How the Jewish Establishment's Litmus Test on Israel Fuels
Anti-Muslim Bigotry

by Elly Bulkin and Donna Nevel

September 7, 2012

One of the ways Islamophobia is perpetuated is through
dividing Muslims into two categories - "good Muslims" and
"bad Muslims." Islamophobic assumptions are at the core of
the "good Muslim-bad Muslim" paradigm. Mahmood Mamdani, who
introduced this concept in his book, Good Muslim, Bad
Muslim: American, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror,
explains that it rests on the notion that, in a post-9/11
world, "unless proved to be `good,' every Muslim [is]
presumed to be `bad.' All Muslims [are] now under an
obligation to prove their credentials by joining in a war
against `bad Muslims.'"

In "Islamophobia and the War on Terror" (a chapter in the
book Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st
Century), Sunaina Maira characterizes as "Islamophobic and
troubling" the assumptions behind "the categorization of
good, `moderate,' or bad Muslims."These include basic
Islamophobic beliefs that Islam is an inherently violent,
evil, and dangerous religion and that all Muslims are guilty
until they prove themselves innocent of the charge that they
are actual or potential "terrorists" who pose a threat to
the United States and its allies. The routine conflation of
Muslims with Arabs, as well as with "those perceived to be
Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim, such as South Asians,"
means that the good Muslim-bad Muslim paradigm, like anti-
Islam stereotypes and other aspects of Islamophobia, has an
impact well beyond Muslim communities.

In the United States, the separation of the world into "good
Muslims" and "bad Muslims" is integral to U.S. domestic and
foreign policy, which encompasses the "special" relationship
between the U.S. and Israel and the "war on terror." Within
the mainstream Jewish community, the litmus test that
determines which Muslims (or Arabs or others) are "good" or
"bad" relates most often to Israel.

As American Jews who work with groups to challenge
Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism, we are particularly
committed to engaging with the Jewish community about the
ways that Israel and the war on terror intersect with

Many groups in the Jewish community routinely set
preconditions that determine which Muslims are deemed
"good," that is, "acceptable." The pattern has been for
these groups to scrutinize Muslim and Arab American
individuals and groups before agreeing to work with, or even
talk to, them. This often translates into Jewish groups
working only with Muslim or Arab American groups that do not
(or agree not to) publicly criticize Israeli policies, and
insisting that these groups explicitly and publicly denounce
anti-Semitism - a standard that, for example, Christian
groups that are prospective partners do not have to meet. It
also means that many Jewish groups work only with Muslim and
Arab American organizations that publicly disassociate
themselves from any Muslim or Arab groups that have been
accused (evidence not necessary) of supporting pro-Palestine
groups or having any alleged connections to Hamas or to
"terrorism." This strategy attempts to control which Muslim
and Arab Americans are suitable to work with, while
discrediting all others.

While there is often an abstract public commitment within
the Jewish community to working in coalition with Arab and
Muslim Americans, that commitment is often compromised by
the "good Muslim-bad Muslim" paradigm. For example, at the
2009 Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) conference,
the JCPA overwhelmingly adopted a resolution encouraging
local and national Jewish groups to expand coalitions with
Muslim Americans and to "urge public officials to take all
available steps to prevent and end any harassment of and
discrimination against Muslim Americans, Jews or others in
our country who have been targeted by hate and

But Rabbi Michael Paley of New York City, speaking to
community leaders at the JCPA conference, made clear that he
had been hearing a very different message about working in
coalition with Muslim Americans. He described such work as
"dangerous" because of "how it will be perceived by other
Jews," rather than by "what is being said inside the room"
when Jews meet with Muslims. As he said at the conference,
"If you've gone on a panel with someone [Muslim] who 10 to
15 years ago took a picture with someone who is
objectionable to some in the Jewish community, you're in

Rabbi Paley was, as the Forward noted, "speaking from
experience." In 2007, his employer, the United Jewish Appeal
(UJA), had "ordered him not to speak on the issue anymore"
after he had publicly defended Debbie Almontaser, principal
of the country's first Arabic dual language public school,
when she and the fledgling school she helped found were
under attack by Islamophobes. Those campaigning against her
tried to link her with "Intifada NYC" T-shirts made by
members of an Arab young women's group - a connection her
opponents fabricated and that even anti-Islam ideologue
Daniel Pipes admitted was "most tenuous." Islamophobes who
had already attacked the proposed Arabic dual language
school as an attempt, as Frank Gaffney said, to establish an
Islamist "beachhead in Brooklyn" stepped up their smear
campaign when a New York Post interviewer distorted
Almontaser's response to a question about "the origin of the
word `intifada.'" Almontaser was forced to resign in 2007
after public officials, as the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission later determined, "succumbed to the very bias
that creation of the school was intended to dispel...."

Explicit or not, the "good Muslim-bad Muslim" construct is,
along with Israel politics, intertwined with issues of
funding. We learned about one such instance in our September
2011 interview with Rabbi Joseph Berman, who, as a
rabbinical student, was a member of Jews Support the Mosque,
one of the Jewish groups that stood up to opponents of a
mosque in Boston. The David Project, a Jewish group that
supports right- wing Israeli politics and targets those
critical of Israeli policies, led a campaign (together with
other hard-line pro- Israel groups and individuals) against
the proposed mosque. This campaign, also supported by the
local Jewish Community Relations Council, Combined Jewish
Philanthropy, and Anti- Defamation League, had as its
centerpiece allegations that current or past local Muslim
leaders included "bad Muslims," whom other Jews should
oppose. People were afraid to support the mosque, Rabbi
Berman said, because they feared that the David Project
would "go after them" by persuading Jewish philanthropists
that they were supporting the "bad Muslims" and should,
therefore, stop funding their organizations.

Similarly, some Jewish funders set guidelines designed to
prevent activism they consider anti-Israel and to deter
groups, including those challenging Islamophobia, from
working with individuals or organizations that the funders
don't consider "kosher." In 2010, for instance, the San
Francisco Jewish Community Federation issued new funding
guidelines for the Bay Area stating that the Federation
won't fund organizations that through "their mission,
activities or partnerships, endorse or promote anti-
Semitism, other forms of bigotry, violence or other
extremist views" or "advocate for, or endorse, undermining
the legitimacy of Israel as a secure independent, democratic
Jewish state." The Federation suggests that groups check
with the Jewish Community Relations Council about
"potentially controversial programs." (According to the
Center for American Progress, the Federation gave $75,000
between 2008 and 2009 to the Clarion Fund, which was a major
force behind the distribution in 2008 of the virulently
anti- Muslim film, Obsession, which links Nazis to both
Palestinians and Muslims.)

The Federation clearly instituted its guidelines to target
groups organizing for justice for the Palestinian people and
to prevent their political work. In doing so, these
guidelines encourage organizations to conflate anti-Semitism
with particular political positions on Israel/Palestine. As
a result, the Federation is doing something quite different
from refusing to support groups that promote anti-Semitism
(or racism or other forms of oppression). In this context,
Jewish groups that are trying to get funding - perhaps to
co-sponsor a Muslim-Jewish film series, to partner with
groups in support of proposed mosque construction, or to
speak about Islamophobia at a Shabbat service - are expected
to apply an Israel-related litmus test to identify the
Muslims considered "appropriate" to work with. In the Bay
Area, Jewish groups might find that working with "bad
Muslims" - or with Jews who support them - can have a steep
financial cost.

When Jewish groups and individual Jews don't apply such a
litmus test, they can easily find themselves criticized by
others in the community for having relationships with those
considered "unacceptable" Muslim partners. As Jane Ramsey,
executive director of Chicago's Jewish Council on Urban
Affairs (JCUA), has said:

    When the social justice people are talking about health
    care for everyone, there is general agreement and
    interest. In Chicago, we are working with the [Jewish]
    federations on some of these more traditional issues.
    But when we had a coalition-building project with the
    Muslim community, the federation tried to tell us whom
    we could and could not talk to.

Some of the Jewish organizations whose leaders we
interviewed have firmly rejected an Israel-related litmus
test in their work with Muslim or Arab American partners.
Asaf Bar-Tura, coordinator of the JCUA's Jewish-Muslim
Community Building Initiative, told us in an August 2011
interview, that the JCUA opposes a strategy that involves
"urging a coalition to drop a member. JCUA won't do that."

Such an approach has strengthened JCUA partnerships with the
Muslim community. A joint Jewish-Muslim statement made
"under the aegis" of the JCUA, at the time of Israel's
winter 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza, articulated the link
between Islamophobia and Israel/Palestine and reiterated the
commitment of the JCUA and other Jewish signatories to
maintaining "open communication and continuous dialogue"
with the Muslim American community, even during tough times.
The Chicago-area signatories affirmed the belief that "the
life of a Palestinian child and the life of an Israeli child
are equally precious." While the organizations, rabbis and
imams, and community leaders who signed the statement
condemned anti- Semitism and Islamophobia and "wanton
violence, human suffering, and targeting of innocent
civilians," they also expressed their commitment "to our
ongoing relationships, not contingent upon agreement (our

The Chicago-area mainstream Jewish groups were conspicuously
absent among the signatories, with only three Jewish groups
- JCUA, the Jewish Labor Committee and Brit Tzedek
v'Shalom/Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace - signing on.
Thirty-one rabbis did sign the statement, including the
president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis,
North America's "oldest and largest rabbinic organization."

Other activist Jewish groups have also refused to consider
limiting their interactions to those Muslim and Arab
Americans considered acceptable to the mainstream Jewish
community. Journalist Esther Kaplan recalls the impact of
such Jewish community monitoring (and self-monitoring) when
she was director of New York City's Jews for Racial and
Economic Justice (JFREJ). In the months before 9/11, JFREJ
had initiated an anti-Arab racism campaign in which it would
work with different Muslim and Arab American organizations.
The campaign began with a teach-in on racism that JFREJ
developed in collaboration with Arab-American allies. As
Kaplan says (in Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz' The Colors of Jews:
Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism):

    . . . there were Arab groups we were working with that
    mainstream Jewish organizations wouldn't speak with
    because they [the Jewish organizations] had a litmus
    test around [Arab] groups' positions on the Middle East
    and whether they had sufficiently condemned terrorism or
    Hamas. JFREJ got all these phone calls from mainstream
    Jewish groups who felt like they should be doing
    something as this wave of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim
    violence was erupting, but they couldn't talk to any of
    these organizations directly. So they were phoning JFREJ
    to secretly find out what these groups were saying and
    planning. That moment clarified for me a role that JFREJ
    is able to play with Jewish groups who are so bound by
    intensely pro-Israel ideology that it blocks them from
    being able to confront some of the major issues of our
    time, like anti-Arab racism, the Patriot Act, the
    crackdown on immigrants, all the stuff we've made the
    center of our campaign work.

As part of a vicious Islamophobic campaign, charges that she
was "anti-Israel" weakened support for educator Debbie
Almontaser in the Jewish community. As Almontaser describes
it (in Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities,
Contentions, and Complexities):

    I think that the majority of those from the Jewish
    community who publicly supported me are also individuals
    and organizations who have engaged openly in the search
    for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
    They have not made their litmus test of potential
    partnerships with others dependent on support for
    Israeli government policies, deciding accordingly which
    Arabs or Muslims are therefore considered "safe." I do
    not think this is a mere coincidence.

The good Muslim-bad Muslim paradigm reinforces the
Islamophobic assumptions on which it is based. Sunaina Maira
speaks of engaging in "political resistance" to this
offensive labeling of Muslims as "good" or "bad" as part of
"an ethical defense of the collective right to express
dissent, even 'radical' or heretical ideas." Within the
Jewish community, as well as more broadly, such dissent must
include refusing to apply Israel-based litmus tests and
challenging the use of such tests. As with many other
efforts to oppose Islamophobia, such acts necessarily
involve addressing head-on how Islamophobia intersects with
Israel, as well as considering how these issues interact
within the broader context of U.S. foreign policy and the
"war on terror."

[Elly Bulkin is a writer and editor. Donna Nevel is a
community psychologist and educator. Both were founding
members of Jews Against Islamophobia and steering committee
members of Communities in Support of the Khalil Gibran
International Academy. They can be reached at
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