“A Diversity United in the Pursuit of Justice”: Reflections on Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

JCUA’s Asaf Bar-Tura, coordinator of the Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative (JMCBI), recently  spoke at a conference of the Muslim community about Islamophobia and anti-Semtism. This is an excerpt of some of his thoughts on the conference (Read more below):

The moderator mentioned a survey that showed people with Islamophobic dispositions were also more prone to have anti-Semitic dispositions. He then asked me how I approach these findings. My response was that Martin Luther King was right when, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, he wrote that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

This is a profound understanding that must guide how we align ourselves. It is in this profound sense that we must partner with the Muslim community. We do it because it’s the right thing to do; we do it because it is the Jewish thing to do; and, this cannot be stressed enough, we do it because it is in our self-interest.

The Jewish people have known horrendous and tragic oppression over many centuries. We continue to be affected by anti-Semitism today. This reality must guide us to seek out justice through an unyielding commitment to rooting out oppression and combating it in all its forms.

By Asaf  Bar-Tura
Coordinator, Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative, JCUA

On Sunday, Oct. 24 I had the privilege of speaking on a panel at a major conference organized by the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC) and the Washington, D.C.-based Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). The panel session was titled “Confronting Islamophobia & Xenophobia”, and I was asked to discuss JCUA’s analysis of anti-Semitism and what we do to combat it (See full conference program).

With me on the panel were MPAC President Salam Al-Marayati and MPAC Director of Policy and Programming Edina Lekovic. MPAC Office Director Haris Tarin served as moderator.

From left to right: Haris Tarin, Asaf Bar-Tura, Edina Lekovic, Salam Al-Marayati

The dozens of people in the audience consisted of an impressively diverse crowd –  young people, elderly, community leaders, Muslims of various ethnicities and so on.

I began my remarks by explaining how JCUA understands anti-Semitism and its roots. As Rabbi Marx, JCUA’s founder, wrote in 1968, the Jewish people are the “people in between” – that is, in between power and the oppressed.

This played out early in history when Jews were not allowed to work in public offices or many other professions (such as law or medicine). And so they were forced to make a living as money lenders. And who did they lend to if not the poor?

Thus, Jews were forced by those in power into a position which put them at odds with the poor – with the oppressed. The oppressed in society then saw the Jews as their oppressor, which sparked anti-Semitism.

I then added a more contemporary example – that of the “Contract Buyers League” in the 1960s in Chicago – where JCUA joined forces with the Contract Buyers League to fight unfair real estate practices.

West Side homes, mostly owned by Jews, were bought by black homeowners on contract with banks for exorbitant rates and excessive fines that ultimately led to many evictions.

In this case again, though the banks were the ones drawing up the unfair contracts, it was the Jewish sellers who were “the face” of this injustice, leading to tensions between black and Jewish communities.

What JCUA takes from this analysis is that we must play a constructive role as “the people in between,” working in partnership with communities impacted by oppression, empowering them to seek justice, and that their voice be heard.

The moderator mentioned a survey that showed people with Islamophobic dispositions were also more prone to have anti-Semitic dispositions. He then asked me how I approach these findings. My response was that Martin Luther King was right, when in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” he wrote that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

This is a profound understanding that must guide how we align ourselves. It is in this profound sense that we must partner with the Muslim community. We do it because it’s the right thing to do; we do it because it is the Jewish thing to do; and, and this cannot be stressed enough, we do it because it is in our self-interest.

The Jewish people have known horrendous and tragic oppression over many centuries. We continue to be affected by anti-Semitism today. This reality must guide us to seek out justice through an unyielding commitment to rooting out oppression and combating it in all its forms.

Going to this conference, and hearing my fellow panelists, I have once more been impressed by the strong commitment of the Muslim community to the common good – and to finding the path for the Muslim community to make its unique contribution to society.

We must all insist that the greatness of our society rests in part on the celebration of diversity, a diversity united in the pursuit of justice and human flourishing.

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