says, and wants, in a very important part of the world. Every time I spoke about Islam and Muslims, and I did (and do) that a lot, I was challenging many in the audience to turn their worldview upside down. Surely I could challenge my own views and perspectives.

Not just to know -- because that is valuable -- but to be a more effective participant in critical American conversations about our foreign policy, our relationship to the Middle East, and our path forward in a changing world.

Because I'd been to Israel and Palestine before. I had a small window into the apartheid and occupation that Palestinians know all too well, especially since my initial visit to the Old City and other parts of Palestine coincided with the al-Aqsa intifada. I'd also spent years studying Zionism, Israel and Palestine -- as well as modern Arab and Muslim nationalisms and identities. In fact I had been on the streets of New York, protesting, after the Israeli military stormed Jenin.

But I'd never sat down with Israelis for any length of time, although the value of this experience was challenged by the fact that I'd be going with a Zionist institution. MLI would be funded by a Foundation that has also supported some of the worst anti-Muslim bigots this side of the Bush administration. It sounded terrible. But it was actually backwards: We weren't going to share funding sources with Islamophobes, but in part to challenge that funding.

See, MLI was created when some American Muslims threw down the gauntlet. They asked why a mainstream American Jewish organization, which worked with Jews across the political spectrum, could accept funding from the same Berrie Foundation that funded folks like Steve Emerson, who David Cameron recently compared to an April Fool's joke. Hartman's response to this was unexpected. And inspiring.

They proposed we talk. About that, and about many other things. They could not understand our criticisms of Islamophobia without understanding us, and we in turn wanted to understand their diverse perspectives on Israel, Zionism, and Judaism.

When I shared my concerns about MLI with Imam Abdullah Antepli, of Duke University, one of the creators of the program, he asked me what could convince me to go.

First, I said, that we'd hear out SHI's scholars, but any and every topic should be on the table. We would be happy to go where SHI wanted us to, as long as SHI gave us access to places we wanted to. We experienced a lot of Israel -- but also a lot of Palestine.

We went to Hebron, to Jenin, to Ramallah, to Bil'in, to Palestinian communities in the Triangle, to Haifa and to Jaffa. Unescorted, we traveled Palestinian communities. We met Palestinians of different ages, religions and backgrounds, and had numerous candid conversations.

Our second condition? That there'd be no expectations of us beyond participation.

We would not be asked to endorse, support, or reject any position -- including BDS. Had there been even an insinuation that we'd be expected to say or do anything contrary to our convictions, I would have immediately and happily walked away. I would have publicly said as much, and repudiated the Initiative.

(For the record, I support economic boycotts, and believe targeted campaigns of sanction and divestment have real value. But I take Noam Chomsky's position on academic and cultural boycotts, believing these to be counter-productive. If we cannot talk to people who are willing to talk, how are we supposed to achieve our ends? Who will our partners be?)

To Hartman's credit, both conditions were not just met -- SHI was on the same page. They, too, wanted to hear diverse perspectives, desiring an intellectually and morally serious conversation. SHI hosts scholars of various political and religious persuasions, and we were exposed to a range of voices. I'm sure we surprised them on many occasions -- and they surprised us, too.

Not that you'd know it from reading about it.

On our return from our first trip to Israel and Palestine, one commentator dismissed the entire project as "faithwashing." Had I been interviewed for her article, or even contacted -- imagine that, talking to the people you're reporting about -- I would've clarified: this wasn't interfaith for me, especially not as interfaith is frequently (if inaccurately) derided.

I went because of my work in foreign policy. Because of my desire to understand conflicts by understanding the people involved in them. And to that end, MLI was a good decision. Rarely have I been part of such honest, searching, and courageous learning. Rarely have I built strong relationships with people against such differences of opinion. MLI provided dramatic and intense interaction, but also demonstrated that there are disagreements that cannot be bridged no matter how much we wish them to.

But should those differences define us? Or circumscribe our relationships?

Other critics wondered if our participation meant our cooptation. That by going, we'd bought into a sophisticated propaganda effort we were somehow too naïve to see or understand. Not only is this offensive, it is and will be unsubstantiated: There's no evidence except what people fear to be true. And I am tired of narratives grounded in insecurity. If our cause is right, we have nothing to fear from engagement. And we offer no way forward if we simply refuse to speak to anyone who disagrees with us.

Which meant, of course, that I returned from the experience changed, but I did so in the same way any of us is changed when confronted with new perspectives and improved by new relationships.

I came to learn, for example, that some American and Israeli Jews are moving apart even faster than I'd suspected, and that many American Jews face the same challenges some American Muslims still do: Cutting the cord. Every minority likes to imagine a place where she's the majority. If you're not in the minority, you won't have to understand why. You live the dream. For American Jews, that dream is Israel. Or was.

But where Israel goes, the conscience of many American Jews cannot follow. They see the dangerous mix of religion, politics, and force, and find they do not recognize themselves or their beliefs. For many of them, understanding that political disagreement, and not identity politics, informs the serious critiques presented of Israeli history and policy is important -- it is an important step to building a more sensible American foreign policy.

And while I'm sure some of SHI's scholars would not be happy with this, I didn't deny it in Israel, and won't now: I came in believing a one-state solution was the better solution, and left believing it's the only option. One state, with equal rights for all. The historical analogy in Mandatory Palestine isn't between white America and African-Americans but white America and Native Americans, but all the same, the best solution to ending the occupation is a civil rights model with substantial autonomy for both peoples.

If there's still time.

I left feeling distinctly pessimistic about Israel's circumstances, politics, and attitude to Palestine and the region. I hope I'm wrong, but I can't and won't lie about what I saw. Or what I didn't see. And this is so important to us in America.

Most of the world has rightly been sympathetic to Palestine -- with good reason -- and now even our closest allies are insisting that much more must be done for Palestinians. We lose what moral clout we have left -- see the Iraq War -- over our defense of Israel even when it acts against our interests and values. Yet, again, how can we make that change without the support of fellow Americans who identify with Israel?

I did not go imagining I would single-handedly solve anything, nor did any of us go presuming to speak for or represent Palestinians. I went to better understand, and to invest in a relationship we see far more promise in -- that between American Muslims and American Jews. Our communities are small, but remarkably talented, and while American Muslim life hasn't progressed nearly as far institutionally, it's only a matter of time.

When that moment comes, how will we regard one another?

Because there was a deeper humanity we found through MLI, a deeper tragedy revealed through direct contacts. This is not to say that we should forget historical injustices: Far from it. When Israel was created, Palestinians were expelled en masse. Many are still refugees.

Then, however -- and never do two wrongs make a right -- huge numbers of Middle Eastern Jews were expelled from their homes, and forced to make a home in Israel. That is the tragedy of a conflict that becomes enmeshed in mutual exclusions.

That is precisely the kind of reciprocity I want us to avoid. For our communities, and for America. We cannot hold our shared country hostage to our disagreements. And disparagements.

Because there's real anti-Muslim sentiment in some Jewish circles, and it justifies violence and bigotry: we saw how a war on Gaza was justified. Many at SHI were keen to learn more about Islamophobia, where it comes from, and why it's so harmful. They were so open to this that, at the very beginning of our first sessions in Israel, we sat down for well over an hour to discuss the groundbreaking study of Islamophobia and its funding streams.

Titled Fear, Inc., one of its lead writers, Wajahat Ali, was there to help steer the conversation.

Because there's also real anti-Semitic sentiment in some Muslim circles, which has lethal and frightening consequences: we know what happened in Paris, and we know that isn't the first time Muslims have targeted Jews for being Jews. We in MLI gained new insight into this when a handful of critics in our community seemed motivated in their opposition to our program not on principle but by prejudice.

Of course, there remain profound disagreements between SHI and MLI, many of which we'll perhaps never move past, but too much is at stake for us to not try to build bridges. This doesn't mean presenting false moral equivalencies, but it also doesn't mean ignoring one another, or passing over the elephants in the room in the naïve belief that all is well. In America our communities should be concerned that mutual suspicion not limit our civic contributions.

Our country deserves better, and we owe the peoples of the Middle East better, too.