Fantasy & Reconstructing Muslim-Jewish Relations (Imam Abdullah Antepli)


Maybe a step forward demands not a little fantasy. Here are two super interesting pieces with and about Imam Abdullah Antepli on [2] Islam and Jews, Judaism, and Israel, [2] what’s ailing Islam today, [3] and the pivotal importance of Muslim-Jewish relations for both Islam and Judaism. You can read the interview here and the article here, both published on the same day online at the Times of Israel.

By way of background: Now chaplain at Duke University, Antepli has been at the forefront of Muslim initiatives to make sense of Jews, Judaism, Zionism, and the State of Israel. Most controversial is the Muslim Leadership Initiative which brings American Muslim leaders and opinion makers to the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem to study these things in an open and critical environment. One gets the sense reading Antepli that Muslims need Jewish allies as much as Jews need Muslim allies, particularly today at a moment of violent crisis, and that religion is key to any such alliance.

What Antepli calls the “inherent openness” in Islam to Judaism, particularly in relation to Israel, depends upon two factors. There is the argument here that the Holocaust contributes not much to Muslims understanding the connection between “mainstream Jews” and the State of Israel. (Antepli is relatively uninterested in talking with what he calls “marginal” Jews who will agree with whatever a Muslim happens to say against Israel and Zionism.) Mostly, because many Muslims either underestimate or deny the full scope of the Holocaust; but more importantly, because they don’t see what the Holocaust has to do with Palestine. What makes far more sense as Antepli understands that connection is the long historical and religious arc bonding Jews, Judaism and the Land of Israel and also the long tradition of tolerance for Jews and Judaism in Arab-Muslim history.

The second factor that would contribute to Muslims being able to make sense of Zionism as a cultural and political movement with religious components would be a recognition and coming to terms on the part of Jews with the shattering effect that the establishment of the State of Israel, the Palestinian Nakba,, and the 1967 Occupation has had on contemporary Muslim identity in the Middle East. Antepli’s point is definitely not to blame Israel for Islamic radicalization since 9/11 or the massive crisis now shaking large parts of the Arab-Muslim world. Indeed, his harshest words are directed against political Islam. Rather the more simple point would seem to be that from Jews Muslims need a just and agreed upon resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recognition of the rights and dignity of both parties to what is in Israel-Palestine an asymmetrical struggle marked by a gross imbalance of power.

The fantasy element in Antepli’s project reminds me of Lessing’s play Nathan the Wise in which the drama’s eponymous hero negotiates the shoals of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communal politics under the rule of Saladin in Jerusalem. What is so fragile about Antepli’s project is the larger threatening environment marked by religious radicalism and extremists. No doubt, Antepli cares more about traditional religion than did Lessing, a classical Enlightenment thinker. But like Nathan, Antepli takes the active first step to make a hostile and suspicious other into a friend. Antepli only appears to be naïve. It seems that he sees the potential for transformation as tied up in bonds of human sympathy, capacious moral imagination, and mutual recognition coupled with risk-taking and calculated self-interest. One bets that this kind of work is enough perhaps to lay now a decent foundation to some better structure for the future.

The only other question is why the Times of Israel, a centrist Zionist Anglophone news website, has published these two pieces about Antepli. Read with a suspicious and critical eye, it might be that in Antepli the editors have found a Muslim Uncle Tom who says exactly what mainstream Jews want to hear about Judaism, Zionism, and the State of Israel. But that assumes that Antepli is a Zionist, which he’s not. Read with more sympathy, the decision to publish these 2 pieces about Antepli is a move away from the abyss, reflecting the sense among mainstream Jewish opinion makers that the Jewish public sphere today and the future of Jewish life and Judaism depend upon nothing if not building strong Jewish-Muslim relations based on mutual recognition and respect.

Against the friend/enemy distinction that determines so much of the intermeshing of politics and religion today, Antepli would represent a kind of fantasy figure for mainstream liberal Jews. Staged in Jerusalem, the hope here is that fantasy is more than flimsy illusion or delusion, but represents the strong and capacious sense of the possible under which communities compact together instead of ripping apart as a response to radical crisis and conflict.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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5 Responses to Fantasy & Reconstructing Muslim-Jewish Relations (Imam Abdullah Antepli)

  1. Milx says:

    My own personal turn from left-wing Zionism to right-wing Zionism was predicated almost exclusively on what I saw as the prominent tropes + themes in the anti-Zionist movement (and the Palestinian nationalist movement): things such as Holocaust denial, conspiracy mongering (Jews did 9/11 style ideas), the prolificacy of the Khazar theory, the venomous (and inaccurate) charges of genocide, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, etc, that all of Israel is occupied land from 1948, that Israelis are European colonialists, that they are child murdering tyrants, etc, etc. Essentially it became clear to me through extensive reading of the anti-Zionist movement that these were not people interested in two states, but rather in the destruction of Israel. The recent story about an Arab man in Hebron who saved some Jewish students from a lynching was illuminative when I read that he was getting death threats from Palestinians – not only were they okay with lynching innocent students, but they wanted to murder the one mensch who was not okay with it.

    If the above is true, and it seems obviously so, then I don’t know how there can be peace with the Palestinians. By contrast, I have read various radical right-wing figures on the Israeli side of politics and I see nothing even comparable to this kind of violent, dehumanization. For the most part moderate right-wing Israeli politics I think authentically seek rapprochement and peaceful negotiations. That would explain why Times of Israel would so fervently promote the work of Antepli. Even the Israeli right-wing wants to believe that there are people like Fayez Abu Hamdiyeh, or Antepli, who can move past the tremendous antisemitism + hate pandemic in the Islamic world. All they’d have to do is realize Zionists are not the devil – not the largest ask in history – for progress to made on peace. Unfortunately I keep reading stories (and polling data) that suggests that these figures are exceptional and not representative of their societies whatsoever. Cf the Palestinian teacher who took his students to Auschwitz and was inundated with death threats, or that the UNRWA institution has on its payroll dozens and dozens of teachers who openly preach antisemitic violence against Israeli civilians on their facebook pages. I want to believe that there’s an opportunity for peace, but all the evidence suggests that the people (and you and I both know who I’m talking about) who think that Israel is the reason there’s no peace are living in la-la land. For some of them it’s because their wish for peace is so strong that it has overwhelmed their ability to read the lay of the land (because a sensible, pragmatic view would be crushing), and I think that’s admirable. But there’s no splitting the difference here. The facts continue to be what they’ve been since 1948 – the Palestinians could have a state any day. They just need to sign on the dotted line. Maybe they won’t get East Jerusalem (and what kind of psycho thinks dividing Jerusalem in half is the way to go?), but they could have almost everything else they want. You don’t think Bibi is dying to be the guy who solved this problem?

  2. Milx says:

    I’ve said many times that you shouldn’t judge a POV by its most inarticulate spokespeople – that’s a cheap way of confirming what you yourself thinks – but by its best representatives. However I cannot help but note that the anti-Zionist movement is absolutely beset + dominated by the most insane representatives w/ tenuous grips on history /and/ reality. I’m talking about the official mouthpieces of the movement – MondoWeiss, Electronic Intifada, the numerous student organizations that have taken to hijacking every social justice issue to add #freepalestine hashtags, etc. There is not an intelligible, reasonable soul among them. It’s telling that by contrast someone like Antepli seems like a Zionist. Not because he is in the least, but because compared to what we’re used to getting just admitting that Jews are humans and not blood drinking monsters is a pretty huge step forward.

    • Milx says:

      Thank you for sharing. This is what I’m talking about. Here is a woman who seems educated and intelligent and then says things like:

      “It infuriates me. It’s not a position that I find encouraging. People like Erlanger and the whole liberal Jewish community – you see a lot of them in NY, I’ve met a lot of them – are absolutely engaged in questions of injustice, all over the world. Latin America, China, you name it. Except in one place and that is Israel. Why is this there exception?”

      She reveals herself to be absolutely bonkers. What community in the world frets over and discusses their sins like liberal Jews do about Israel? Do you see any Chinese Voice for Peace organizations, or Turkish Voice for Peace or French Voice for Peace or US Voice for Peace organizations in the world? And that’s just spearhead – we are inundated w/ Palestinian activism in the Jewish community. There is nothing we discuss more of than the Palestinian situation and the crimes (or, on the other side, why they aren’t crimes) than we do w/ Israel. And it is unheard of in any other group in all of the world and all of history (except maybe the Germans post-WW2). Trust me, American leftists, of whom I know many, do not fret about the people who had to leave for them to live where they live. This is not a particularly American myopia either. There are parts of the world that don’t even recognize their perpetrated injustices even as much as the United States.

      So what can you do with a person who is so out of touch with reality? I’m sure if she’s active at all in the pro-Palestinian movement she knows about the many voracious Jewish critics of Israel (so much so that I’d argue they perform a particularly damaging role by giving cover to the worst beliefs of their ideological companions). So how does she see what she surely sees and conclude that leftist Jews are concerned about crimes all over the world, but not in Palestine? Surely it is because to admit that there are Jews concerned about Palestinians is to reveal the central lie at the middle of the Israel/Palestine conflict – that there is only one side that has any humanistic impulse at all towards the other. And it isn’t her side.

      On the theme of visiting your childhood home and seeing an interlocutor in it and feeling enraged – I think I can sympathize. And maybe even enough to say that her emotions alone are responsible for her skewed view of reality. The truth though is that like most Westerners I do not live in the home I grew up in. Like most Jews I did not grow up in the home (or even country) of my immediate ancestors. I understand that people move – that life is chaotic and major shifts and turns happen. It’s likely that there will be many more refugees in the Middle East in the near future from climate change. The world has shifted rapidly in the last century and that will only increase. Israel was created because 6 million Jews were killed in Europe. And yet I will never visit the Ukraine and visit my childhood home (I know the city it is in; I doubt it is still standing). I will certainly not join any movements to defame and wage war against the people who live there, though I know that many Ukrainian Christians moved into the homes of Jewish victims, and in some cases murdered returning survivors. There is something rotten in the Palestinian movement.

      • Milx says:

        (Edit: When I wrote ‘I will never visit the Ukraine and visit my childhood home,’ I meant that in a rhetorically loose sense and rereading it I would not have chosen that particular idiom to refer to a home that I never personally lived in. nb that this woman left Jerusalem when she was so young that she has no memories of having lived there.)

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