Opinion

Why are Jews overrepresented on the SPLC’s list of anti-Muslim extremists?

Political blogger Pamela Geller, American Freedom Defense Initiative’s Houston-based founder, speaks at the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest, which is sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, in Garland, Texas May 3, 2015. Two gunmen opened fire on Sunday at the art exhibit in Garland, Texas, that was organized by an anti-Islamic group and featured caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad and were themselves shot dead at the scene by police officers, city officials and police said. Photo by Mike Stone, courtesy of Reuters
Political blogger Pamela Geller, American Freedom Defense Initiative’s Houston-based founder, speaks at the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest, which is sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, in Garland, Texas May 3, 2015. Two gunmen opened fire on Sunday at the art exhibit in Garland, Texas, that was organized by an anti-Islamic group and featured caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad and were themselves shot dead at the scene by police officers, city officials and police said. Photo by Mike Stone, courtesy of Reuters

Political blogger Pamela Geller, American Freedom Defense Initiative’s Houston-based founder, speaks at the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest on May 3, 2015, in Garland, Texas. Two gunmen opened fire outside the exhibit, which was sponsored by Geller’s organization and featured caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. The gunmen were shot dead at the scene by police officers. Photo by Mike Stone, courtesy of Reuters

(RNS) The Southern Poverty Law Center has posted a list of 15 prominent activists that it considers “anti-Muslim extremists.” The list includes Somali-born writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the crusading speaker Brigitte Gabriel and Jihad Watch creator Robert Spencer.  

Some of the SPLC’s choices — particularly of Ali, and of the British Muslim speaker and writer Maajid Nawaz — have been controversial. And some of its language is dismissive and thoughtless, such as the use of the gendered word “shrill” to describe the American activist Pamela Geller. 

But as a Jew who writes about culture and politics, I was struck by one little-remarked-upon detail of the report: Of the 15 people listed, at least four are Jewish. A fifth works for the Clarion Project, a sister organization of the Orthodox Jewish group Aish HaTorah.

This pattern is not simply an artifact of the SPLC’s methods. Jews around the world have disproportionately been targeted for violence by militants supposedly acting in the name of Islam, so this could be seen as a reaction to that.

2015 Lantos Human Rights Prize Recipient Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Photo courtesy of Michael Kooren

2015 Lantos Human Rights Prize recipient Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Photo courtesy of Michael Kooren

But what’s interesting is that in America at least, the surge in Islamophobia comes amid an upswelling of nativism that also gets expressed in the form of anti-Semitism.

This year has seen the ascent of an internet-savvy white supremacist strain called the alt-right. Islamophobia and public expressions of anti-Semitism have both reached levels that seem unprecedented in modern American politics.

And, uncomfortably for many Jews, including me, some of the key people driving that climate of hostility are Jewish.

Discrimination against minority religious groups this year has been a focus of growing concern. But how do you respond when it seems to be coming, in part, from members of your own community?

On the SPLC list, the most notable name is probably Geller, an influential pundit and blogger. As with a lot of Islamophobic rhetoric, her conspiracy-driven language about shadowy Muslim threats echoes anti-Semitic tropes.

Conservative journalist Andrew Breitbart speaks at a news conference prior to U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY) in New York, on June 6, 2011. Representative Anthony Weiner admitted on Monday to sending a lewd photo of himself to a 21-year-old female college student over his Twitter account after previously denying he had done so. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Brendan McDermid

Conservative journalist Andrew Breitbart speaks at a news conference on June 6, 2011, in New York. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Brendan McDermid

Another example is Breitbart News, which has emerged as a key forum for the alt-right. The site was founded by the late Andrew Breitbart, who was Jewish. When the site ran a headline earlier this year labeling an ideological opponent a “renegade Jew,” some commenters excused the tone because the article’s author was himself Jewish.

Additionally, the site’s most prominent alt-right voice, Milo Yiannopolous, has spoken of his Jewish heritage, partly to deflect criticism for his anti-Jewish statements.

Meanwhile, according to a Washington Post report, one of the architects of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration was Michael Glassner, a former American Israel Public Affairs Committee staffer who is Jewish.

David Horowitz, pictured here speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on February 12, 2011, is on the SPLC list.

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

David Horowitz, pictured speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 12, 2011, is on the SPLC list.

To be clear, this is not to say that all Jews are responsible for the actions of a few. Many Jews are actively involved in the fight against Islamophobia, not to mention other forms of bias. The Anti-Defamation League, best known for its work against anti-Semitism, has ramped up its efforts to combat Islamophobia. And seemingly in response to the campaign’s invocation of nativist rhetoric, many Jewish Republicans have refused to support Trump. 

Still, the existence of anti-Muslim opinion drivers who are Jewish is at odds with what a generation of progressive young Jews has been taught — that Jews are uniquely vulnerable to nativism and other kinds of demagogic populism.

I was raised in a Reform synagogue, and like other millennials from progressive Jewish backgrounds, I was brought up on a steady diet of Holocaust education and spirituality-tinged progressivism. My generation of Jews is not prepared for a world in which some of the people who are most vocally, effectively singling out a religious minority for state surveillance are themselves Jewish. 

Today, it is possible for Jews to view current events through what they consider to be a Jewish lens, and then launch ad campaigns suggesting that Trump and his Islamophobic rhetoric are reminiscent of Hitler. But it is apparently just as possible for Jews to view current events through what they consider to be a Jewish lens, and thereby see a Muslim threat to Jewish lives and Israel that is so severe as to justify the kind of Islamophobic rhetoric that other Jews see as reminiscent of Hitler. 

For progressive Jews, there are two important reminders here.

Daniel Pipes is on the SPLC list.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Pipes [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Daniel Pipes is on the SPLC list.

The first is that being Jewish does not automatically exempt you from bigotry, or from the appeal of demagogic populism. This sounds like an obvious point, but I think it can be uncomfortable for some Jews to acknowledge.

The second is that dangers to society are not always the clear-cut, agreed-upon thing that they seem to be with the benefit of historical hindsight. The SPLC list of names is really a fantasy that defines some people as radical and unacceptable, and cuts them out of mainstream discourse. The truth for all of us, Jewish and not, is that we are more intimate with their views than we may wish to be.

(Michael Schulson is a freelance journalist and an associate editor at Religion Dispatches, where he co-produces a section on science, religion, technology and ethics)

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Michael Schulson

8 Comments

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  • Now you know how some of us Christians feel, Mr. Schulson. We’re tired of the biased SPLC gang, and we’re tired of the biased labels they employ.

    The SPLC started out as a respectable and reasonable civil rights group. They were fair-minded, way back when.

    But then the PC-Virus infected them, and it started eating their liberal brains like cheeseburgers. It became a “hate” gig for Christians to publicly agree with, and act in accordance with, their own New Testaments. The media often fails to even QUESTION whether an SPLC – labeled “hate group” has been correctly labeled or not.

    So now Mr. Schulson, you see how the extremist SPLC wants to go all PC-police again, against YOUR side of the fence !!

  • Maybe it’s because they see what’s coming down the pipeline for America. As the Muslim population has skyrocketed in Europe, things for the current Jewish communities there have gone downhill drastically, and the overwhelming bulk of the anti-antisemitism there is not coming from Christians. The Jews in Europe, particularly those in France, are the canary in the coal mine for all Americans. Americans would do best to pay the canary heed.

  • They have a mix of true bigots and people sincerely critical of some of the teachings of Islam and the actions of some Muslims. I don’t care for that but I recognize the new left has a serious blindspot regarding Islam. As for Jews being well represented, the hatred of much of the Middle East Muslims for Jews and Israel would explain that. Hamas, Hezzbollah and Iran have publicity made death threats.

  • I agree absolutely, the SPLC went off the rails years ago, and should not be taken seriously in most instances by any rational intelligent person.

  • You missed the point entirely. Schulson’s criticism of the SPLC is not that it included too many Jews. His point is to express initial shock and then understanding of how so many Jews could warrant being on that list.

  • Your correction, while welcome, clearly does not refute the argument made against the SPLC itself.

    Instead, your correction would indict Mr. Schulson himself as an example of the statement, “The media often fails to even QUESTION whether an SPLC – labeled “hate group” (or “anti-Muslim extremist”) has been correctly labeled or not.”

  • What these listed Jewish people and many in the Jewish community do not seem to realize is exactly how the the esteemed author described it.
    “Still, the existence of anti-Muslim opinion drivers who are Jewish is at odds with what a generation of progressive young Jews has been taught — that Jews are uniquely vulnerable to nativism and other kinds of demagogic populism.”
    So here it goes again, (The few) Jews who are actively leading the anti-Muslim hate in the US will surely embolden both the openly fanatics and their closeted ilk to start looking for the next victim, and no one fits that bill more than their own Jewish community.

  • It’s fun to see so many commenters using this article as an excuse to express how much they hate the SPLC while offering their own distortions of fact.
    Despite what they–and apparently the author–believe, none of the individuals listed by the SPLC is engaged in legitimate critiques of Islam.
    Every last one of them spreads numerous demonstrable falsehoods. Including Ali and Nawaz.
    Lying about Islam is not legitimate criticism.
    Lying about Muslims is not legitimate criticism.
    Lying about the Prophet (sawa) is not legitimate criticism.
    Falsely portraying Muslims as uniformly __________ is not legitimate criticism.
    Falsely portraying Islam as monolithic is not legitimate criticism.
    Express or implied notions of communal or collective culpability is not legitimate criticism.
    Spreading false “news” stories involving Muslims is not legitimate criticism.
    Falsely attributing every crime committed by individuals to their faith is not legitimate criticism.
    Advocating violence against the entire Muslim world (as Ali has done) is not legitimate criticism.
    I could go on, but the point should be clear. Then again, it should have been clear before and apparently was not.
    “Mysteriously,” those who play the “it’s not Islamophobia, it’s legitimate criticism of Islam!” card are the same ones engaging in the above. There are plenty of legitimate things in Islam to criticise from a secular or non-Islamic religious viewpoint, and those critiques are being made, generally without fanfare because they stick to the facts. None of them are being made by the inhabitants of the SPLC’s list of Islamophobes.
    Likewise, the “Christian” groups targeted by the SPLC didn’t come to their attention simply by believing and teaching scripture, which anyone who bothered to read their dossiers would know.
    All in all, I’m honestly not sure what the point of this article was. The author seemed to build up a point of view only to get to the end and utterly demolish not only the point of view but the very premise. Like making a good omelet only to decide before serving it that you had better crush the eggshells and add them.

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