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Muslim Campaign For Jewish Cemetery Praised As ‘Beautiful Gesture’ — But Some Question Motives

Updated, 12:06 p.m.

Two Muslim American activists have raised more than $110,000 to help repair a vandalized Jewish cemetery in Missouri. It’s a high-profile gesture headlined by Linda Sarsour, a prominent Palestinian-American critic of Israel. Now, Jewish groups are grateful — but pondering what it means.

“This is another way for us to publicly defy the idea that Muslims and Jews can’t get along,” Sarsour told National Public Radio Wednesday.

Sarsour made the call for donations after vandals toppled or damaged more than 100 graves in the Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery in a St. Louis suburb. Police are investigating the incident and have not established whether the defacement was a hate crime. It was the latest in a series of bomb threats and defacements against Jewish sites.

Sarsour’s partner in the fundraising effort is Tarek El-Messidi of Philadelphia, whose Celebrate Mercy charity has raised funds for victims of terrorist attacks, such as the San Bernardino terrorist attack in 2015.

“I was heartbroken by that,” said El-Messidi, raised by Egyptian immigrant parents. He recalled a story from Islamic tradition, in which the Prophet Mohammed stood as a Jewish funeral procession passed by. Asked by a student why he stood to honor a Jew, the prophet replied, “was he not a soul?”

Within 24 hours, donors had topped the goal of $20,000 and by Wednesday afternoon, Sarsour and El-Messidi counted more than $93,000 in donations. Most of the money came from Muslim donors, but several Jewish donors chipped in as well.

The initiative struck a nerve among Jews.

“Deeply moving to see Muslim Americans raising $ to repair my grandparents’ cemetery,” Brad Lander, deputy leader of the New York City Council, wrote on Twitter.

“It’s sad that it’s happening in the midst of tragedy, but it’s a beautiful gesture,” Rabbi Brigitte S. Rosenberg told the Forward. She said many members of her United Hebrew Congregation, a St. Louis synagogue, have families buried in the vandalized graveyard.

Rosenberg said she saw this as a moment for Jews and Muslims to set aside the fraught politics around Israel and the Palestinians. “Whatever your views of Israel, we can set those aside and recognize that we’re human.”

The Anti-Defamation League did not respond to press questions, but was preoccupied Wednesday with a bomb threat to its Manhattan headquarters.

Sarsour has allied with far-left Jewish groups for years, including the Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. But as some Jewish figures blessed the fundraising effort as a moment of unity, others bristled at her background as a prominent advocate of the Palestinian cause.

Neither Sarsour nor the Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery responded to requests for an interview.

Sarsour was born in Brooklyn to Palestinian parents. She is the Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York and has allied with the Black Lives Matter movement. She is an outspoken proponent of the BDS movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel.

In her work, Sarsour champions “intersectionality” — advocating not only for those who share her religion, but also for others — gays, women, victims of racial profiling — who are oppressed. Lately, Sarsour has been increasingly active on the national front. She was among four co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington in January.

“If you hate the Jewish state, you hate Jews,” Morton Klein, head of the far-right Zionist Organization of America, told the Forward by phone. Klein’s organization stood almost alone among Jewish groups in supporting Trump’s immigration ban and has repeatedly accused pro-Palestinian campus groups of harboring anti-Semites.

Klein said he was skeptical of Sarsour’s motivation for raising money for the cemetery.

“All I can surmise from her raising money is that this is just a way to trick people,” he said.

El-Messidi defended the campaign. “It’s not a political stunt,” he said. “It’s humans looking out for humans.”

American Jews and Muslims overwhelmingly voted for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton over Trump in the election and both communities have seen an uptick in hate-motivated crimes in recent months. The common threat from a newly energized white supremacist movement seems to be galvanizing cooperation.

Jewish groups have sponsored Syrian refugees, protested Trump’s travel restrictions for nationals of Muslim-majority countries and invited worshippers from a firebombed Texas mosque to pray in their synagogue.

“One of the silver linings of the whole Trump administration is bringing people together and really activating people,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy organization. Hooper applauded Sarsour’s fundraising.

CAIR has butted heads with mainstream Jewish groups in the past — the ADL refuses to work with the Muslim group, citing statements the group’s leader has made about Israel — but Hooper said there is some rapprochement taking place. And though it is not always public, it is significant. “We’ve never seen the level of support that we’ve seen since the November election.”

For Sarsour, the campaign was a chance to show a positive face of Islam. She told NPR she was growing weary of seeing Muslims portrayed as perpetrators of terrorism.

“I think it was kind of light in the darkness for us to be able to tell a different kind of story,” she said.

Update note: This story was updated to include additional comments from Rabbi Brigitte S. Rosenberg.

Email Sam Kestenbaum at [email protected]


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