BDS Debates Sparked by MLI
I take on the role of an ombudsmen, or public editor, of The Islamic Monthly (TIM) to observe the types of articles that are published online and challenge readers and authors to consider issues from different angles. As such, I closely follow both the publication of pieces and the conversations that they spark amongst readers of TIM.
I was particularly drawn towards the publication of two recent pieces, here and here that focused on a program known as the Muslim Leadership Institute (MLI) and how it relates to Zionism and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), a non-violent campaign using boycotts, commercial divestments and sanctions to pressure Israel to abide by international law and grant Palestinians their rights.
I worked on assessing the debates sparked by the publication of these pieces. This was not, nor ever was, in any way an investigation, but rather for fulfilling my role as a neutral and unbiased third party, analyzing the conversations that ensued and the balance of issues. The debate that would be sparked by the publishing of these two pieces may require additional thought in to the complexity of these issues. In addition, I find it forward thinking that the magazine would open itself up for a person like me to publicly state my opinions about the magazine and the publishing of content in the magazine and for Muslim run organizations I find that unprecedented. I was given free reign in my writing and no interference by any member of the TIM editorial team that was involved in any way in the publishing of either of the pieces. I was also given access to the management processes as well. As such, I spent a considerable amount of time with authors of both pieces and members mentioned in them. What I conclude is that this conversation is both complex and multi-layered. I offer some recommendations below to allow for a healthy dialogue to continue.
What I gathered from my interviews with the TIM editorial management is that both pieces being published are what the magazine is designed to do: spark debate and generate discussion from different, and often, opposing points of view. Sana Saeed as a columnist at the magazine was given great access to publishing pieces and under such an arrangement the magazine does not censor what is written nor has in the past. My first immediate observation was that there was an editorial oversight that resulted in two fellow editors being named in the original piece without prior consultation before publication and I offered some suggestions to the magazine directly about this. There was no formalization of these guidelines prior to Saeed publishing this piece however. In addition, there appears to be a gray area in terms of the role that columnists play in writing magazine endorsed articles or opinion, op-ed like pieces and such is the case as well with Saeed’s piece, which to me is clearly an opinion piece, albeit well research and well argued. The magazine management team recognizes the importance of voices of dissent and critical voices that are often marginalized in writing or publishing. My own assessment is that any media venture, no matter how big or small, will often struggle in navigating the right way to strike balance. In the case of TIM, this is part of the process of a dynamic young media venture and coming out of a solid three year track record has proven that it is able to address these issues easily.
In this essay, I am most interested in furthering understanding around the parameters by which MLI was established and whether those parameters were clearly understood between both parties, namely MLI and SHI. As ombudsmen, and not as a columnist, the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI), Donniel Hartman, and the co-director of the MLI program, Yossi Klein Halevi (also based at the SHI), and the authors of both pieces and several other MLI members, agreed to be interviewed by me and I summarize from these interviews below. All that I spoke to agreed to speak with me on the record and all were asked, and all accepted, if they believe I could be a neutral unbiased party.
While several members of the MLI program have responded about their experience in the program publicly, see here and here, and others have responded via social media, my write-up here is by no means a summary of their experience on the whole as each participant attended the program for different reasons, and they should speak about their experience in their own voice.
Interview with Sana Saeed
The original opinion article by Saeed has done much to spark an important conversation while adhering to the journalistic principles of the magazine to serve as a conduit for debate and critical discussion. Additionally, based on my careful research Saeed did not break any journalist ethics in the publishing or writing of the piece and it is clearly a bold, controversial, opinion piece. These debates have intensified in light of the latest assault on Gaza by Israel that has resulted in the death of over 1,900 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and nearly 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians.
Saeed offered a response to several public postings about the MLI made by a member of MLI in a very public format. As such, Saeed was offering a critique that was already made public by members of the MLI itself. I also understand that an article published before Saeed’s piece had stirred much controversy too. While members of the MLI team stressed concern about Saeed publishing the piece that was otherwise to be a private affair, I argue that given that they were published in a reputable and mainstream newspaper before Saeed’s piece it allows for criticism of their project and as such this is what Saeed was intending to do and the magazine concurs that the debates sparked were part of a larger trajectory of events unrelated to the magazine. Additionally, I analyzed how TIM readers found several aspects of Saeed’s article to be important in understanding the nature of the MLI program and its relation to BDS in particular and many pointed to the fact that it enlightened them further about the program and its relation with SHI and its potential for breaking BDS. In my interview with Saeed, she told me that her intention was to focus on how BDS played into the MLI program, and that she did not want to make her article about the MLI participants themselves, or their experiences, but rather about the “use of the participants by the Shalom Hartman Institute.” Saeed commented, “I was more interested in the actual institute itself. There is a concerted anti-BDS campaign to divide and conquer, where you separate the hard and the soft line.”
TIM readers appreciated how Saeed’s article showed that the SHI had reported the MLI program under their iEngage initiative that actively promotes anti-BDS activity. This made many readers feel that SHI was taking advantage of the Muslim participants and that there was a miscommunication within the MLI and SHI relationship. Another point Saeed’s article raised that readers appreciated was the involvement of Angelica Berrie with MLI, as Berrie is the Board Chair of SHI as well as the Chairman of the Russell Berrie Foundation, a noted supporter of Islamophobic causes. I address both of these issues in my interviews with MLI participants and SHI staff.
TIM asked members of the MLI to offer a response to Sana’s piece, offering editorial guidelines. Abdullah Antepli, the creator of MLI, responded with an article giving his argument as to his own personal motivations for engaging with the SHI. In it he explains, “Engagement is not a total agreement. The program was not intended to and does not develop a Muslim voice in support of Israel or to justify Israeli policies, or to agree with the Zionist vision, which many people throughout the world have strong disagreements with. Furthermore, engagement is not acquiescence. It is not uncritical, wholesale adoption of the other’s political and religious ideologies. It is persistently incremental and patiently hopeful. It seeks opportunity to have a space that can create a more meaningful conversation, debate, pushback and critical discussion that can gently move both communities forward – together.” Some readers demonstrated concern at the response from MLI. They also addressed concerns that the magazine published this piece without it addressing the main arguments of Saeed’s piece. I again recommend that MLI continue to offer their own responses in the future to further offer debate and dialogue as was originally intended by Saeed and Antepli’s piece and address some of the main arguments in the piece itself. In addition, I believe any imbalance that existed was not in any way a result of the magazine. As they had in the past, they offered a space for an opposing point of view and offered editorial direction stressing the need to address some main arguments of Saeed’s piece. The author offered his piece that the magazine chose to publish out of already allotting the space for a response. I do believe there is value in what Antepli had to say as a stand-alone piece, even though it may not have addressed Saeed’s points in a more systematic fashion.
Interviews with Shalom Hartman Institute
In my interview with Rabbi Donniel Hartman, the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute, I asked him about the MLI program and its relation to the larger program known as Israel Engage or “iEngage” within the Shalom Hartman Institute “SHI”. I also spoke with him about his views on Zionism, the BDS movement and what outcomes he has seen following the first experimental MLI program. Rabbi Hartman characterized himself as “a Zionist who is pro-Palestinian.” He stated that SHI is a “very Zionist institution, and we make no apologies for it.” He indicated that the MLI program is not exactly an “interfaith program” but referred to it as “educational.”
I asked Rabbi Hartman if the MLI program is classified internal to the SHI as a part of the iEngage program and he said, “Yes, the MLI is a part of iEngage, but its ideology is very different.” He stated that the iEngage program was created to facilitate a “values-based conversation” with a number of different constituents. I asked Rabbi Hartman whether he considers the MLI program, which is under the iEngage program portfolio at SHI, to be one that furthers an anti-BDS agenda as his own writings and views are anti-BDS. Hartman said, “This is a distortion of what the program and the institute is about,” and continued, “of course we are an anti-BDS institution.” He also pointed out that there are people in SHI that are pro-BDS. He told me it would be a “waste of his time to convince Muslims to not support BDS.” But he expressed that this is not the case with different Christian groups that he works with in the Christian Leadership Initiative, which is a related model to the MLI.
I was curious to know whether the Russell Berrie Foundation played a role in the SHI or in the MLI program because the Berrie Foundation was listed as a funder of different Islamophobic efforts in the report, “Fear, Inc. The Roots of the Islamophobia Network”. Hartman said that there was zero involvement from the Berrie Foundation in the MLI program even though Angelica Berrie sits on the board of the SHI. I also discovered that a presentation was given on the findings of the “Fear, Inc.” report during the MLI program by one of the Muslim participants and members of the SHI staff were present for this presentation.
I also interviewed the SHI staff, who was with the co-director of the MLI program, Yossi Klein Halevi, an American born Israeli writer and journalist. Halevi was formerly involved with the extremist Jewish Defense League in the 1960’s and he ended his involvement when he was 18 years old over 40 years ago.
The events of 9/11 had pushed Halevi away from dialogue and relationship building with Muslims. He indicated that the MLI program brought him back to the work of relationship building and dialogue with Muslims. He co-wrote an op-ed in the Times of Israel in response to Brandeis University rescinding an award to the noted Islamophobe, Ayyan Hirsi Ali. The President of Brandeis, Fred Lawrence, participated in the MLI program and while it was Lawrence’s decision to rescind the award to Hirsi-Ali, Halevi had been in close dialogue with Fred Lawrence, and spoke at his synagogue about his experience of dialogue and engagement with Muslims two weeks prior to the decision. Writing this op-ed, which called for combating anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on a global level, resulted in Halevi receiving what he referred to as “brutal” criticism from other Jews.
Interviews with Muslim MLI Participants
I interviewed five MLI participants, including the editors who were mentioned by name in the original piece. As mentioned at the outset, many of the participants have already written about their experiences in other publications or on social media, as such, I have decided it best to summarize my findings, and not to directly quote the participants by name. It is understandable that some mentioned in Saeed’s article may have felt the piece imposed motivation on them without proper consultation or interviews by Saeed. In addition, some may read the original Saeed article and believe that it may consider them to also now be Zionist supporters carrying out a Zionist agenda. I certainly don’t believe the second is true and I do also believe that in the first instance, while she does not have to, it would have further balanced or enriched Saeed’s discussion by offering additional points of view that may challenge her perspective.
In my interviews, I learned that each participant attended the program for different reasons. Many of them put conditions on their attendance and they were each initially concerned with the Zionist views of the program. Some said they had developed levels of trust with the SHI staff in the first year that satisfied their conditions and that no one backed out as a result. Some people were motivated to participate in the MLI to further their work in foreign policy, and they believed that MLI would enable them to work with parties they disagree with politically and ideologically. Others told me they participated because they believed that the program would enhance their ability to work with a wider diversity of Jewish American leaders in their respective home cities in America.
Several of the Muslim MLI participants said that the program enabled them to build bridges of understanding and combat anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in America, and it is possible that for many of the participants, this was the most salient outcome of the entire experience. In other words, I noticed that a more frequent and common motivation to attend the program was that it might expand the social capital of American Muslims to work more effectively with Jewish communities in America and abroad. The political dynamics of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and other political aspects to the Israel-Palestinian conflict were present, but perhaps not central. At the time of my interviews, however, the land invasion in to Gaza had not happened and I more than recognize that these tragic events will give readers a different perspective in light of the silence by SHI in regards to Gaza. I do not think, however, that it reflects the positions about Palestine by members of the MLI. But I believe, again, that such members should continue to write further elaborating their positions.
Every participant that I spoke with stated that the Shalom Hartman program did not strike them as a propaganda organization that would further a certain agenda and they said the organization seemed different than some of the many pro-Israel tour groups. As one participant put it, “I attended based on the cohort that [Abdullah Antepli] assembled. They were all sterling people with sterling reputations. Each of us are very pro-Palestinian and pro justice.”
I asked each participant his or her views on the BDS movement and whether the BDS topic was addressed in the program. I was told that BDS was intentionally kept out of the curriculum because many of the Muslim participants support the BDS movement, but the BDS topic did come up in conversations a few times. Their personal views on the BDS movement varied; some people criticized it; while others said that participation in the program further strengthened their support for BDS. I believe this is reflective of the greater BDS movement including within the American Muslim community. I recognize several other pieces that were published further addressing this critique of MLI breaking BDS and believe members of the MLI should independent consider publishing pieces that address the BDS movement.
As someone who closely examines debates and the aftermath of readers’ reactions, I strongly recommend that anyone who feels that the issue has not been fully covered by this publication or others, offer their own response and rationale. I hope that this important conversation continues and that it spurs further dialogue about other critical issues and challenges that face America’s diverse ethnic and religious communities. No doubt this conversation can be plugged in to a larger ongoing on currently taking place in the American Muslim community at a much larger scale.
In sum, like the magazine, I stand by the decision of the magazine to publish both pieces and then offer me the space to independently offer a neutral reaction to readers’ responses or reflection on both pieces. I understand that the magazine is attempting to make balance in any topic it presents most especially something as controversial as this. I recognize that this issue is one that may forever remain controversial. But I do believe that by further dialogue more can be learned.