“Prayer for World Jewry: Lighting the candles is a privilege we engage in that displays the freedom we, as B’nai B’rith Girls, and as Jews are able to exhibit. However, there are Jews in our world who are not allowed to observe Judaism freely. Oppressed Jewry is a major concern in our society. The light that is burning soooo brightly is the light of hope. We hope that one day all oppressed Jews will be able to practice Judaism as freely as we are doing here today.”
I said these words every Monday night of high school at the beginning of my Jewish youth group meetings, and honestly, every Monday night they rang equally empty, like the lyrics to some top 40 song I had memorized because it was on the radio so much. Personally, I have never experienced anti-Semitism growing up in a suburb of DC, and since I also don’t wear a yarmulke or long skirts, I have never had to think about expressing my religion and facing potential discrimination for the way I look or what I wear.
But I kept thinking about my Jewish identity as a student of Arabic in college, and then as a student in Turkey. This was probably because of internalized perceptions from my own community that anti-Zionist opinions in Arabic-speaking or Muslim communities translate to latent or overt anti-Semitism, and danger for me.
These perceptions are simplistic on many levels and monolithize groups of people. My desire to unpack and engage with them led me to focus on Turkish Jewish identity for my Master’s project in Istanbul. On a broader level, I was focused on proving—to my community at home and myself—that not all Turkish people are Muslim, and not all Muslim people are anti-Semitic.
Then, after living in a predominantly Muslim country and returning to the U.S., I started paying attention to what it’s like to be a Muslim in the U.S. And now that I’m back in a predominantly Muslim community in Morocco, I found myself telling my host family that no, not all American people are Christian, and not all Christian people are against Muslims.
Loneliness in Watching From Afar
But as latent bigotry in our country dominates the news once again, reported hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. increases, and our President-Elect’s national security picks increase a perception that our government is against the religion of Islam, I find myself wanting to do more than just debunk monolithic images of America here. I want to remind my host family in Morocco and myself that, as it becomes harder to be a Muslim in the U.S., religious diversity is possible and important in all countries, including the U.S., and including Morocco.
That’s why I decided to tell my host family that I’m Jewish. I was reading my laptop in the main room, and they were sitting around me. I had one tab open to an email with the subject “Diag Protest Tonight” from the University of Michigan Arabic Activities listserv that I’m (maybe embarrassingly) still a part of. The email informed me about a student forced to remove her hijab under threat of being set on fire. I had another tab open to swastikas and other neo-Nazi graffiti found in the U.S. on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. I felt upset for Jews and Muslims at the same time, and I wanted my host family to understand and empathize along with me. They did.
There are plenty of challenges in Morocco, but I don’t think that expressing your Muslim identity is one of them. In the U.S., however, observing your religion and feeling safe as a Muslim person was and continues to be difficult. It made me think about Muslim Atlas Corps Fellows (and other international visitors), most of who come from predominantly Muslim countries and are often driven to think about their Muslim identities—and religious minorities in their own countries—differently when they come to the U.S.
Like these Muslim Fellows, I came to Turkey in with fears or questions from people in my Jewish community about perceptions surrounding Jews. While again, I never felt vulnerable in Turkey or here in Morocco, especially because nothing marks me as Jewish or different, this same fear drives Atlas Corps Fellows and Muslim Americans alike to consider removing their hijabs or avoiding public prayer or celebration in the U.S.
Amidst anti-Muslim rhetoric earlier in Trump’s campaign, specifically following the horrific ISIS attacks in Paris, the Atlas Corps community as a whole became very concerned about the safety and security of our Muslim Fellows. We offered a safe space to Muslim Fellows to talk about their experiences. People wanted to create a potential action plan for helping non-Muslims become allies and empowering Muslim Fellows to feel strong in the face of Islamophobia.
There was dialogue, but tangible outcomes proved more difficult, especially since Islamophobia affects Muslims in all different ways based on the intersectionalities of belief, country, religious garb, race, gender, location of service, and more. There are also non-Muslims who are perceived as Muslim and are therefore affected by Islamophobia as a form of racism. With so many different and valuable voices, there is no one prescribed solution for how to combat Islamophobia, and how to be a non-Muslim ally. At the same time, the safe space that comes out of dialogue is still helpful for people that might not understand where Islamophobia comes from and how real it is.
Regular Citizens and “Good” Citizens
That’s because dialogue focuses on individual perspective and experience in a time when heightened security concerns, atrocities, and hideous human rights violations make environments hostile or accusatory for vulnerable groups anywhere. I wrote the following in my Master’s project (I swear, it was backed up by lots of citations and stuff):
Jews, by celebrating difference and pursuing identity politics, are able to prove their loyalty and act as ambassadors of Turkish multiculturalism… (yet) reaffirming Turkish Jewish loyalty and allegiance to the Turkish state, in the context of Israel, calls Turkish Jewish loyalty into question to begin with, possibly inciting more conflation and suspicion of Turkish Jews.
In the wake of attempts to stigmatize Muslims further after the ISIL attacks in Brussels, President Obama said,
As we move forward in this fight, we have to wield another weapon alongside our airstrikes, our military, our counterterrorism work, and our diplomacy. And that's the power of our example… In that effort, our most important partners are American Muslims. That's why we have to reject any attempt to stigmatize Muslim-Americans, and their enormous contributions to our country and our way of life.
The trope of Turkish Jews acting as “good” citizens by speaking out and distancing themselves from Israel comes from the tendency to conflate someone’s personal religion (Jewish) and their affiliation with a larger international entity (the Israeli government). That is why the Turkish Chief Rabbinate issued a statement in 2014 during Israel’s military operation “Protective Edge” condemning the loss of life in Gaza and regretting the subsequent targeting of Jewish citizens in Turkey.
On a much larger scale, this tendency to tie Muslim Americans to our national strategy against terrorist groups calls their Americanness into question by asking them to be the U.S. government’s “most important partners” that help protect us and show off our multiculturalism, instead of ordinary citizens that in fact have nothing to do with international terrorist movements in the first place. This conflation is only magnified now, as Trump’s pick for CIA director believes that Muslim leaders could be “complicit” in terrorism unless they “condemn it sufficiently.”
Allyship through Empathy
When I told my host family I was Jewish, they hugged me and reminded me they love me no matter what. They had never met anyone who is Jewish, and I still had to explain to them that there is a difference between being Israeli, Zionist, and Jewish. The same kind of monolithizing people of different backgrounds or faiths compounds ignorance and hatred in the U.S. Promisingly, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) have brought together over thirty Jewish and Muslim groups to combat bigotry and protect rights of religious minorities.
But as Rabia Chaudry writes in Tablet Magazine, “some Muslims worried about being branded traitors for being associated with a Zionist organization, and some Jews worried about being associated with an Islamist group. And indeed, these fears came to pass.” Division around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict runs so deep in both Jewish and Muslim communities that on “both sides came the charge that these organizations were being used to ‘normalize’ the behavior and political beliefs of the other.”
I don’t know how to bridge the gap that the conflict—and the years of multi-layered pain and injustice—have wedged between Jewish and Muslim groups in the U.S. I also don’t think there’s one solution to cure persecution and bigotry. But on some level, as a Jew, I do know what it’s like to have real fears rooted in collective history, and to be defined by a national movement and conflict that I have no personal control over. I’m lucky that religious oppression is not a personal reality for me today, and that “lighting the candles is a privilege we engage in that displays the freedom” I was always “able to exhibit.”
Now, I hope to learn to use my background to be a more empathetic ally to people who are living in fear right now. At the same time, I want to take back my own Jewish identity from white supremacy in the U.S. and anti-Semitism around the world by welcoming other people into the U.S. and being welcomed in by others overseas. And maybe one day the world will be as hospitable as my Moroccan host family has been to me.