Sahar Aziz discusses her article from The New Arab, “Accusing Bernie Sanders of anti-Semitism is nothing but thinly veiled Islamophobia.” The accusation of anti-Semitism has been weaponized to attack people who promote solidarity with Muslim Americans and who demand sustainable foreign policy towards the Middle East.


Story Transcript

BERNIE SANDERS: We must treat the Palestinian people as well with the respect and dignity that they deserve. What is going on in Gaza right now when youth unemployment is 70% or 80% is unsustainable.

SHIR HEVER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Shir Hever coming to you from Heidelberg, Germany.

In the last couple of weeks, articles appeared in The Examiner and The Federalist among others accusing Bernie Sander of anti-Semitism, and implying that he’s not fully a Jew, although he’s the son of two Holocaust survivors. This is not a unique event. It is part of a trend of weaponizing anti-Semitism accusations in order to attack people who criticize Israeli policy. After Trump said that in the US Jews don’t love Israel enough, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani said this about the Holocaust survivor George Soros: “Soros is hardly a Jew. I’m more of a Jew than Soros is. I probably know more about… He doesn’t go to church. He doesn’t go to religion, synagogue. He doesn’t belong to a synagogue. He doesn’t support Israel, is an enemy of Israel. He has elected eight anarchist DA’s in the United States. He is a horrible human being.”

So a new article published in The New Arab argues that behind these accusations is a thinly veiled Islamophobia and xenophobia. The article is titled, Accusing Bernie Sanders of anti-Semitism is Nothing but Thinly Veiled Islamophobia. The author is Professor Sahar Aziz, who is joining us now. Professor Sahar Aziz teaches Law and Social Justice at the Rutgers Law School. She’s the Director of the Center for Security, Race and Rights. And her upcoming book is titled, Whosoever Sees an Evil: Muslim Americans’ Human Rights Advocacy, by Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Thank you very much for joining us, Sahar.

SAHAR AZIZ: Thank you for inviting me.

SHIR HEVER: So Jewish activists have always been central to the human rights movement, including when it comes to Palestinian rights and for Muslim activists who are frequently accused of anti-Semitism, and this is not new. Joining forces with progressive Jewish groups and politicians is sometimes also a way to ensure their legitimacy. So do you think that the attacks on Jews who stand with Muslims actually aren’t intended to target those progressive Jews, but rather to isolate the Muslim activists?

SAHAR AZIZ: I think they’re aimed for both of them. What’s happened recently in the last 10, arguably 15 years, is a major transition in the Jewish American community, where you have a young generation coming of age that has realized that the United States policies on Israel is contradictory to their own Jewish values. And it has become more and more mainstreamed among these young Jewish American progressives who are also very sensitized to anti-black racism, anti-Latin X, xenophobia and Islamophobia. And so they’re starting to see the connections between all of these phobias against minority groups and what Israel is doing. And more importantly, the US’s complicity in Israeli state abuses of Palestinians. So, you have this convergence of Jewish American youth in particular, and then the rise and growth of Muslim American youth who are now coming of age and wanting to influence US foreign policy as well.

SHIR HEVER: So I want to get back to this point about all the phobias that you mentioned. I think that’s a very important issue. But first, can you identify where are these accusations of anti-Semitism coming from? Is this just a natural thing for right-wingers and racists to do when they want to hide their own racism as they come after immigrants and Muslims while pretending to be protecting Jews? Or is this actually a coordinated campaign to change the discourse on race and, if so, coordinated by whom?

SAHAR AZIZ: Well, there’s two objectives. The first objective is to quash the rise of Muslim American voices that are going to be more critical of US foreign policy in the Middle East, writ large, not just in Israel, primarily because these Muslim Americans who are over 70% immigrants or children of immigrants from Muslim majority countries have a much deeper understanding and personal connection to how US foreign policy harms people in those countries. Because they have families there, they may themselves have gone there frequently to travel, and their parents were often raised there. So as they come of age, as they accumulate wealth, as they run for political office, they are starting to have different perspectives or bring in different perspectives into US foreign policy.

And so that is starting to challenge what has otherwise been a monopoly over US foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly with the Arab Israeli conflict by Zionists who tend to be on the far right of the political spectrum. So now these far right Zionists are finding competition among Muslim Americans of various national origins. Some of them are African Americans, some of them are Pakistani American, Middle Eastern American, as well as these younger Jewish American progressives who are joining forces and saying what we’re doing in the Middle East, in Israel, as well as other Arab countries is not keeping America safe. It’s a violation of human rights. It’s a violation of our progressive values.

Now it’s much easier to accuse Muslims of anti-Semitism because part of the Islamophobic trope is that Muslims are inherently anti-Semitic. And that is a fallacy. And it is a product of these far right Zionist politics which use the trope that Muslims are inherently anti-Semitic, they all hate Jews, and therefore you shouldn’t listen to anything they say when it comes to Arab Israeli issues because they just want to annihilate all Jews, which is palpably false. And if you look before 1948 the Jews who were treated the most humanely were those that were in North Africa and the Middle East. Many of them fled to those areas from very violent, anti-Semitic aggression. So much of the conflict between Jews and Muslims in the region is really about the issue of statehood. It’s more of a political issue. It is not a religious conflict per se. So that’s one reason why it’s easier to accuse Muslims of being anti-Semitic.

But I think the other objective is to de legitimize people like Bernie Sanders, who represent the progressive Jewish American voice and who has a strong following among younger Jewish Americans in the United States. And so that is more about competition over who gets to control the narrative coming out of the media and who gets to control US foreign policy. But I think it’s much harder, in my opinion, to accuse Bernie Sanders of anti-Semitism in light of not only his identity, but the fact that he’s the son of Holocaust survivors than it is to accuse Rashida Tlaib, Linda Sarsour, Ilhan Omar, all of these notable women, Muslim Americans, who have been working with Bernie Sanders and many Jewish American progressive organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace. And so what they’re doing is they’re using that cover because they know that it’s more believable to the American public that Muslims are anti-Semitic.

SHIR HEVER: Well, you’ve actually already partially answered my next question, but I still want to get back to it specifically because of these three women that you mentioned. So the outright and the new wave of populous right wing, which is not just emerging in the United States but all over the world is really accumulating those phobias. It’s accumulating enemies. Populous right-wing leaders go after Muslim communities, after migrants, they go after black people, after Jews, after LGBTQ, after women rights and more.

Now the answer from the left is often called “intersectionality,” an alliance of minority groups against all forms of discrimination. And in the United States specifically, this movement is mainly led by Muslim leaders, and especially by Muslim women like the three women which Sanders is supporting: Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Linda Sarsour. So why do you think that Muslim women play such a major role in the movement? You already said something about Muslims who have a family experiences about the effects of US foreign policy in the countries from which they come. But that doesn’t explain why women are taking the center stage.

SAHAR AZIZ: It’s a great question. So I’ve written two pieces on this issue. One is called Coercive Assimilation: The Perils of Muslim Women’s Identity Performance in the Workplace. And the other one is called From the Oppressed to the Terrorist: Muslim Woman Caught in the crosshairs of Intersectionality, both of which are on my ssrn.com page. And in those articles, I explain how women, Muslim women–similar to African American women during the Civil Rights era–are in this paradox where on the one hand there are internal misogynistic practices within Muslim communities just as there are within any race or ethnic communities. But on the other hand, there has been a very systematic, structurally based attack on Muslim American communities, particularly since 9/11.

And so they’re finding themselves in this situation where they are at least internally having to stay silent in terms of dealing with their internal issues on gender and, on the other hand, having to protect the communities and stand by the communities in order to protect their own children, their own families, and their own husbands and fathers. And this is where gender comes in again. Most of us are familiar with the terrorist/other stereotype, or that Muslims are inherently violent and they’re terrorists. And that is the stereotype that has stuck and has become deeply entrenched. Now that stereotype is gendered as male, and that has paradoxically granted Muslim women more credibility in the public sphere and in the public discourse in the United States because it is not as common to call Muslim women terrorists. Now they may be accused of harboring terrorists, sympathizing with terrorists, but oftentimes there is another stereotype that’s Islamophobic, which is that Muslim women are oppressed by their male Muslim relatives, that Muslim women are meek.

So the liberal Islamophobic paradigm is to liberate Muslim women and give them a platform and give them a voice, because surely if we don’t give it to them, then they won’t have one because the stereotype is that their home communities are misogynistic. So I think that’s what explains in part how these women have been able to be at the forefront of combating Islamophobia because the liberals in particular have encouraged them to do so, have given them the space. And they have taken up the opportunity and proven, I think very clearly, that Muslim women are not oppressed as a group, that Islam is not misogynistic, they’re highly educated, they’re highly sophisticated, they’re highly articulate.

But I do think that oftentimes the reason why the public embraces them is because the public is anti-male Muslim more than it is anti-female Muslim. And it’s also very patronizing towards Muslim women. But that being said, I think it’s a fascinating phenomenon that they have been the ones that have also been attacked by people accusing Bernie Sanders and others of anti-Semitism, and many of those attacks are quite gendered. So they are attacks on them with slurs and a discourse that is very gendered, threatening them of rape, threatening them of murder, other types of physical threats, which I think is also because they see them as vulnerable women.

SHIR HEVER: Well, we’re definitely going to have to continue that conversation at an early opportunity, but for now we’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you very much, Sahar, for joining us.

SAHAR AZIZ: Thank you.

SHIR HEVER: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


Shir Hever

Dr. Shir Hever grew up in Israel and now lives in Germany. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine stories for 16 years, and for the Real News specifically since 2016. He’s the author of two books and many articles, and is a committed member of several Palestine solidarity groups.