The Failures of an American Muslim and Jewish Dialogue

A former member of a prominent program in which both sides shared perspectives reflects on its shortcomings

The Failures of an American Muslim and Jewish Dialogue
Israeli police guard the gates to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City in December 2023. (Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

From its conception in 2012, a program known as the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) was one of the most charged topics in American Muslim communities. It’s easy to understand why. Run through the Shalom Hartman Institute, which describes itself as “a leading center for Jewish thought and education,” MLI was a yearlong fellowship focused on Jewish-Muslim engagement that started and closed with two weeks in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The Shalom Hartman Institute’s mission includes supporting “the Jewish and democratic character of Israel”; I was hardly the only person who believed these two ideals to be in extreme tension. But along with 15 other American Muslims, I accepted an invitation to join the inaugural cohort in late 2012. The program would introduce us to Judaism, Zionism and Israel as the Hartman Institute’s faculty understood them. Some of the institute’s faculty were skeptical of Zionism, but most were not. The program also included significant time in the West Bank and with Palestinian communities in Israel, excursions and interactions that the MLI participants themselves designed and pursued.

Likely no issue is more sensitive for American Muslims than Palestine and Israel. From the start, it was inevitable that the program would raise hard questions.

I joined the program because Hartman’s politics were so different from mine — an apparent paradox I will explain. In joining, my goal was to reframe American foreign policy, hoping to find common ground between American Jews and Muslims, which might help turn our country away from a war on terror that had by then stretched for over a decade. But by the time Joe Biden was elected president, I had quietly exited the program, exhausted. I left after intense criticism over my participation from Palestinians, other Muslims, and friends and colleagues. But that criticism was not the ultimate reason for my departure.

MLI brought together Jewish and Muslim participants with very different perspectives on the conflict. Most of our exchanges could not escape fundamental incompatibilities in our worldviews. Rather than accept that the founding of Israel might entail any real moral debt, our interlocutors too often ignored, suppressed, dismissed or misrepresented the brutal facts, from contemporary conditions on the ground to the original and ongoing ethnic cleansing required for the state of Israel to be established.

While my frustrations with the program built up, my failure to responsibly engage with serious criticisms — in fact, even to try to meaningfully address substantive, thoughtful pushback— helped propel a conflict that divided the American Muslim community for years. MLI became a flashpoint in a broader, more painful story of American Islam and its confrontation with a U.S. foreign policy establishment, heavily influenced by supporters of Israel, that remains indifferent or hostile to the plight of Muslims around the world, including most recently the devastated people of Gaza.

Every participant in MLI joined for their own reasons, and some have been accused by critics of the program of doing so for personal advancement. My explanation can only speak for my own perspective. If I write about MLI now, it is to clarify where I stand and to share what I learned about the limits of dialogue. But it is also because what I learned is directly relevant to our present moment, and especially to the Biden administration’s frustrating attempts to have it both ways on Israel-Palestine — hoping to placate critics of the brutal war on Gaza while standing unapologetically behind the state of Israel. My aim today is not to discourage future conversations but to ask how we deal with morally irreconcilable differences.

My decision to join MLI came after a lifetime spent engaging with Muslim communities, from offering sermons and teaching classes to planning a career in religious studies. As a student, I majored in Middle Eastern Studies at New York University and completed my master’s degree in Indo-Islamic philosophy at Columbia University. On campus, I had advocated for causes dear to many Muslims, dealing with Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, Kosovo — and of course Palestine.

This kind of advocacy was often met with hostility, including in the heated early years of the war on terror when I found myself, as a student activist in New York City, forced to defend a community under siege.

During the George W. Bush years, when Muslim communities suffered unprecedented surveillance, repression and public scrutiny, I stepped forward as a commentator on Islamic issues for an American audience, filling alarming gaps in our national conversation. The ugly course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan eventually soured most Americans on Bush’s messianic foreign policy. The result was the election of Barack Obama, a moment that many people, including me, were willing to see as a turning point that might redeem a nation on a path to ruin.

After years in New York, I moved to Washington, D.C., to work in policy circles to push for U.S. military restraint in the Middle East and a return to diplomacy. As that work unfolded, I encountered intense opposition from pro-Israel voices, who continued to call for confrontation in the region. Their suggestion that we treat Israeli concerns as equal to or even more urgent than American ones was a particular source of indignation.

A few months after arriving in our nation’s capital, I found myself in a closed-door conversation with senior elected officials, policymakers and journalists, talking about a prospective nuclear deal then being negotiated with Iran. I saw the agreement as an important step in avoiding a repeat of the disastrous Iraq War that had caused so much havoc in the Middle East. However, as the only Muslim in the room — often the case — I was frequently treated as though I was not entirely loyal to the United States.

During that particular meeting, one particular congressman, staunchly pro-Israel, not only denounced the nuclear deal but encouraged the U.S. to attack Iran. I decided to intercede in the conversation, believing I had a compelling counterargument.

“Given the mayhem in Iraq, and the fact that Iran is three times bigger in area and population, wouldn’t this promise absolute disaster, including death and displacement, for tens of millions of people in the region?” I asked.

Without flinching, the congressman said, “I can live with that.”

Stunned by this response, I continued to push forward, telling him that creating zones of state collapse and anarchy in the Middle East would hardly benefit Israel’s security either. It was only at this moment that the Congressman appeared to consider that maybe war might not suit his own interests. That had seemed obvious to me, but it was likely not a perspective he had been exposed to. How many more obvious conclusions remained a mystery to people who made decisions that might decide the fate of millions?

A few months later, I found myself at dinner with several other Muslim colleagues, all of us sharing the exhausting isolation and scrutiny we felt, the pressures of standing up for better policies while critics presumed our actual objective was duplicitous, even treasonous. One of my fellow diners emailed me a few weeks later, introducing me to the Shalom Hartman Institute, which he said had deep roots and growing clout in America’s pro-Israel Jewish communities.

If we wanted to change the narrative, he said, we had to engage these communities. He noted that the Shalom Hartman Institute had run outreach programs for American Christian leaders for years, and Hartman could offer a version of the same for American Muslims — not a trite exercise in interfaith conviviality but direct, unsparing engagement across the toughest topics, never avoiding the hard conversations. Through the institute’s faculty, many academically accomplished, we would go where few dialogues dared to.

I asked if anything was off the table, and he said no. I thought about whether the moment, and the stakes, compelled this kind of engagement. Over weeks, we discussed the program’s outline in further detail. I came to believe that by understanding these communities, I might influence important constituencies on the other side of these debates and help turn U.S. foreign policy from its disastrous course. Ultimately, I chose to accept the offer to engage with the program.

It was a fateful decision that won me the hostility of many people who had previously cheered my advocacy on behalf of American Muslims. I joined MLI believing that academic engagement could help accelerate a shift in the U.S. foreign policy establishment. But rather than convincing people that this approach had merit, I became the subject of intense criticism by people who saw my engagement with supporters of Israel as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. When MLI became public over a decade ago, some of my colleagues, friends and peers were cautious, if not conflicted. A good number more were adamantly opposed.

Among the well over 100 people who eventually pursued the program, some were of Palestinian background. But then and now, each participant’s decision to join was their own and many did not want to publicize their involvement. That lack of transparency, however, only fueled further questions. The most glaring question seemed obvious: Why would the Shalom Hartman Institute fund MLI if they thought it wouldn’t benefit their mission and their constituencies?

It is true the Shalom Hartman Institute poured considerable resources into the program, but my understanding was that it had to be persuaded to run MLI and considered engaging with us a risk. After all, how would their supporters and donors feel about working with people like me, who had consistently been on record opposing Zionism and supporting a single binational state, with equal rights for all?

My own hope was that while the institute may have believed it could influence us, our positions were rooted in fact, our cause was just, and our engagement would help me understand how to address opposition to a more moral and sustainable American foreign policy. In the long run, we might also encourage questions about Zionism itself, which appeared to be headed in a profoundly destructive direction.

These arguments did not convince many pro-Palestinian voices. Unsurprisingly, the debate was acrimonious almost from the beginning. Regrettably, I was too often defensive, even dismissive.

Some critics pointed out that our participation in MLI undermined the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel, or accused us of indulging ideological arguments about Zionism that appeared to legitimize the colonization of Palestine. Others accused participants of participating for cynical and careerist reasons. My responses to these criticisms were often charged, if not combative.

Part of the problem is that the debate unfolded largely on social media. It was understandably hard to convey the nuance of the program in a post or a tweet. But it was also too easy to respond to the harshest dismissals of our motivations — we were often branded “sellouts,” “traitors,” or “Zionists,” or presented as a fifth column within our own communities — with equivalent hostility.

Had I responded differently, perhaps I might have been able to convey the reasons for my participation, or I might have decided to exit sooner. One of my great regrets from my time in MLI is not responding over disagreements more maturely and graciously. To this day, I am most devastated by the criticism many Palestinians directed at me. On one occasion, a prominent American Muslim scholar of Palestinian origin, who has since become even more influential — and rightly so — emailed a respectful but pointed critique of some of my public defenses of MLI.

One of his points resonates now especially. While he acknowledged how, for those in government and policy, boycotting Israel was hard, he wondered how any positive progress could be made against an occupying power without solidarity. Engagement could be important, he noted, but what seemed to be happening in MLI was merely engagement for its own sake. Where was the leverage in this conversation, and might the Shalom Hartman Institute not have alternative motives?

In retrospect, his decision to bypass the public vitriol and reach out to me directly should have been seen as an incredibly thoughtful means of conveying his concern and criticism. Perhaps he thought we might have a substantive conversation and, away from public scrutiny, I might better explain my reasoning.

I should have taken the time to sit with him, try to better understand his points and review my ongoing participation in MLI against his legitimate questions. But I did not. I remember responding curtly, assuming that because some people issued off-the-cuff denunciations, in the manner social media too often encourages, then therefore any qualms could be pushed aside. Or maybe it was hard to hear criticism that hit so hard.

My hardness and stubbornness revealed a fundamental contradiction in my position: I was defending holding conversations with people with whom I strongly disagreed while denying the same courtesy even to friends and colleagues.

Over the years I have come to pay far more attention to the shortcomings in how I responded to my critics. Rather than hear out rebuttals and think through why people with whom I otherwise had so much in common might disagree so strongly with my decisions, I sometimes shot back with anger, astonished that anyone might challenge my understanding of faith, history or politics.

I tried to explain that I never had any intention through my work with MLI to define, represent or transform Islam. I certainly had no intention to speak on behalf of Palestinians. In my more level-headed moments, I noted the value of American pluralism — that there could never be a single approach to an end and that many approaches were needed to gradually move U.S. policy in a more moral direction that also met the needs of Americans. Most of the critics remained unswayed by any of these defenses.

Embittered, I became ever more isolated. In April 2016, I attended a policy conference at the United Nations with a colleague who rejected MLI while remaining personally friendly. As we walked toward Grand Central Station, MLI quickly became the focus of our conversation. I told him that I had been motivated only by a sincere desire to help my community, and our country, and didn’t know why nobody could see that. He would have none of it.

“Are you doing what you’re doing to be appreciated,” he asked, “or for God’s sake and God’s sake alone?” If I was doing this for the proper reason, he insisted, I should be unfazed by opposition and continue undaunted. My comportment, he suggested, revealed cracks in my supposed sincerity and perhaps a sense of ego. I didn’t know if I would take it that far, I protested; my intention, I insisted, was genuine.

But the questions he raised unsettled me even before we reached 42nd Street, where he hugged me, wished me “salam” and then raced for his train. By that year’s end, Trump was elected and my ambitions for policy had come to naught, but still I did not walk away. If America was tearing itself in two, I theorized to myself, didn’t we need to stitch that fabric back together? Didn’t we need to speak across differences? Not to mention how vulnerable we felt as Muslims.

Trump had ridden to office on the back of Islamophobia. Did desperate times call for desperate measures? Alongside the work I did in Muslim spaces, I reached into Jewish spaces as a fellow at the Hartman Institute, raising Muslim concerns in communities that might never hear them. If I couldn’t reach the opinion makers, maybe I would reach ordinary people, and this might effect some positive change. If enough people did this, we would have a genuine effect.

I pulled no punches on the hardest topics. Still, meaningful evidence of impact was hard to find. Many of my speeches, talks and conversations to pro-Israel audiences felt like engagements I had had in the past with anxious Islamists, who might acknowledge mistakes but still believed that their project could be redeemed. Over and over, any attempt to reckon with Zionism’s essential supremacism — the land grab and prejudice that started and sustained it — was blocked.

Instead, our conversations became lost in tendentious elaborations of history or tradition. It was often suggested that ancient connections to a land somehow justified present-day political rights, even through violence. There was little willingness among pro-Israel audiences to grapple with the fundamental injustice against Palestinians that lay at the heart of Zionism.

As the public debate about MLI continued, I kept returning to that pivotal afternoon exchange on the way to Grand Central Station. My friend inspired me to look inward, to reflect on who I was and where I came up short. I quit most social media, which was bringing out the worst in me. When I went anywhere in person, I made it a point to sit with critics and skeptics.

What they told me reinforced my snowballing regrets about MLI. Not only had I alienated myself from my community, harming and offending people I respected, but I had made no real difference in moving the needle on the causes I cared about. Instead, I appeared to validate the state of Israel at a time when it was becoming ever more intolerant, even as I criticized the country’s policies in my public writing and commentary. At best, many were mystified by the contradiction.

What was the purpose of MLI? And why would I remain in the program? I knew the history of Zionism and the colonization of Palestine — did I really believe conversations could change these? My hope had been that by better understanding pro-Israel communities I would be able to contribute to reconstructing American foreign policy. That might seem strikingly naive now, but balanced between the fear of the war on terror running forever and the naive optimism of the Obama era, perhaps it made some sense. Still, I should have seen the writing on the wall.

Many of my interlocutors during my time in MLI were deeply educated, intelligent, even formidable scholars, rabbis and community leaders. Yet time and again the hard work never proceeded because the core assumptions could not be challenged. A senior voice at Hartman even flatly insisted that we could not talk about the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and only the 1967 war where Israel fought several Arab neighbors, when in fact one cannot understand the latter without understanding the former.

At one point, the program brought me to Australia, where I engaged in a heated back-and-forth with a Jewish community leader who asked me when American Muslims would “condemn violence.” As our exchange continued, I learned his family had volunteered to leave their country — Australia, where they lived in full peace and security — to move to Israel. That necessarily entailed taking up arms; today, for example, his family members might be complicit in war crimes. I was told that “Israel is our home and must be defended.” The hypocrisy of asking me to condemn violence I’d never endorsed while committing to violently defending ethnic cleansing was astonishing.

Like a certain congressman, this person simply could not believe that I might have any kind of sensible, reasonable motivation to oppose Zionism or the actions of Israel. But I explained to him that criticizing Zionism wasn’t antisemitic: The course of Zionism was likely to jeopardize Israel’s security, as well as his own. If the state of Israel was supposed to keep Jews safe, I wondered, why pursue violent policies that would elicit violent responses, enmeshing Israelis and Palestinians in disaster?

This gentleman told me that I was no different from a terrorist, to which I responded, as calmly as I could, that what he thought of me would not change the disastrous trajectory that Israel was on. I do not know what became of him. But I see the Oct. 7 attacks, undeniably awful, painful and inexcusable, within the context of decades of dislocation and oppression, perpetrated by people, like him, who insist that they are fighting on the side of good.

Perhaps because of how badly my attempts at communicating in the past had gone, I did not publicly announce or explain my departure from MLI. When people asked in person, I always made clear why I was done. But I should have disclosed to the broader public what caused my exit. In writing now, I hope to clarify my errors and shed more light on a painful and divisive chapter in American Muslim life.

Instead of making moral progress, I and other participants in the MLI program kept getting pushed into minutiae, listening to arguments from our interlocutors suggesting that romantic ideas about the land of Israel could somehow justify enormities in the present. In my own effort to accomplish goals that I thought laudable, I lost touch with the needs and perspectives of the very people whose interests I was claiming to defend. One of my greatest regrets in pursuing MLI, which I saw only after I left, was losing my place in my community.

Despite my own failed attempts to shift the American foreign policy consensus, it seems like a change is coming nonetheless. More and more young Americans are becoming pro-Palestinian; our sclerotic media and political elites are losing the battle for public opinion. For all the power of organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a far less-resourced nationwide effort at mobilizing uncommitted voters has clearly shaken Joe Biden during an election year.

In the past few years, I have left policymaking and advocacy to become part of a grassroots Muslim community in ways that I hadn’t been for a long time, including by teaching young students. When one of my students recently asked how we can help Gaza, I made sure to remind him that even in pursuing justice, we cannot cross certain limits. And that what we think might be small accommodations can open the door to far worse. It is something I see today in supporters of Israel, who started with what they believed to be a righteous cause and now find themselves defending man-made famines and the bombardment of civilian populations.

A properly righteous cause, however, still requires numbers behind it, and a community at odds with itself cannot translate its principles into politics. I am sorry I didn’t see that in the past. But a community also needs the capacity to check itself, listen to its different voices and open itself up to the possibility that it might be wrong. That is democracy writ large.

Sometimes the purpose of dialogue is not to find consensus, but simply to learn where our red lines are. People often say that the MLI program failed, but I believe its success was its failure. It taught me that some differences in moral perspective cannot be overcome. In the weeks and months after the 9/11 attacks, many American Muslims began to see representation as an antidote to marginalization. But the limits of that approach are now clear.

After years of fruitless dialogue and engagement, it is clearer to me now than ever that America’s woeful and immoral foreign policy establishment will not change with discussion but only through meaningful political action.

The structural, ideological and moral conflicts are too deeply rooted to avoid the clash that we now see playing out in our domestic politics. It will take the energy of successive generations to truly change America’s stance in the Middle East, and reasoning with the old establishment alone is no path forward. If there is something to learn from the experience of the MLI program — divisive, emotional and painful as it was — perhaps it is this.

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