I was surprised recently to read that the Executive Director of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America spoke at a policy conference of the North American Jewish organisation Hillel. I was even more suprised at what he said. And I was shocked that he then trumpeted the event as some kind of big move forward for American Muslims. I should confess that my experiences with Hillel members were at campuses in North America (during a speaking tour 2 years ago organised by the Vancouver-based Palestine Solidarity Group) when I spoke on Palestine and, more particularly, Israel as an Apartheid state.
At one Vancouver campus, they repeatedly tore down the posters so that by the time the event happened, it was dominated by about 80% Hillel supporters. At some other campuses they heckled, tried to disrupt and refused to listen. In Berkeley, members of Hillel joined a campaign to boycott a dinner organised by the Boalt Law Foundation. The dinner is the main annual fund-raising event to raise funds for disadvantaged students to study at Boalt Law School. The BLF's crime? They co-sponsored my lecture there. After much trauma for the BLF and Palestinians and Palestinian supporters at the university, a joint letter was issued. The complainants, including the Hillel members, could not even use the term "Palestinian students" in the letter; it had to be "students of Palestinian descent".
Last year, at a university in Vancouver, Hillel used racial profiling to forcefully prevent certain people from entering a hall where an Israeli official was speaking.
Perhaps the PMUNA rep didn't know, but at the same time that he was speaking at this conference, there was also a session addressed by a director of Aipac (which was a co-sponsor of the conference). And another parallel session called "Zionism vs. Social Justice" examining "the points of friction between Zionism and a social justice based world view".
I wondered why a "progressive Muslim" would speak on "Muslim-Jewish Relations: From Confrontation to Understanding" at the conference of a pro-zionist (if not Zionist itself) organisation. Certainly, there might be elements in Hillel that are not zionist, but the organisational culture certainly seems to be. One of its main activities is its "Birthright Israel tour". You can bet they do NOT recognise the birthright of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands!
I suppose that by asking these questions, I have fallen into the trap that the PMUNA rep referred to in his lecture:
“American Jews and Muslims could find a common agenda on issues like social justice and education, but they can rarely get beyond a certain international conflict,” he said.
Maybe I should stop talking about a "certain international conflict" and rather think about issues like social justice and education. Except I find it very difficult to talk about social justice, education, racism, apartheid, justice, injustice, water, electricity, human dignity, food, children... without also thinking of this "certain international conflict". Perhaps I should attend a session on "Zionism vs. Social Justice" to understand what social justice issues Muslims and Zionists can work together on?
According to an article in the Jewish Journal, authored by its Zionist editor (oops, maybe I shouldnt use the "Z" word? Is that a bad thing?) the PMUNA speaker "focused on the issues that should unite moderates, liberals and progressives in our two communities"? Hey, I have Jewish friends and comrades but I don't know any Zionists that are "moderates", "liberals" or "progressives". If the PMUNA regards Hillel as any of those, then this is a sad day for the values of justice and truth that we all hold dear.
I'm sure that the speaker said some important things about Muslim-Jewish relationships in the US. But it needs to be remembered that that "certain international conflict" goes to the heart of the meaning of justice, racism, equality, dispossession, international law and freedom.
Engaging Jews is one thing; trying to "unite" with Zionists is something completely different.
In conclusion, let me give the last word on this to our PMUNA rep, with a quote from his response to my criticism: "In the fight to preserve cherished civil liberties, American Jews and American Muslims are natural allies... And at the risk of not sounding 'internationalist' enough, American Jews, Muslims, and Arabs are Americans first and foremost..."