The Hidden Normalization: The Muslim Leadership Initiative’s Zionist Trip

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Most of the discourse about the occupation of Palestine is conducted without Palestinians — instead, it is largely discussed via external parties, contrived negotiations, and elaborate but empty peacemaking efforts. Over time, approaches to exploring the Palestinian question have changed. Recently, they have grown more insidious and less inclusive.

The Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) is Israel’s latest project — a brazen propaganda operation cloaked in dubious interfaith rhetoric, and an attempt to combat growing support in the United States, particularly across US campuses, for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS). Muslims who have taken part in the scheme were sent on an all-expenses-paid trip, funded by a Zionist organization called the Shalom Hartman Institute, and the updates from attendees are almost entirely self-centered. This was exclusively about them and their supposed ‘connection’ to the land, a land that is not theirs, showing the entire program to be nothing more than a field trip, laced with Zionist agitprop meant to normalize Israel’s present and past crimes against the Palestinians.

Ali Abunimah, co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of “The Battle for Justice in Palestine,” writes that “the Muslim Leadership Initiative, run by Israel’s Shalom Hartman Institute, brings US “Muslim leaders” to Israel to teach them Zionist perspectives in an effort to blunt support for Palestinian rights among North American Muslim communities.” In a recent statement, Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) denounced the Muslim Leadership Initiative’s “use interfaith relations as an excuse to justify the Israeli occupation”:

“The MLI’s stated objectives are “to forge deeper and more nuanced relationships between the Muslim and Jewish communities in North America, through an understanding of how Jews relate to religion, peoplehood, and Israel, [and] to advance the personal growth of participants by increasing their knowledge about Judaism, the Jewish people, and the complex realities of the region.”

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.

At the same time, MLI’s juxtaposition of Judaism with Zionism runs the risk of portraying the Israeli occupation and Palestinian dispossession as a religious conflict rather than as political conflict over land, natural resources, power, and respect for human rights. An analysis that minimizes the political core of this conflict takes pressure off Israel to take concrete steps toward a just solution.”

Haroon Moghul, New America Foundation Fellow, and member of the first MLI assemblage, has not only been dismissive of criticism but seems to be taking them as a sort of joke. For example, he caustically refers to himself as a “sell out opportunist traitor scum” in an updated Twitter biography — an allusion to remarks being made by some of his detractors. “Rather than work with allies, or agree to disagree, everyone must accede —or be banned. Good to see them sabotage their own cause...You're committing political suicide and suicide is haram (forbidden),” he tweeted. Most disturbing is the exchange Moghul has with one user who asks if he is “upset about people complaining” about his visit to Israel. His response? “They're digging their own grave.”

Rabia Chaudry, Fellow of the Truman National Security Project, also went on the MLI field trip to occupied Palestine, and her updates in support of the program have not only been embarrassingly contemptuous but outright condescending in the face of growing concern and justified displeasure. In a recent public Facebook post, lauding an article written in support of the MLI project, she refers to those challenging the initiative as “a noisy angry minority.”

“As they waste their time doing so, the rest of us will continue in the work we believe in,” she crows. “They” refers to the overwhelming number of Palestinians who dare to challenge the work she ‘believes in’. This comes as no surprise, seeing as Palestinians are erased from this narrative altogether by MLI participants, only to be mentioned when they are referred to backhandedly as an “angry minority” — a repulsive and bigoted caricature of a thoroughly marginalized community struggling between ethnic cleansing, displacement and diaspora.

Remi Kanazi, Palestinian poet and author of “Poetic Injustice,” has been one of the most vocal opponents of the MLI project and those taking part. “No. You don't get to speak for Palestinians. No, our lives aren't up for co-optation. Challenging appropriation isn't petty, it's necessary...We are struggling against settler colonialism, apartheid & occupation. Stop trying to transform our plight to advance an agenda,” he tweeted. He challenged Moghul directly by calling attention to his disregarding of Palestinian Christians and the religiously unaffiliated, so as to present the occupation of Palestine as though it is a religious conflict. Yet despite the torrent of criticism, Palestinians are being ignored and mocked by those co-opting their voices, for the sake of fruitless efforts.

What follows are responses from Palestine solidarity activists and Palestinians on the meaning of normalization, its implications and how non-Palestinians can stand in solidarity without crossing the BDS picket line.

Lara Kiswani: Executive director at AROC (Arab Resource and Organizing Center)

Normalization is the strategy employed by Zionists to create acceptance of, or modified consent with, the notion of a colonial state in historic Palestine through cultural, religious or political practices. Presenting Israel as a democratic state — accepting of LGBTQ communities, a hub of environmental justice, advocates on behalf of those facing religious discrimination — is in fact Israel's way of white-washing, pink-washing, green-washing and faith-washing their racism. At the heart of it all, is the notion that the racist, exclusionary, colonial, Jewish state of Israel is something to be accepted, and engaged with instead of condemned and resisted. The fact that the state of Israel is outright racist against African and Arab Jewish immigrants, that Arab queers have no claim to Jewish-only gay and queer rights, that Palestinians of Christian and Muslim backgrounds are denied their indigenous right to their homeland, is glossed over while they portray themselves as a state to be admired rather than challenged.

The MLI trips are an attempt by Israel to paint the colonization of Palestine as a religious conflict that can be mitigated through more understanding between Jews and Muslims; as a breakdown in dialogue, rather than the colonization and systematic genocide of an indigenous population. One of Israel's primary strategies is presenting itself as a solution to anti-semitism, and it does this, as we've seen with the Charlie Hebdo affair, by claiming that Islam is one of its greatest threats. So Israel finds a few token Muslims "leaders" to declare that Israel is willing to talk to Palestinian Muslims, while it ethnically cleanses them. And, in turn, it claims than any resistance or opposition to its ethnic cleansing is anti-Semitic.

When an oppressive state is normalized and becomes status quo, struggles against it are criminalized and marginalized. We see the effects of normalization of Israel here in the U.S. with the case of Rasmea Odeh, the attack on SJPs on campuses, and the increased criminalization of Palestine activism. When groups like MLI participate in this normalization, the Muslims who are friendly to Zionism become the "good" Muslims who want peace and dialogue, while those who resist Zionism become the "bad," "terrorist," or "irrational" Muslims. But fortunately for us, though groups like MLI, and even the Palestinian Authority, attempt to weaken the Palestinian struggle by collaborating with Zionist institutions, they are increasingly being exposed for what they are: instruments of the Zionist state.

To be in solidarity means to support our struggle for liberation, and to see that as inextricably linked to all struggles against state violence and oppression. This does not mean calling for dialogue, engaging with liberal Zionism, dictating the means by which we struggle, or softening the edges of a racist state. The notion that the apartheid state of Israel has a right to exist in historic Palestine must be rejected. Being in solidarity does not mean making empty calls for peace, but instead, amplifying the calls for isolating Israel and denormalizing Zionism.

The Palestinian call for BDS against Israel and Zionists institutions is a call for solidarity. The call can be answered by engaging with local BDS efforts, exposing the role of Israel in local policing and repression, and plugging into longstanding Palestinian organizing. But this should not be done in isolation. We cannot talk about solidarity with Palestine without confronting other struggles against state violence, particularly the growing anti-policing work in the U.S. The Israeli occupation is intimately tied to the policing of Black and Brown communities here in the U.S. Any resistance that weakens state violence here or in Palestine will chip away at global repression.

Omar al-Natour: Undergraduate student at the University of Houston

As a Palestinian, I refuse to support any project that was created without the consultation and approval of my people and, more so, a project which is run by a center that stands on what was once Palestinian land. As a Muslim, I refuse to support any project that is funded by one of the top seven donors to anti-Muslim hate groups in the United States. Aside from MLI’s transparent ties to Zionists and Islamophobes, I believe it is their “faith-washing” trips that primarily attracted Israeli propaganda outlets. From the perspective of public relations, it is in Israel’s best interest to take “the cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or, rather, Israeli occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine) from a mid-20th century Euro-American settler-colonist project to a non-existent centuries long enmity between Jews and Muslims,” as Sana Saeed noted. Supporters of MLI will argue that it’s important for interfaith discussions to occur, yet become confrontational when we ask: why take a trip funded by people who hate Muslims to converse with those who destroyed over 190 mosques in Gaza and continually raid the third holiest mosque in Islam? As a Palestinian, my issue with MLI is not that non-Palestinian Muslims visited Palestine, but rather the means through which they visited my homeland.

Normalization is most detrimental to the Palestinian struggle in that it disregards decades of Palestinian suffering and implies that there is equity between Israelis and Palestinians in the responsibility for the Palestine-Israel conflict. At the very heart of normalization is this mindset that peace is achieved through dialogue, rather than through justice. It is this normalization that turns thousands of dead Palestinian children into collateral damage, military checkpoints into terminals, and occupation into coexistence.

The best course of action for non-Palestinians to take when it comes to solidarity is one that has the approval of Palestinians. To do otherwise would be detrimental to the Palestinian cause and counterproductive at best. It is important for non-Palestinians to understand that Palestinians did not choose resistance from a list of many realistic options, but rather that Palestinians have no option but resistance. I know I speak on behalf of all Palestinians when I say that non-Palestinians should play more of a supportive role when it comes to our cause, rather than creating their own initiatives in their un-demolished homes, halfway across the world, far away from the realities Palestinians face every day. The best way non-Palestinians can help when it comes to solidarity with the Palestinian people is to support the initiatives that Palestinians have already put in place, such as the global movement of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), which was issued and coordinated by Palestinians. The Palestinian people need help, no doubt about that, but we only want help that is focused on what we need: justice.

Nooran: Student and first generation Palestinian-American

Anyone who normalizes relations with those who deny my grandparents their right to unlock the doors to their home in Jaffa is an apologist to Zionism, and is normalizing relations with my occupiers. This is why I was so shocked when I heard about the MLI trips. First of all, as a Palestinian I was extremely offended that anyone would willingly choose to go on a trip to my homeland on the same bankroll that funds occupation. How is it possibly fair that these MLI participants can go see my country, while my grandparents who still have the keys and deeds to their home in Palestine will never be allowed to see it? I was further enraged when I saw that the MLI initiative was religion-based. The Muslims participating in the initiative do not seem to realize, or care, that they further Israeli propaganda which is constantly regurgitating the notion that the conflict between Palestine and Zionism is a religiously-driven one. The Muslims in MLI actually believe they can speak on behalf of the Palestinian cause because they happen to share the faith of the majority of Palestinians, even though they have no connection to the land whatsoever. The conflict in Palestine has never been one of Muslims against Jews. This is a disgusting way to distort the cause of my people, and to belittle the fight of my grandparents who resisted Zionism as much as they could in 1948. I understand that Muslims have a special connection to the Holy Land, and their support is something beautiful. However, if you are not Palestinian you have no right to attempt to represent us, nor do you have the right to tell us what is best for us. Your family did not go through the Nakba, your family did not waste away in refugee camps for decades, your family did not die for this cause. By distorting our cause into something it is not, you fulfill and legitimize the desires of the Zionist agenda. Once anyone ‘normalizes’ the idea of occupation, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing, they have basically spat on the graves of thousands of Palestinians who had to be buried in refugee camps over the past six decades. My message to MLI participants, is that the Palestinian struggle is not just a political card you can play to justify your involvement in such a detrimental initiative.

I highly encourage involvement with the Boycott Divest and Sanctions movement, joining groups like Students for Justice in Palestine on your campus, and supporting campaigns like Al-Awda, which are committed to providing justice for Palestinian refugees. I encourage you to raise awareness on the crimes of the Zionist entity, specifically the human rights abuses that occur daily in the occupied Palestinian territories and beyond. This is all extremely helpful. But ultimately, you cannot speak on behalf of the Palestinian cause if you are not Palestinian, and you most definitely cannot justify speaking on our behalf based on what your religion is. The Muslim community in North America has shown a lot of true solidarity and support in recent years and that is a beautiful thing. But Palestinians will not tolerate the distortion of our struggle, and especially will not tolerate your negotiating for us. You do not represent us.

Kumars Salehi: PhD student in German Studies, member of UC Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine, and author of "BDS in the United States," featured in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology.

What makes this brand of normalization so pernicious is the way it casts a 66-year old colonial occupation as a millenia-old religious conflict. The assumption is that Muslims hate Jews, have always hated Jews, and are generally inclined towards violence against Jews, when left to their own devices. If that were the problem (or even remotely true) then maybe it would make sense for Muslim Americans to go on these trips. But that's not the problem. The problem is an ethnically-exclusive state predicated on the denial of rights to indigenous people, a fact that the religious framing totally obscures. That interpretation suits ideologies across the political spectrum, and so you see it everywhere, from Fox to Bill Maher to the Daily Show to Russell Brand's Trews.

One unfortunately intentional effect of these trips and of normalization in general is that people return to their communities and use their authority, as leaders and as people who have "been there," to discourage pro-Palestinian views and BDS activities within spaces, like mosques and campuses, that are often the most critical of Israel. So the best way non-Palestinians can counter this is first and foremost to organize BDS campaigns, which have proven to be an immensely powerful way to shift the terms of debate on this issue. Part and parcel of that is something you can do even if you're not an organizer: speak up. Your silence is violence. Don't let grotesque distortions like the "Muslims vs. Jews" narrative go unchallenged.

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Sydney based Lebanese-American journalist and commentator. She tweets @roqchams and writes 'Letters From the Underground.'


a comment on Lara Kiswani's words on normalization with Israel.

"Presenting Israel as a democratic state...". Israel, unfortunately for Ms. Lara Kiswani IS a democratic state. And the apprx. 1.8 Arabs who live in Israel and will vote for (probably) Arab Knesset parties prove.

Before Ms. Lara Kiswani attack Israel i'd like to hear what she has to say about her own "Palestinian" leadership which is controlling the west bank without the vote of the "Palestinians", or Hamas who is a terror group rulling Gaza.

"At the heart of it all, is the notion that the racist, exclusionary, colonial, Jewish state of Israel...". Funny how the Arab who actually live in Israel or east Jerusalem and get full citizen rights from the state of Israel say in every pole that they want to continue living under Israeli rule and not a "Palestinian" Arab state.
I guess when you get to enjoy freedom, right to vote, Israeli social security stipends, strong Israeli economy, developed health services, excellent Israeli universities, technology, you're not so eager to live under your own people's control - i.e. Arab "Palestinians" where you get much less rights and benefits.

This post has so intense thoughts. actually the root cause came from the distinction exits between indigenous and non indigenous people.

Excellent article with excellent contributors. We have to explain to non Arab Muslims who are usually great Palestnian supporters that our dispute is over colonisation and not the Jewish faith. This is so important to stop them falling into the trap of anti-semitism and to make them understand there was co existance between Muslims and Jews prior to the creation of the Zionist state.

Anonymous up above says "we would have had a state decades ago". And he congratulates Dahlan on not having been assassinated or brought up before the ICC. I wonder whom he is speaking for, who his "we" is. Apparently the "imperial we": him and his big ego: his only friend.

Had the Palestinians had real leaders with the best interest of Palestinians in mind, we would have had a state decades ago. instead we had and have "presidents for life" and charlatans who are engaged in internal conflicts,like middle age kingdoms.we are not mature enough to have a state and our brothers and sisters know this.blame only ourselves and our grandiose dreams.By the way, congratulations to Mahmud Dahlan who received Serbian citizenship.I guess the Emirates wouldn't grant him any.

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