Webinar explores how to become an ally dismantling antisemitism and Islamophobia
LOUISVILLE — Tuesday’s episode of “Just Talk Live” delivered lessons on how to dismantle antisemitism and Islamophobia. Chief among them: Building relationships.
“The best way to be an ally is to show up and be a friend first,” said Hamza Khan, one of two guests featured on the livestreamed show, available here.
Joining him in conversation was Rabbi Alana Suskin. They are co-founders of the Pomegranate Initiative, a nonprofit organization working to combat Islamophobia and antisemitism in the U.S., including in their home state of Maryland.
Suskin is a friend of the Rev. Denise Anderson, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Director of Compassion, Peace and Justice, who co-hosted the episode with the Rev. Lee Catoe, the editor of Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice.
Before the conversation got into full swing, Anderson reminded viewers that the 225th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved a study document last summer denouncing antisemitism and Islamophobia. She recommended it to the audience and noted that it will be shared with churches and other entities, such as middle governing bodies. (Read a GA story discussing it and a statement from the Stated Clerk on the PC(USA) stance on the conflict between Israel and Palestine.)
Next, the guests dove into a multi-layered discussion of antisemitism and Islamophobia that touched on history, theology, culture and the importance of getting to know people of other religions and becoming knowledgeable about their faiths.
“I feel like my personal, religious and spiritual life is incredibly richer for knowing people of all different faiths, for knowing Muslims, for knowing Christians, for knowing people who have Native American spirituality,” Suskin said. “That’s really important to me.”
During her presentation, Suskin provided a historical overview of antisemitism, noting that “it’s a form of ideological oppression that targets Jews … and in Europe and in the United States, it’s functioned largely to protect a prevailing economic system, and in Europe, especially in the Middle Ages, the exclusively Christian ruling class by diverting blame for hardship onto Jews.”
Suskin also offered several examples of antisemitism from the last few decades, from country clubs refusing to accept Jews back in the 1980s to graffiti that was painted on a sign at a Maryland high school last December. She also touched on white supremacists and the high-profile controversy involving comments by music artist Kanye West.
Antisemitism “is not something that has gone away,” she said. “It still exists.”
Suskin warned that “if you say, ‘All Jews are,’ or ‘Jews are mostly’ some particular thing, that’s a bigotry and it’s false. And you can see some ways recently of how this played out in real time,” she said, citing “the Tree of Life Synagogue [in 2018] where a man came in and he believed Jews are responsible for all these ‘dangerous immigrants’ coming into the country and he shot up the synagogue and killed a lot of people, or the recent comments from Kanye West.”
Later in the program, Khan offered insights into Islamophobia, which he described as “a virulent strain of prejudice in the United States today and across the world, particularly in Western Europe, that focuses on the exclusion of Muslims and the Islamic faith from public society, mostly as a political force.” He said that “it has been furthered mostly by far-right organizations with a political agenda to exclude Muslims as a new other, so to speak. It has been a part of Western society going back to the Crusades and slightly before.”
He also spoke about 9/11 (the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon) spurring Islamophobia and noted that “here in Maryland, we have seen a very vast effort, a very well-funded effort, to elect Hindu nationalists with strong Islamophobic opinions and strong allegiance to Islamophobic forces abroad to political office, which is something that Rabbi Alana and I have been working closely on in recent times.”
In response to a question from Catoe about what churches can do to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia, both Suskin and Khan spoke about the importance of establishing relationships.
“The two most important things are, first of all, just have relationships with people so that you know them,” Suskin said. You’ll see that “they’re human beings like you are, and the second is to create a culture within your faith community that creates an atmosphere where people speak up when they hear myths about Jews or Muslims or Hindus, or Buddhists, or whatever it happens to be.”
Khan said he’s done a number of grassroots projects with Suskin and feels that one-on-one engagement, including working with lay people in churches and other places, such as mosques, synagogues and Hindu temples, has made the biggest difference across the board.
Suskin put forth the idea of getting involved in a project, such as building houses for the poor, with a synagogue or with a mosque or both. “That’s really the key … you’re going to have conversations with those people because you now have something in common with them and a common goal,” she said.
Watch the full episode of “Just Talk Live,” and follow the show every two weeks here.
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