Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

We Muslims Must Fight Anti-Semitism In Our Own Communities

Anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise across the country. Last week alone, three Orthodox Jews were attacked in Brooklyn in vicious hate crimes, just the most recent attacks in a year that saw two synagogue shootings. From spray-painted swastikas to anti-Semitic messages written in the sand on beaches to the attacks in Crown Heights to murder, hate crimes against Jews have doubled this year, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Unfortunately, anti-Semitic hate doesn’t have just one source, despite the political polarization that would have you believe it. It comes from both sides of the political spectrum. And while bigotry against Jews from the traditional populist far-right is well-known and understood in the West, the Muslim variant of anti-Semitism is much newer — and much less likely to be given the attention it requires, especially on the left. Because Muslims themselves are frequently victims of discrimination and have also faced hate crimes or acts of terrorism, liberals often feel uncomfortable discussing Muslim anti-Semitism.

One person willing to talk about it is New York Times opinion writer and editor Bari Weiss, whose new book How to Fight Anti-Semitism serves as a call to arms against global anti-Semitism. Weiss identifies three main sources of anti-Semitism today: white nationalists, anti-Zionists, and European Muslims, particularly among refugees. It’s this third group that is likely to get Weiss the most pushback. How can people who are themselves oppressed be accused of hate?

But history isn’t neatly divided into piles of oppressors and victims, and biased attitudes can taint all of us.

Just look to Miami in the 1980s, where members of two historically underprivileged communities, African-Americans and Cuban-Americans, frequently clashed in acts of racially-tinged violence.

Having spent three decades as a member of America’s Muslim community, I can say that casual anti-Semitism is an unfortunate reality in too many social gatherings and communal spaces. Too many Muslims harbor irrational fears of our Jewish brothers and sisters, and are too quick to conflate extreme actors — like far-right Israeli politicians — with all Jews, much in the same way many Americans automatically associate Muslims with terrorism.

As Weiss catalogs with a salvo of statistics, this problem is much more severe among Europe’s Muslims. One ADL poll she cites found that a little more than half of Muslims in a series of Western European countries held anti-Semitic attitudes — considerably higher than the non-Muslim populations of the same countries.

Weiss’s book can sound the alarm about this problem, but it is ultimately on Muslims ourselves to do something about it because we have the most credibility within our own religious community.

Research shows that intergroup contact is one of the most powerful ways to reduce social tensions and bridge divides.

We as Muslims must do more to show our friends and family that that negative stereotypes about Jews are not only false but corrosive. They harden our hearts and close our minds, while depriving us of friendships and relationships that could brighten lives on both sides. Meanwhile, those in the Jewish community who have deep distrust of Muslims — Jewish Islamophobia is a very real phenomenon as well — must make a similar commitment.

On a personal basis, this starts by getting out of our bubbles and befriending members of the other community. As a Muslim, that means joining my Jewish friends at a Seder dinner, as I did one year, or volunteering alongside Jewish non-profit organizations. For Jews, this could mean attending prayers at a local mosque or taking part in interfaith activities like the annual Fast-a-Thon, where Muslim students invite non-Muslims to fast with them for one day of Ramadan each year.

Above all, we have to be able to see each other as individuals and not just members of out-groups, and understand that we all have a lot in common.

That’s what the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, an international peace-building organization, preaches. It pairs Muslim and Jewish women to take part in interfaith exchange programs designed to build life-long bonds between the two; over 2,500 women have taken part in the organization’s activities since its inception.

Sheryl Olitzky, the organization’s executive director, stressed to me in an interview earlier this year that the organization succeeds through building lasting empathy and asking its members to think about eachother. “How do you put yourself in your sister’s shoes?” she asked. “How do you see the world through their eyes? How do you listen with your heart instead of your eyes?”

Ultimately, policymakers have a role to play too. One of the best ways to reduce global tensions between Jews and Muslims would be to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While the conflict is not primarily about religious differences, the very real pain of predominantly Muslim Palestinians and predominantly Jewish Israelis caught up in the conflict creates animosity across the globe — as a Jewish family living in London can feel the pain of an Israeli murdered in a Palestinian terror attack and a Muslim couple in New York feels anguish following the death of a Palestinian civilian at the hands of an Israeli military operation.

This often leads people on both sides to wrongly associate the acts of a few terrorists or military commanders on the wider Jewish or Muslim global community.

We know that during the height of the Northern Ireland conflict, some Irish American Catholics were radicalized by acts of violence taking place thousands of miles away; some even donated to the terrorist Irish Republican Army.

But following the Good Friday Agreement and comprehensive peace talks, tensions between Irish Catholics and Protestants largely subsided, both in Ireland and in the United States.

By finally bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a close, we would remove one of the accelerators of global Jewish-Muslim animosity.

But it starts by accepting the reality that Muslim anti-Semitism as well as Jewish Islamophobia are real problems.

That doesn’t mean that every Muslim or Jew who harbors resentment towards the other side is fundamentally a bad person. Ethnic and racial resentment, as Weiss’s book reminds us, have been with human beings for thousands of years, and will not disappear overnight. But we know that anti-Semitism’s dark history has brought no good to this world, and the quicker that we commit ourselves to fighting it and overcoming all forms of prejudice, the better off we will be.

Zaid Jilani is a journalist who hails from Atlanta, Georgia. He has previously worked as a reporter-blogger for ThinkProgress, United Republic, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Alternet. He is the cohost of the podcast “Extremely Offline.”

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.