Amid the Rise in Anti-Islamic Speech, We All Have an Obligation to Speak Up for Tolerance
Two weeks ago, on the morning of Sept. 11, I noticed a woman wearing a traditional Muslim head covering on the packed platform of the train station in Scarsdale, New York. Her attention was focused on a billboard ad that announced “19,250 deadly Islamic attacks since 9/11/01” and pre-empted those who might dispute that claim with the refrain: “It’s not Islamophobia, it’s Islamorealism.”
I could only imagine what she was feeling.
On another morning commute to Grand Central Station, I sat on the train with Yawar Shah, a Muslim friend from Scarsdale whom I met years ago at my synagogue when he would attend a bar-mitzvah or bat-mitzvah service for his friends’ children. Yawar told me how painful these ads are to his family and what an insult they are to our community in Westchester County and to our way of life.
The American Freedom Defense Initiative is the group spearheading this provocative anti-Islam campaign. In July, a federal judge in New York ruled in favor of the group in a freedom-of-speech case, forcing New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority to accept an ad that denigrates Islam in subway stations. It reads: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” Those ads went up on Monday.
What is the message of this ad, directed at the multitude of subway riders of countless faiths and ethnicities?
By using the term “jihad” in the context of a war against savages, the ad paints Islam as inherently violent, evil and bent on overthrowing the Western democracies and their key ally in the Middle East, Israel — even though, for the vast majority of Muslims, “jihad” refers to a spiritual quest, not the more politicized idea of holy war.
Yes, these ads are lawful. But they are wrong and repugnant.
What other purpose can they have but to incite hatred against Muslims? In addition they reinforce a terrible stereotype presenting me and others who love Israel as people who believe themselves to be superior to Muslims. That characterization will only incite hatred of Jews too.
Further, the group’s effort to co-opt our nation’s commitment to and support of Israel — a commitment embraced by countless millions of Americans of many faiths — suggests that, if you love Israel, you must stand up for this distorted formulation of Islam. It defines support for Israel with a false dichotomy between “civilized” Jews and Muslim “savages.”
Israel is at the core of my identity. I am unshakably committed to Israel’s security. And I am not naive about the real threats faced by Israel: We must unequivocally denounce and remain vigilant against terrorist attacks, whether from Al Qaeda, loners or states such as Iran and the proxies it sponsors.
But we must also defend against those who peddle hate, who would impose the sins of the extremists on more than a billion Muslims. They not only offend Muslims and those of us who value religious diversity and liberty for all, but also pollute America’s own public square at a time when our society is desperate for civility and respectful discourse.
Autumn in New York is always a special time for me. In addition to relief from oppressive heat, the brisk breezes of autumn herald new beginnings like the start of a new school year for our children. Fall also brings the Jewish High Holy Days, which offer America’s 6.5 million Jews — of whom roughly one-third live in the New York area — a time to reflect on the past year and to rededicate themselves to a fresh start in their relationships at home, at work and with friends.
This fall, when religious hate speech appears in public places, when several mosques across the nation have been desecrated and burned, when Sikhs have been murdered, it is time for us Americans to raise our voices in repudiation of all manner of hate mongering.
This Yom Kippur we will once again read these words from Deuteronomy 11:26: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.”
Those same choices are before us today. Let us, as a nation, reject the curse of hatred and instead choose the blessings of faith, acceptance, understanding and respect for all.
The New York Times
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the senior rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism.