I remember leaving a high holy day service at my temple where a former Muslim was invited to speak in order to harangue and vilify the religion that she abandoned. Her words were self-serving, hateful and disgusting on a visceral level and I wondered why she had been invited to speak to this mixed conservative and liberal Jewish congregation. A lot of us were turned off, and what was meant to be an occasion of remembrance festered into another anti-Muslim hate fest. Her message castigated an entire culture into one myopic vision: Islam is bad. Muslims are bad. The religion celebrates death and their children are brought up to hate.
That day I joined a growing number of Jews who made a conscious decision not to hate, but instead to learn. I don’t think I was even aware of Islam or Muslims until after 9/11, when their world caved in, and an entire culture became associated with terrorism and everything hateful to our American way of life.
“American Muslim,” a new documentary feature by Adam Zucker, seeks to humanize not Muslims, but us. Our revulsion and reactions to a culture that has co-existed in a hostile world for hundreds of generations is a result of our own racism and intolerance. America, the land of the free has become a pre-Third Reich nightmare, and I now know what it must have felt like to observe the de-humanization of Jews before their businesses and homes were invaded on Kristallnacht just a little over a generation ago.
Hitler was Pharoah, and Pharoah has returned doused in orange concealer and Clairol Born-Blonde hair treatment.
We are living in a Trumpian nightmare of racism and intolerance. Once again, it takes an artist like Zucker to open our hearts and our minds. “American Muslim” is more about “us” than it is about “them,” and it should be seen by every middle school and high school child in this country. It is a gripping, emotional film that gives a realistic view of a culture that fights for equality in a country that has lost sight of its core competency — liberty and justice for all. “American Muslim” also shows the dissent within the Muslim community as individuals deal with breaking away from traditions that they perceive to be exclusive and not progressive.
We share so much with “them.”
When a young Palestinian-American woman named Aber Kawas started wearing a hijab (a veil or head covering worn by Muslim women), she wondered, “How any boy will have a crush on me — I looked like an alien. When I first started wearing it, I knew that it was going to be difficult.”
In the film, Mohamed Bahi of Muslims Giving Back commented on the word of mouth network that brings the challenges of racism and religious intolerance to his Project Transform. “The problem for refugees is that they are fleeing literally a war and then arriving in a society where Islamophobia and all this political thing going on, and they are by themselves,” he said.
This political thing translates to Trump’s Muslim travel ban — and we are fulfilling a prophecy of hate that Ira Forman, Obama’s Director of Jewish Outreach and fighter against anti-Semitism, said is being fostered by ourselves. The videos of crazed imams who call for death and dismemberment of Jews have peppered our social media feeds. How many Facebook pages of my right-wing Jewish friends have contained these memes and video clips? Our promotion of hate is driving moderate Muslims away from us. We have become our own worst enemies and have learned nothing from the pogroms and ethnic cleansing that decimated our people.
Jews are connected to Muslims through oppression and Semitic history and values. We are like the orphan who searches for the woman who birthed him — and then finding that our mother is actually other. Our connection is the subtext to the hate that drives us apart. “American Muslim” challenges us to re-establish our kinship — if not through biology and heredity, then through empathy.
“American Muslim” shows a heart-filling scene of Jews embracing Muslims after a sermon at Temple Emanu-El in New York, with wishes of “Shabbat Saalam” and “Shalom Aleichem” to the congregation. A conjunction of two beautiful cultures in a universal wish for peace. We can only hope that “American Muslim” plays to those who need to show up, and reach across our own cultures to embrace the “other.”
I can tell you from personal experience that it feels good, and opens up the space under your bed for more storage and less fear.
“American Muslim,” directed by Adam Zucker, screens on January 17 at Cinematters: NY Social Justice Film Festival at the JCC Manhattan.