By Margaret Johnson
During an online discussion about the lobbying effort underway to encourage the Montgomery County Council to pass a resolution adopting the definition of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Committee (IHRA), one prominent supporter of the resolution contended that antisemitism is a bigger problem than Islamophobia. I was shocked and, to be honest, triggered by that statement, which I found woefully out of touch with the reality that Muslims confront daily.
I am a member of the board of JAMAAT (Jews and Muslims and Allies Acting Together) and am active in the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. In the summer of 2019, I participated in a Sisterhood study mission to Berlin, Warsaw and Auschwitz, to learn more about Nazism and the Holocaust, and to offer emotional and spiritual support for Jewish sisters on the trip.
I fiercely oppose antisemitism and I also, emphatically, do not want to get into an argument about which of our communities is more persecuted. All have suffered. I would ask my Jewish friends to consider that, even now, it is Muslims facing genocide — Uyghur Muslims and Rohingya Muslims — only 20 years after the genocidal mass murders of Muslims in Bosnia. Anti-Muslim persecution is intensifying across India. It was only seven years ago that the soon-to-be-president of the United States, Donald Trump, said “Islam hates us” and proposed “a complete and total ban of Muslims entering the United States” and a national database of Muslims. Later, as president, Trump instituted a travel ban of foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries. My friends in the federal service worked for Trump appointees who expressed anti-Muslim sentiments in their confirmation hearings. It was a frightening time for Muslims. Meanwhile, the Jewish community received the assurance of an Antisemitism Executive Order.
As a Montgomery County resident, I am well aware of how established and organized Jewish institutions are here and hope our Muslim community will reach that level soon. My own kids have been in Montgomery County public schools for 15 years. Over the years, I have received printed letters sent home to the families of every child in their schools whenever an act of antisemitism occurred. Yet, I never once received a letter about bullying against Muslim students, even though there were many such instances. Muslim students have taken their AP exams while fasting during the month of Ramadan. Over the years, many Muslim high school students were forced to choose between their Eid celebrations and missing an exam or falling behind in their studies.
Muslims have been advocating for years to have two of our main holidays, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, added to the academic calendar. The response of the Montgomery County school board has been to remove mention of all religious holidays (while keeping the days off for Jewish and Christian students) rather than to provide up to two days off for the major Muslim holidays.
Frankly, it is still OK in our culture to discriminate against Muslims and to portray them as terrorists in all forms of media. Anti-Muslim acts tend to be downplayed or the harm they cause minimized. While there is a higher level of reported hate crimes against Jews than Muslims in Montgomery County and across the nation, I would point out that Muslims, who were subjected to extreme levels of surveillance and incidences of wrongful incarceration in the wake of 9/11, are much less likely to report such incidents to the police.
I want to be clear that I have no objection to the Council passing a resolution denouncing antisemitism. The county is very supportive of creating an inclusive county with many initiatives including providing funding to Jewish institutions and synagogues for security and programming. At the governmental level, there is much support for the Jewish community and for speaking out against antisemitism. In this context, we don’t necessarily need to adopt a resolution that is divisive in intrafaith and interfaith relations.
Surely, we can have an initiative that denounces antisemitism without one that conflates it with criticism of Israel. Just to be clear, many in the Muslim community fear they may falsely be tarred as antisemites by the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which contends that criticizing Israel more than other democracies might well be motivated by antisemitism. This is a real threat, as witnessed by Fairfax School Board member Abrar Omeish, of being tarred by many in the Jewish community in May 2021 for a tweet expressing her anguish in the wake of the violent attack on Muslim worshippers by Israeli soldiers inside of Al-Aqsa mosque during the holiest night of the year, the 27th night of Ramadan. This violence reverberated throughout all of our community as our heart is with Al-Aqsa.
I will never forget that in response, Jewish and Muslim members of JAMAAT gathered at Dupont Circle in Washington to call for an end to hostilities on all sides and to stand in solidarity with the Muslim worshippers at Al-Aqsa and with the Muslim community who were in collective grief at a time that is usually the most joyous celebration of the year. That heartfelt demonstration of solidarity was, for me, a source of light at a very grievous time.
Let’s be there for each other at moments when one side or the other feels attacked. Let’s stand together against the rise of hatred and bigotry in America aimed at a diverse array of minority groups. That is the way to achieve peace and reconciliation.
Dr. Margaret Johnson, a member of the board of JAMAAT (Jews and Muslims and Allies Acting Together), is a resident of Germantown.