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Jews, Muslims and bad politics

There's a disturbing trend in this 2008 election. We are witnessing the manipulation and exploitation of Muslim-Jewish differences by political candidates in pursuit of votes. As advocates for our respective communities, we believe it's in America's interest that it stop.

It appears that the political logic of the candidates and their handlers calls for winning Jewish-American support at the expense of Muslim-American voters. This takes the shape of aggressive outreach to the Jewish community while Muslims go ignored. That strategy may be politically expedient, but it is inherently flawed. Muslims see their exclusion as a betrayal of American values, and many Jews are alarmed by the parallels to their own historical political exclusion.

American Jews are all too familiar with institutionalized bigotry. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Rep. John Rankin opposed the immigration of Holocaust survivors, and he opposed integration. In that McCarthyite, anti-Communist era, politicians clamped down against those who they thought threatened the changing fabric of America — namely, Jews. Now, Muslims are on the receiving end of similar suspicions, this time in the name of fighting terrorism.

Muslims today are political scapegoats associated with global tragedies including terrorism and war. Against this dismal backdrop, politicians are apparently deeming Muslim voters political pariahs; any endorsement from national Muslim groups is tantamount to a kiss of death.

Just one day after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton dropped out of the Democratic race, Sen. Barack Obama rushed to receive the blessing of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Recently, his campaign volunteers rushed to remove Muslim women wearing head scarves from a Detroit rally. Although Obama apologized, Muslims felt stung by a candidate supposedly running on a platform of inclusion and change.

But the snubs aren't limited to Obama. Sen. John McCain recently dismissed a Muslim-American businessman from an important campaign committee. In March, McCain visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem but made no similar visit to the adjacent Muslim holy site, the Dome of the Rock. And although both candidates have made frequent stops at churches and synagogues, neither has made a campaign stop at a mosque.

Put on the spot about turning their backs on Muslim voters, politicians may argue that they can't afford to lose Jewish support, implying that the Jewish community would oppose any politician who associates with Muslims.

To be sure, the politicians aren't inventing a division between Muslims and Jews. We acknowledge the tension between our communities created by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And yet it is also clear that Jews and Muslims should be natural allies in countering xenophobia and hysteria. We both suffer from scapegoating as fear works against common sense in our political culture. Whether it is anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, we both know the face of bigotry.

The issue of excluding Muslims to get Jewish votes is not about ensuring domestic security, it is about cowardly politics. It is about playing to fears, not processing facts. It is about the canard that Muslims and Jews have been fighting since ancient times and nothing will change. It is about blaming both for America's problems. We Muslims and Jews, along with all people of faith, represent the spirit of God. There is much that binds us together. It is in the spirit of this shared history, and our common interests, that we must stand against these divisions being created by the candidates.

Abraham Lincoln argued against the politics of fear, holding out hope for the "better angels of our nature." Our presidential candidates must display such higher thinking in coming months. And we — American Jews and Muslims — must do the same.

Salam Al-Marayati is the executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Steven Jacobs, a rabbi, is the founder of the Progressive Faith Foundation. They are members of the Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative.

Jews, Muslims and bad politics 07/02/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2008 1:40pm]
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