On Treason and Thankfulness

by Jacob Bender, CAIR-Philadelphia Executive Director

A few months ago, I received a call from a staff member of a large suburban library. She voiced interest in having me come to the library to screen my documentary film “Out of Cordoba,” and then lead a Q&A session with the audience. She said this would help foster greater public knowledge about Islam and the Muslim community. “Out of Cordoba” is a documentary I produced and directed prior to coming to work for CAIR-Philadelphia in October 2013. The film counters the “Clash of Civilization” thesis that posits a continuing conflict between the “freedom-loving West” and “a radical Islamic East” by exploring the multi-faith and pluralistic culture of Al-Andalus, or medieval Muslim Spain. (View the 8-minute trailer for the film on YouTube.)

One evening last week, I traveled to the library to screen “Out of Cordoba” for an audience of about 30 people. When the film ended and I got up to answer questions, several hands immediately shot into the air. When I called on one man, he launched into a long tirade against me and the movie. He proclaimed that Islam was fundamentally anti-Jewish and that Jews were persecuted every place they lived in Muslim-majority societies. I attempted to respond by giving historical examples that countered his claims, such as the high level of cultural and intellectual achievement of the Jews living under Muslim rule throughout the southern Mediterranean region, and the invitation of Sultan Bayazid to the Jews expelled from Christian Spain in 1491 to resettle in the Ottoman Empire. The man was not satisfied with this answer, however, and continued to attack the film. When I thanked him for his “contribution” and picked another upraised hand, this new questioner immediately started attacking me as a “self-hating Jew” and accusing CAIR of being in favor of terrorism and a supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah.

When a third man began to shout that I was a “traitor,” it became clear to me that this was a well-coordinated effort to disrupt the discussion, I announced that it was useless to attempt to continue to engage in a civil and rational discussion with the audience members like this, and therefore the evening was over. As I was packing up to leave the room, several audience members came up to me to apologize for what had happened and voiced how much they liked the film.

For American Jews who, like myself, have long been public critics of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and its draconian human rights abuses — the destruction of thousands of Arab homes to make space for exclusive Jewish settlements; the construction of the “Apartheid” wall separating Palestinian farmers from their fields; the strangling archipelago of Israeli “security” checkpoints throughout the West Bank; the thousands of Palestinian children in Israeli prisons — the insults are nothing new. And one unfortunately gets used to these sorts of slurs on social media. Still, I was unprepared for this short email that arrived in our office on Monday morning this week:

This is an example of the times in which we find ourselves. It is a time when to speak of “peace,” “justice,” and “mercy” is considered a crime, and to reach across the racial or religious barrier in friendship gets one branded a “traitor.”

Certainly racism has long been a component of our national psyche, but the inauguration of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States unleashed the voices of violence and bigotry that we had (perhaps naively) hoped were extinguished by the Obama victory in 2008. Government officials speak openly about a “Muslim Travel Ban,” radio pundits speak fondly of a time in America when slavery was the law of the land, and from the lunatic-fringe, white supremacists goose-step down our streets in torch-lit parades.

Tomorrow, millions of Americans will gather round the dining room table with their families and friends for a meal of Thanksgiving. This year, let us not turn away from the sight of millions of refugees trapped in camps and floating upon the open seas. Let us not avert our eyes from the hatred and violence often coming from our very own communities. Let us acknowledge the universality of sexism and abuse, and not pretend it exists only over there, and not here. Resistance to oppression is also a voice of thanksgiving, and healing the world a kind of prayer.

Our nation is now engaged in a great civil conflict, testing its commitment to democracy and to the values of pluralism and equality. At tomorrow’s meal, let us take a moment to offer thanks and a prayer that we have the opportunity and means to participate in the struggle to bring justice and mercy to our nation and to the world. This is the obligation, I believe, of all of us, and it is certainly the mission of CAIR-Philadelphia and the amazing Muslim community that I have had the privilege to get to know these past four years.

With my blessings of peace and thankfulness,