An all-expenses paid trip to Israel organized for Muslim-American leaders by a Duke University-based imam has set off howls of protest in the United States and left Palestinians shaking their heads in disbelief.
The Muslim Leadership Initiative, which was developed by Imam Abdullah Antepli in coordination with the Israeli government-funded Shalom Hartman Institute, wrapped up its second trip to the Holy Land on Friday, and has left a great deal controversy in its wake.
Billed as an attempt to help Muslim-Americans "explore how Jews understand Judaism, Israel, and Jewish peoplehood," the initiative has provoked anger among many Palestinians.
Some have cried over foul over what they see as a violation of the Palestinian call for international solidarity through the boycott of Israel, while others have denounced trip organizers for allowing themselves to be duped into becoming willing participants in an Israeli propaganda tour.
The main organizer of the trip, Abdullah Antepli, denied the charges in an interview with Ma'an on the final day of his trip, stressing that the "program is primarily about Muslim-Jewish relations in the United States" and that participants do not have any "delusions" about trying to "solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
Despite this, Palestinian activists and leaders Ma'an spoke to denounced the trip's conflation of Zionism and Judaism and in particular its use of "interfaith dialogue" as what some people called "faithwashing," or an attempt to avoid the political dimensions of the Israeli occupation of Palestine by instead focusing on religious differences.
"I am having a hard time understanding why this small amount of Muslim participation could lead to all this hoohaa and shenanigans," he told Ma'an during a telephone interview.
"This is about learning," Antepli told Ma'an, adding: "My religion says even if knowledge is all the way in China, go and learn it."
The imam said that the trip was focused on interfaith relationships in the United States between Muslims and Jews. But given that, in his opinion, the majority of American Jews are Zionists and love Israel, the issue of Israel-Palestine was an elephant in the room in interfaith discussions in the US because Muslim leaders were afraid to engage on it.
Not understanding religious Zionism, in his opinion, hindered US Muslim leaders' attempts to reach out to Jewish counterparts.
Coming to Israel and learning about Zionism "doesn't mean I agree with their policies, nor does it jeopardize my loyalty to my Palestinian brothers and sisters," he told Ma'an.
Noting that the Shalom Hartman Institute runs similar institutes -- using almost the exact same syllabus -- for American rabbis and Christian clerics, Antepli said: "The whole idea that Shalom Hartman Institute is a deceptive Zionist organization inviting gullible Muslims and turning them into propaganda machines is ridiculous. It was my idea. I approached the leadership of the institute after being involved (with them) for three years and studying with them."
"These are people who believe there can be a different kind of relationship between American Muslims and the American Jewish community," he told Ma'an, "and receiving an education from a credible, recognized, reputable Jewish Israeli organization can be utilized in improving or allowing a different kind of conversations within the American Jewish community within America."
The initiative featured 18 Muslim-American leaders from a wide variety of backgrounds -- including one Palestinian-American -- and all of the participants were hand-picked by Antepli himself.
Lasting 12 days, the program was primarily based at the Shalom Hartman Institute in West Jerusalem, where participants receive instruction through a curriculum entitled "Encountering Israel: Foundations of Peoplehood and Faith." The program also includes two mid-year retreats in North America, monthly long-distance learning, and a second trip to West Jerusalem in January 2016.
The program is designed to teach religious Zionism and specifically focuses on "how Judaism relates to peoplehood and land," apparently stressing the inseparability of Judaism with Zionism.
Although the program claims that it includes exposure to Palestinians and their viewpoints, only one day of the trip is spent in the West Bank.
One more is spent in Palestinian towns inside Israel, which the program website refers to using the typically Zionist appellation "Israeli-Arab."
While in the West Bank, participants met with prominent Palestinian activists Mustafa Barghouthi, Iyad Burnat, and Mazin Qumsiyeh, among others.
But while Antepli said that the leaders they met with were welcoming and never told them they should not have gone on the tour or that it "hurts the Palestinian cause," the one leader Ma'an spoke to said in no uncertain terms that he categorically opposed the entire initiative, and had said as much during the meeting.
Mazin Qumsiyeh told Ma'an that he absolutely opposed the Muslim Leadership Initiative and considered it a "brainwashing" tour on equal footing with Birthright Israel, a free program for young Jews around the world intended to foster love for Israel and Zionism.
"We discourage them from coming, as we do for example with Jews who think about going on Birthright," he told Ma'an in an interview. "But if they come here and want to speak to us, we have no problem. … We explain to them that what they have done is wrong, but since they’re already here and want to see something different, we are willing to show them something different."
He pointed out that he had spoken to Israeli soldiers who were arresting him as well as Israeli settlers, and that he was not against talking to individuals per se, just "normalization" with the Israeli occupation.
Qumsiyeh said that the visit by participants to the West Bank was not a part of the Muslim Leadership Initiative and that he would never have agreed to be a part of the tour, adding that he believed that some of the participants he met with "showed regret and remorse about taking such a sponsored trip by the Zionists."
"In my own opinion, after the controversy (erupted over their visit) ... they started to feel pangs of conscience, and they insisted on seeing something else beyond what the institute had planned for them."
Qumsiyeh based his rejection of the institute in his adherence to the campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, a movement which enjoys wide-ranging support in Palestinian civil society and prohibits normalization with the Israeli state until it ends the occupation, acknowledges Palestinian rights inside Israel, and finds a fair solution to the refugee issue.
He added that that the academic and cultural boycott of Israel was an explicit and well-spelled out part of the broader BDS movement and that its components were made clear on its website.
He stressed that the boycott is not about boycotting individuals, adding: "We are not against talking to anybody, we are against participating in any official Israeli bodies."
Qumsiyeh, a prominent activist in the movement, told Ma'an that a Zionist education trip funded by the Israeli government was a clear violation of the boycott call.
When Ma'an asked Antepli about the initiative's opinion on BDS, he seemed unsure of what exactly it entailed or how it related to the initiative, finally conceding that MLI might violate "certain aspects of BDS."
He noted, however, the group's "good intentions," and argued that the Shalom Hartman Institute was not focused on "undermining" BDS but instead on serious education.
Throughout the interview, Antepli seemed to misunderstand BDS as an organized movement combating Israel.
BDS, however, is a series of ethical principles focus on not engaging or normalizing with the Israeli state and Israeli-funded institutions.
Palestinian civil society has overwhelmingly united around the movement in recent years and urged the global community to abide by BDS standards in order to pressure the state to address outstanding human rights violations.
Indeed, while Antepli stressed his own pro-Palestinian credentials as well as those of the group, given that BDS is the most prominent and widely-supported movement within Palestinian society in the quest for national liberation, it is unclear whose lead he was following in claiming to support Palestinians by bringing Muslim-Americans to learn about Zionism.
Diana Buttu, a prominent Palestinian lawyer who served as an adviser in negotiations with Israel in the early 2000s, argued that MLI's adherence to a discourse of "interfaith dialogue" promoted by the Shalom Hartman Institute was related to a broader Israeli official strategy of conflating Judaism and Zionism and thus blocking any criticism of the state as anti-Semitic while also claiming to speak on behalf of global Jewry.
"The problem is that the Israelis are trying to create Zionism to be the new religion of the Jews other than Judaism, and in their configuration, interfaith dialogue is not interfaith dialogue, its a dialogue between Christians, Muslims, and Zionists. … It's about whether they can and will sell Zionism to Christians and Muslims, particularly Muslims, and whether they’re going to be able to co-opt Muslims to be willing to accept the Zionist narrative and Zionist actions."
"Under the guise of interfaith dialogue, they are allowing themselves to be duped into a discussion about Zionism when there are no merits to it," she added.
Buttu noted that several participants from last year's Muslim Leadership Initiative cohort had since written pro-Israeli articles in the US media, giving lie to Antepli's claims that the purpose of the trip was not to foster pro-Israel sentiments among American Muslims.
Buttu traced the emphasis on "interfaith dialogue" to Israeli propaganda efforts that began in the 1990s, when the government began funding programs to reach out to specific interest groups.
She noted that initial efforts included outreach to Palestinian and later global intellectuals, then attempts to reach out to children and engage them before they became aware or critical, and later women's groups. She noted that the campaigns had repeatedly failed in "washing clean" Israel’s image.
"Now their new rising star is something called interfaith dialogue, which is really (just) selling Zionism to Muslims," she said.
"I'm Muslim, and these people don't represent me, and they don't speak on my behalf. They can't purport to speak on anyone else's behalf when they go back either. Nor can they say that they experienced what Palestinians experienced. They get to go back to their Western lifestyle, not having to cross a checkpoint, or live under discriminatory laws or doing any of the stuff that Palestinians do, and instead they can just claim that they saw 'both sides.'"
"Even that is problematic," she continued. "The whole idea that this is labelled a conflict is problematic, when what it is, is ethnic cleansing. It's not a conflict, it's that one party has ethnically cleansed another. … There's one side that's the occupier and the oppressor, and the other side is occupied, oppressed, and ethnically cleansed."
"Israel routinely denies Palestinian-Americans into the country -- both Muslims and Christians -- and I'm so perplexed at how they were able to attract these people and sell it to people. How can these people be so duped as to not recognize that this is just another form of normalization aimed at making Israel look clean?"
During Ma'an's interview with Imam Antepli, he stressed that the the group had sought to gain "glimpses of what it might be like to be a Palestinian every single day," and had passed through checkpoints on their visit to the West Bank and met with individuals affected by settlement expansion there.
Despite this, however, he admitted that participants on the initiative avoided Israeli airport security through connections with the Israeli government, thus ensuring none of them got turned away or had a negative experience.
Ben Gurion Airport is notorious for the lengthy interrogations imposed on Palestinians, visitors with Muslim or Arab background, and even just individuals found with Arabic-language materials or anything deemed sympathetic toward Arabs or Islam on their person.
Antepli himself, in an article penned in defense of the trip and published on the second day of Israel's summer assault on Gaza that left 2,200 dead, said that previous experiences being questioned at the airport had been formative for him in understanding the oppression faced by Palestinians.
Despite this, participants in the Muslim Leadership Initiative -- as a result of the Shalom Hartman's close relationship with the Israeli government -- were taken to a special passport control where the group would not face discrimination and instead would be exempt from racial discrimination.
Antepli argued that the his decision to take advantage of the Israeli government's offer was done to ensure participants did not form a negative experience of Israel even before the trip began.
"As much as we can, we try to walk in the shoes of our Palestinian brothers and sisters, to get a glimpse of it so that we can multiply this by thousands and millions to see the pain. But the Ben Gurion humiliation could have knocked everybody out," he added, laughing.
Elias Deis, a Palestinian organizer of interfaith and social justice tours with the Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust, expressed disbelief that the Muslim Leadership Initiative thought that by spending 10 days on a Zionist education program they could get a sense of the situation in the region.
"A one-sided tour can never be a fact finding trip or one that increases awareness," he told Ma'an during an interview in Beit Sahour. "The Palestinian issue is not just about Zionists or Jews, it has many aspects to it and if you want to understand it, you have to see all of the issues Palestinians face on a daily basis so that you can understand what it is, and what is the root of the problem."
"The issue is not Jewish-Muslim, or Christian-Muslim, or Christian-Jewish. … You cannot want to understand and come only looking at it summarized into one framework."
Deis regularly organizes interfaith tours for foreign groups that include meetings with various religious groups, including Jews, Muslims, Christians, Baha'is, Atheists, and Samaritans (a Palestinian Jewish group). On the tours, many also meet with right-wing Zionist Jews, but this is done in addition to meetings with left-wing Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews, as well as a variety of political spectrums within the other communities as well.
"I am always against any kind of interfaith work done with governments, because governments have policies and propaganda that forces upon people an understanding of a situation that is not there. Interfaith has to be direct between communities," he told Ma'an.
Like Qumsiyeh, Deis also compared the institute to the Birthright Israel program, saying: "This is part of Israel's foreign policy. ... the most important thing for them is to stress the Jewishness of the state, and that the state is for the Jewish people as a nation."
"This ignores all of the other religions existing in the Holy Land and the fact there have always been Christian, Muslim, and Jewish relations in this place, people living here together. Interfaith work cannot look just at one thing, it must look at how can the biggest number of voices and peoples take part in this tour."
Indeed, in the tours organized by Deis, models of coexistence are highlighted, with participants shown how integrated different religious groups are within Palestinian society while witnessing the political, not religious, nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Deis told Ma'an that he had even previously organized interfaith tours for Muslim clerics from the United States. On a trip in April, an imam held a joint mass with a Palestinian Christian pastor on church land under threat of confiscation near Bethlehem, and even gave a khutba from the pulpit of a church in Ramallah.
"There are many foreigners," Deis told Ma'an, "who come to the region saying, 'we are Americans,' and thinking that they have the solution and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is easy to resolve … But when they come here they end up with many more questions than answers."
On a one-sided tour where one specific political narrative was presented as religious truth, Elias noted, this would not be the case.
When Imam Antepli spoke to Ma'an, he was aware of the criticism, but said he was disappointed in the level of debate and the tone in which it was being expressed.
"I am absolutely open to any kind of criticism, but to call me a faithwasher, Zionist sell-out, Trojan Horse, or undermining the Palestinian cause intentionally" was unfair "just because I am coming on a trip through a Zionist institution," he said.
"I am not in need of free trips, and if I want to sell my soul for a free trip, I will go to better places in the world. I wouldn't come to this mental house, this mental region. I am not a masochist."
Despite this, Muslim-American groups were gearing up to protest the group's return and try to prevent any more such tours being organized by the Muslim Leadership Initiative.
More than 43 different pro-Palestinian or Muslim-American community organizations as well as 200 independent activists had already signed a letter promising not to give those who had attended the initiative platform to speak, and calling for a complete boycott of the group.
"We believe in the potential power of interfaith cooperation but only when it stands on the common values of freedom, justice, and equality," the letter reads, adding: "In regards to Muslim-Jewish relations, we reject outright both the notion that what is happening in Palestine is a 'religious conflict' and the conflation between Zionism, Israeli state policies, and Judaism."
"We pledge to engage with Palestinians in our communities and support delegations to Palestine that are meant to highlight the reality on the ground of occupation, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing," the letter continues.
Short of a change of heart on the part of organizers and participants, an end to funding, or massive public pressure, however, it appears that the Muslim Leadership Initiative is here to stay, and will be returning to Palestine next year.
By Alex Shams
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