Early Wednesday, President Donald Trump retweeted three videos shared by a far-right British activist.
One purportedly depicted a “Muslim migrant” beating up a Dutch boy on crutches (in fact, reports suggest the assailant was neither Muslim nor a migrant). Another showed a Muslim smashing a statue of the Virgin Mary. The third claimed to capture an “Islamist mob” shoving a boy off a roof. All religions have contemporary adherents who behave badly, but Trump has never singled out their individual acts of extremism, let alone through video clips of questionable provenance, until now.
The user who shared the clips, Jayda Fransen, was convicted by a British court in January of religiously aggravated harassment for hurling unprovoked abuse at a Muslim mother in front of her four children. Fransen’s organization, Britain First, is notorious for invading local mosques and confronting parishioners — conduct which led its own founder to resign, saying, “no matter how hard I tried, you cannot escape from the fact that the group is being overrun with racists and extremists.”
By sharing Fransen’s tweets with his 43 million followers, Trump yet again mainstreamed a bigot and their ideas into the public discourse, much as he did during the campaign when he retweeted anti-Semites and neo-Nazis.
Neither Trump’s anti-Muslim animus nor his cavalier attitude toward publicizing its purveyors should come as a surprise. After all, during the 2016 campaign, he openly declared “Islam hates us.”
As a Jew and journalist who reports regularly on anti-Semitism and is frequently the target of it, I’m quite familiar with this sort of hateful generalization. To the bigot, there are not many different kinds of Jews with many different kinds of views, there is only “the Jews,” who are singled out and reduced to their most reviled actions and exemplars, real or imagined. To Trump, there is only one kind of Muslim and one kind of Islam.
In the space of a tweet, a vibrant faith is recast as a mendacious monolith.
It is all too easy to fall into the Trump trap when it comes to stereotyping other religious communities. After all, most Americans have never met any Jews, who constitute just 2 percent of the U.S. population, or any Muslims, who constitute even less. Tellingly, these two groups experienced the most religiously-motivated hate crimes in 2016, according to the FBI’s newly released statistics, with Muslims seeing the greatest spike over the last year and Jews seeing the most overall incidents.
How can we break out of this destructive dynamic? It begins with getting off Twitter and forging real-world relationships between our own communities and the American Muslim community. One remarkable organization engaged in this work is the Muslim Leadership Initiative of the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jewish nonprofit. Founded in 2013 under the direction of Duke University’s Imam Abdullah Antepli and Hartman’s Yossi Klein Halevi, the initiative brings a yearly group of American Muslim leaders to Jerusalem to learn with Jews and build bridges between the two communities.
As one might imagine, this is not always easy. But the goal of the program is not to deny differences or avoid deep disagreements between Muslims and Jews, but to engage them honestly — including when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The initiative has connected American Muslims and Jews in ways previously unseen, helping forge the Muslim-Jewish Council of the American Jewish Committee and Islamic Society of North America, inspiring a day of interfaith learning in New York on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and prompting articles by Muslim writers at my own Jewish publication, Tablet Magazine.
(Disclosure: I’ll be the paid moderator of an MLI-sponsored conversation on Sunday between program alumni Rabia Chaudry, of “Serial” podcast fame, and Umair Khan of the New York City Public Advocate’s office on building bridges between the American Jewish and Muslim communities.)
As with any outreach to the other, there will be resistance by those committed to their silos and stereotypes. As Chaudry, an attorney and author who is Muslim, has put it, “The walls have been built so high that breaching them to reach out to the other side is tantamount to treason.”
Trump’s Twitter tirade Wednesday amply demonstrates that our country could use a little more such “treason.” If we want a society that looks less like the president’s prejudices, it’s probably time to follow in the footsteps of these brave Muslims and Jews.
Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet Magazine, where he covers politics, religion and culture.