Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Shalom Hartman Institute, the Muslim Leadership Initiative, and “Faith Washing”

The Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, in some of whose programs I have participated,  runs one called the Muslim Leadership Initiative.  Here is a description of the program from the Hartman Institute website:

The program invites North American Muslims to explore how Jews understand Judaism, Israel, and Jewish peoplehood. The program also encourages participants to experience how Palestinians, both inside and outside Israel, identify themselves, while exploring the issues of ethics, faith, and practice…MLI seeks to expand participants' critical understanding of the complex religious, political, and socioeconomic issues facing people in Israel and Palestine. This is achieved through a rigorous academic curriculum and exposure to diverse narratives.

The program has been criticized by “organizations, groups, and individuals committed to Palestinian self-determination” for various reasons: the Hartman Institute is considered to be complicit in the Occupation and therefore should be boycotted; the Muslim Leadership Initiative provides a distorted picture of Judaism, at best, (in so far as Judaism is equated to Zionism) and is “faithwashing” hasbara at worst; the Hartman Institute is funded by Islamophobes, etc. (Many of these arguments can be found in links  here and here.)

Jewish Voice for Peace, of which I am a member, has issued the following statement:

Jewish Voice for Peace echoes the concerns of our Muslim partners who reject the efforts of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative to use interfaith relations as an excuse to justify the Israeli occupation.

We underscore that being Jewish and Judaism are not synonymous with Zionism or support for Israeli government policies. These false assumptions limit the scope of Jewish-Muslim relations and distort their nature. They also ignore the voices of countless numbers of Jews who are critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Here’s my take:

1. Supporters of BDS of Israeli academic institutions may legitimately boycott, if they so desire,  the Hartman Institute because as an institution it seems to me to fall within the PACBI guidelines. That is, as far, as I can see, the most cogent argument for pro-Palestinian voices not to participate at the Institute on principle. Like everything else regarding BDS, it’s an individual call.

2. Any rejection of the Muslim Leadership Initiative itself should be based on its curriculum, and since none of the critics refer to the curriculum, but draw inferences based on selective quotations of a website, the identities of some of the programs’ leaders, and references to organizations other than the Hartman Institute, the criticisms are flawed. Knowing some of the people involved in the program, I am sure that they want to have Muslims understand why Israel and the Land of Israel (Palestine) is important for the Jews, according to their own Zionist understanding of Judaism, which is shared by many Jews.

3. The Shalom Hartman Institute is unabashedly Zionist, and its vision of Judaism is unabashedly Zionist, what is called in Israel “centrist”.  It is also opposed to the BDS movement, as is every Israeli institution I know of.  Anybody who participates in its programs can find that much about the Institute very quickly. Muslim scholars who participate in their programs – and there have been many Palestinian Muslim leaders who have – know all this. One can participate in a program without accepting the basic premises of the people offering the program. In fact, one can learn a lot about liberal Zionism and religious Zionism in programs like that. Of course, that’s not  a sufficient reason to participate. I am a progressive, and I have no desire to participate in many programs at the Cato Institute, especially those that may be outreach, even though I may learn a lot about from them.

4. I frankly find offensive statements that tell me what Judaism/Christianity/Islam  is and isn’t.  These are big religions with multiple traditions and reducing them to one-size-fits-all is intellectually lazy and counterproducitve. I find laughable a statement like “we reject outright…the notion that what is happening in Palestine is a ‘religious conflict’.”  For many Jews and Muslims it very much is a religious conflict; that is part of the problem. And many Jews, indeed, most Jews, conflate Zionism and Judaism. I don’t agree with them, just like I don’t agree that radical Islam is all there is to Islam.  But if I were a Muslim, and I were only to talk to anti-Zionist Jews, then I would never be able to understand the pull of Zionism for Jews.   Not understanding the pull of Zionism for Jews has been a serious defect of the pro-Palestinian movement.

5. Finally, the notion that one speaks only with one’s allies strikes me as bizarre.  I happen to be one of the“countless numbers of Jews who are critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.”  But if I were a Muslim, and I were trying to understand why Israel has become so central to the majority of Jews who are identifiably Jewish today, I wouldn’t spend most of my time talking to folks like me.

6. Go back to number one.


Heidi Wilson said...

It seems that what is needed is a "Jewish Leadership Initiative" created and run by Palestinian Muslim and Christians, that informs Israel's and America's "centrists" about the Palestinian commitment to the Holy Land. Which Palestinian groups, in Palestine and/or the U.S. might be likely sponsors?

Geoff Kl said...

as for your assertion of "countless number of jews...."

polling has shown its pretty ez to count your number

which remains tiny...and will remain tiny

Rob Jennings said...

Thanks you for this article Jerry. I do not agree with your pro-BDS position, but setting the record straight is always a good thing.


Rob Jennings

Anti-Occupation PhD student with professional links to Israeli institutions