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The ‘Anti-Semitism Awareness Act’ Is the Opposite of What Jews and Muslims Need Now

I was pleased to see Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, gallantly tweet that he would “register as a Muslim” in the event that such a registry were created. But despite this initial gesture, actions that the organization has since taken are less encouraging.

After initially defending Rep. Keith Ellison from charges of anti-Semitism, ADL has decided not to support Ellison’s bid for chair of the Democratic National Committee, even though Ellison, a tireless public servant and the first Muslim ever elected to the U.S. Congress, is well liked by his district’s Jewish community and praised for his efforts to improve Jewish-Muslim relations.

Now, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2016, which ADL sponsored, would direct the Department of Education to investigate criticism of Israel as a form of anti-Semitism. Contrary to ADL’s claim that the legislation defines when a line is crossed between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, the definition used in the bill erases that distinction with broad charges of “double standards” and “demonization.”

While all around us white nationalism is ascendant, supporters of this legislation are asking Congress to take on the threat of college student activists for Palestinian rights. In an era in which Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are both on the rise, these actions are deeply harmful. Now, more urgently than ever, Jewish organizations need to engage those voices, especially those of Arabs and Muslims, who disagree with them on Israel.

To be clear, ADL has condemned the more egregious proponents of Islamophobia in the Jewish community. The organization should be applauded for its work fighting unfair opposition to mosque construction and supporting the right of Muslim women to wear a headcovering in court. The work ADL has done to combat hate crimes against Muslims is laudable. But characterizing Muslim political organizing, particularly that which advocates for Palestinians, as dangerous to Jews is unfair and wrong. The current of Islamophobia in America runs much deeper than clownish bigotry.

During my final year of law school, I was a legal intern in the Council on American Islamic Relations’ Anaheim, California, office. I was the only Jewish person in the office and in fact the only Jewish law clerk that small office ever had. I learned that American Muslims lived under a cloud of suspicion, both from their neighbors and from the government. They found themselves inexplicably on watch-lists and were visited by law enforcement. They saw immigration petitions of loved ones delayed for no reason. The young Muslim interns would consistently tell me that their parents discouraged them from political organizing, especially on Palestine, because the more outspoken a Muslim was, the more likely that person was to face increased scrutiny.

I remembered the stories my father told me about being young and Jewish in the late 1950s and how his father had given him similar advice. The attachment of suspicion to American Muslims, their communities and their political organizing should remind us all of a bygone era in which American Jews were viewed as anti-American until proved otherwise.

Every major Jewish organization, including ADL, remained silent in 2002 when the original “Muslim registry,” the National Security Exit Entry Registration System, which compelled noncitizens from Muslim-majority countries to register and be fingerprinted, came out. Other established civil rights organizations and experts resoundingly condemned the program. But major Jewish organizations like ADL, a century-old institution dedicated to civil rights, took no action opposing it. Similarly, major Jewish organizations remained silent about the no-fly lists and other national security watch-lists that civil rights experts agreed were overbroad and impacted innocent Muslims.

ADL has also repeated unproven allegations about links to terror groups overseas against Muslim civil rights organizations doing important grassroots work in Muslim communities, such as the Council on American Islamic Relations, where I once worked. ADL also placed the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an important player in Muslim-Jewish relations, on its 2013 “List of Top Anti-Israel Organizations,” which still appears on its website.

In 2010, Abraham Foxman, then the head of ADL, publicly commented after grotesque protests in New York over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” Foxman said that no Islamic center should be built near Ground Zero for the sake of “sensitivity to the victims,” as though there were no Muslim victims on 9/11 and no daylight between the perpetrators of the attacks and Islam. As far as I can tell, no apology has ever been issued to the American Muslim community, only a half-hearted “clarification.”

The ADL has new leadership, and Greenblatt is not Foxman. But in this era, we need a new approach, and ADL needs to go much further than it has. Instead of working to outlaw speech highly critical of Israel, we should be fostering broader, deeper conversations about what divides us. Instead of disparaging Muslim organizations who don’t toe the Jewish community line on Israel, we should commit to respecting that we have different views, debating those views openly, working together where we can and coming to one another when problems arise.

The results of the 2016 election show that all of us have a stake in fighting bigotry. It is time to put aside old orthodoxies and fight the resurgence of nationalism and racism together.

Rachel Roberts is an attorney and activist based in Washington, D.C. Read her writing at and follow her on Twitter, @rachelhinda


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