The Hanukkah stabbings in December 2019 prompted us—a group of Rochester-based Muslim and Jewish activists—to unpack the attack and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s response, by parsing the political context in which such hate crimes become possible and voicing the need for targeted communities to pull together. The beginning of the new year 2020 saw another act of violence, with President Donald Trump provoking a war with Iran and unleashing heightened Islamophobia and xenophobia in the country. An open letter of solidarity became even more important to us, especially one grounded in political analysis and a strong desire for justice and intersectional allyship. Here it is:
More than 70 years after the end of World War II and the defeat of Nazi Germany, we are seeing a resurgence in ethno-nationalism and an emboldening of white supremacy. In the past year, bigotry-fueled violence has targeted synagogues, mosques, Black churches, and other centers of religious and cultural life for frontline communities.
As the world becomes more inequitable and precarious, with climate change threatening our very survival, high-profile figures in positions of political and economic power (within the U.S. and around the world) continue to use hateful rhetoric and the scapegoating of marginalized groups and minorities to distract from the failures of capitalism.
At this time of fear-based politics and endless wars, when the far right is preparing to defend itself against “white genocide,” it is critical that we remain steadfast in our solidarity with all communities under threat and not fall prey to tactics that aim to divide and conquer. It is the only way to challenge the divisions rooted in racial capitalism, which are deployed both locally and globally.
One of the pernicious characteristics of white supremacy is that it can readjust racial hierarchies to fit the prevailing interests of the ruling class. For example, the last century has witnessed a number of European ethnic minorities gain access to American whiteness. Although discrimination against Jewish people is nowhere near the levels it was in the 1940s, when ships of European Jews fleeing Nazi execution were turned back by the U.S. government, or in the 1960s when Jews were barred from certain jobs and neighborhoods here in Rochester, the acceptance of white Jews into white America continues to be challenged by recent events. Needless to say, in a country defined by racism, anti-blackness and anti-indigeneity, Jews of color were never given such access in the first place. With the election of Donald Trump and the increased usage of scapegoating and pitting of oppressed communities against one another, anti-Semitism is once again on the rise and the definitions of whiteness and citizenship are shifting.
The othering of Muslims has always been closely tied to their racialization. Although the demarcation between East and West is arbitrary, Islam is consistently portrayed as exotic and unchanging by European Orientalists. Muslims are constructed as a race diametrically opposed to the West and its genius for progress. This is why, in spite of the fact that Islam’s roots in this country go back to colonial and antebellum America, it is still considered foreign and incompatible with U.S. values.
U.S. foreign policy and decades-long wars on Muslim-majority countries have further devalued Muslim lives. The recent escalation of violence between the U.S. and Iran is a good example of how calls to war are invariably followed by a spike in xenophobia and Islamophobia.
In his work, Santiago Slabodsky, the Florence and Robert Kaufman Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies at Hofstra University, often talks about the historical co-Orientalization of Jews and Muslims.
Yet imperial and capitalist interests continue to position our communities as if locked in an eternal zero-sum game. We see this with heads of state Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu conflating Judaism with Israeli state policies of aggression and expansion in Palestine, and using Islamophobic tropes depicting Muslims as violent and inherently opposed to Western civilization in order to justify a war with Iran.
Trump has made numerous anti-Semitic statements that play into anti-Semitic tropes of dual loyalty, including referring to Netanyahu as “your prime minister” when speaking to U.S. Jewish audiences and accusing U.S. Jewish Democrats of being disloyal to the state of Israel. The president’s deliberate conflation of domestic and Middle East politics and the ongoing bipartisan support for the War on Terror have made U.S. Jews and Muslims embodied sites of political contestation: hate crimes, travel bans, and discrimination continue to draw their bodies into the political battlefield.
In the wake of the December 2019 Hanukkah attack in New York City, Gov. Cuomo announced an increase in security including a $45 million grant administered by the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services for communications equipment upgrades. This is meant to assuage Jewish communities and make them feel safer.
But actual safety comes from solidarity, not greater state scrutiny and criminalization, which disproportionately impact people of color and vulnerable communities. Employing state forces as barriers between our fractured communities only furthers our fragmentation and contributes to future distrust and misunderstandings.
We, Muslim and Jewish activists based in Rochester, understand this and are committed to a decolonial understanding of our histories and struggles. We aim to stay invested in and show up for one another, and we urge all our diverse communities to do the same. Let’s band together against the rising tides of violence, in our country and across the globe. Solidarity is safety.
Durdane Hatun Guler
Published in the Rochester Beacon on January 13, 2020. Photo: Annette Dragon [Rally for Peace in the Middle East organized by area youth on Jan 9th in downtown Rochester]