BDS Profs vs. the Muslim Leadership Institute

A curious battle over “Israel” outreach.

Who would object to a program that sends American Muslims to Israel to meet with Jewish, Muslim, and Christian residents in order “to explore how Jews understand Judaism, Israel, and Jewish peoplehood”? Answer: Middle East studies professors intent on scuttling coexistence in favor of delegitimizing Israel through the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Participants in the Muslim Leadership Institute (MLI), a program of the Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI) founded and directed by Duke University chaplain Imam Abdullah Antepli and author Yossi Klein Halevi, partake in two twelve-day seminars at the SHI campus in Jerusalem. The program includes visits to religious and historic sites, northern Israeli Arab communities, and the West Bank.

Since its inception in 2013, MLI has met with fierce resistance from the BDS movement, including Middle East studies professors who coauthored at least two petitions this year aimed at shutting it down.  

The first petition calls “for an immediate halt” to the program, calls its financiers “Islamophobia sources,” and declares, “We reject the upcoming third cohort of MLI, refuse to meet with its participants, or facilitate their visit to meet with any Palestinian.” For inspiration, it cites the Palestinian BDS National Committee, which insisted on a boycott of MLI in January, 2014.  Among its authors are such anti-Israel luminaries as San Francisco State University’s Rabab Abdulhadi; University of California, Berkeley’s Hatem Bazian and Kamal Abu-Shamsieh; Illinois State University’s Issam Nassar; and Steven Salaita, the would-be University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor who now teaches at the American University of Beirut.

The second petition repeats the arrogant demand for an “immediate halt” to MLI, maintaining that the program is “part of the Hasbara Israeli propaganda operation,” “a violation of BDS,” “an Israeli attempt to ‘normalize’ relations,” and, worst of all, “deliberately designed . . . to make Muslims more sympathetic to Zionism, and to present an anti-BDS perspective.” It culminates in the inane statement, “To engage the occupier without sitting down in solidarity with the occupied first is politically delusional, morally misguided, and ethically callous.” Coauthors include Bazian, Abu-Shamsieh, Duke University’s Omid Safi, and Yale University’s Zareena Grewal.

The petitions’ authors issue a set of “recommendations” that, if enacted, would effectively end the program, while complaining that SHI and Antepli, after meeting with opponents, “refused calls for reform.” Accordingly, the latter has been declared “personae non grata.”  

Antepli, a Middle East advisor to the less-than-stellar Secretary of State John Kerry, has not always been a voice of reason in the field of Middle East studies:

  • Earlier this year at the University of Texas, El Paso, he committed an ahistorical, moral equivalence by comparing the Islamic State to Christian “crusaders.”
  • At a 2011 Duke University conference, he made this ludicrous assertion: “Being a Muslim in the United States is another form of torture, a psychological torture, an emotional torture, and it’s just getting worse.”
  • He and Halevi coauthored a 2014 article praising Brandeis University for rescinding the offer of an honorary degree to ex-Muslim dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
  • His anti-Israel commentary at a 2009 Duke “Gaza Teach In” included the claim, “As a state, Israel is shooting herself in the foot and pumping into the hearts and minds of millions of people anti-Semitism.”

Whatever Antepli’s views on Islamism and “Islamophobia,” that fact that he has withstood the considerable pressure of fellow academics to terminate or weaken the MLI program suggests that his approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict has evolved. Indeed, he made this clear in a 2014 op-ed, beginning with the confession that, growing up in Turkey:

All I learned about Judaism, Jews and Israel was through the lenses of this bloody conflict, and I inevitably developed very negative views of Jews and Judaism to an extreme degree.

Rejecting “hate and anger,” Antepli developed first a friendship with Halevi and then later, a partnership with SHI. He explains his reasoning:

It was critical to engage with a self-identified Zionist Jewish organization because they are the groups American Muslims rarely engage, because we often exist on the opposite political spectrum and in isolated silos.

While Antepli remains a critic of Israel, he deserves credit for choosing to engage in outreach and dialogue rather than the intransigence and demonization of the BDS movement.

Meanwhile, MLI’s academic opponents continue to fume. Sa'ed Adel Atshan, a Tufts University lecturer and BDS activist whose anti-Israel rhetoric Jewish students have described as “extremely destructive,” has accused MLI of “faithwashing,” or downplaying Israeli “occupation” by emphasizing the religious (i.e. Islamic supremacist) motivation of its opponents instead of defining it solely as a territorial dispute. He labels SHI a “Zionist Israeli institution” whose “role in the program,” much to his consternation, places MLI “in contravention of the Palestinian civil society call for BDS.”

Kamal Abu-Shamsieh, one of the aforementioned petition authors, is a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, an Islamic chaplain, and, as he put it in an op-ed in May, “the only Palestinian-American who participated” in the MLI. Abu-Shamsieh joined the program despite being “aware the majority of Palestinian-Americans’ response to MLI was very negative” and admits that it “resulted in a better understanding of Zionism.”

Abu-Shamsieh eventually became disillusioned with MLI, but his reasoning displays little understanding of or sensitivity to Israel’s ongoing security concerns. Moreover, his participation in the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT)’s 2014 Summer Institute for Scholars renders him a suspect source. (IIIT is a Muslim Brotherhood-founded think tank based in Virginia whose goal, assisted by academe, is “the Islamicization of knowledge.”)

The campaign to defame MLI demonstrates how deeply embedded the BDS movement is among professors of Middle East studies. So, too, did the Middle East Studies Association (MESA)’s passing of a resolution at its 2014 annual meeting that is likely to result in an academic boycott of Israel. When the mere act of engagement inspires hysterical opposition, we have abandoned scholarship and reason for unbridled political activism. The line between the two realms is quickly disappearing.  

Cinnamon Stillwell is the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at [email protected].

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