New York’s Muslims, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Israel

Protesters throw shoes at a portrait of Mayor Michael Bloomberg after the mayor's trip to Israel while Operation Cast Lead raged on. PHOTO: Zahra Hankir

Ever since Lawrence Swaim of the California-based Interfaith Freedom Foundation articulated his valuable insight to me that the question of Israel courses through Jewish-Muslim relations, I’ve been coming across stories that fit into that theme.  In general, strong support for Israel correlates with an aversion to understanding legitimate Palestinian, Arab and Muslim grievances about the United States and Israel, and given the dehumanization of Palestinians (the majority of them Muslims) that pervades Israeli and U.S. society, it’s no surprise that Israel is a big roadblock in Jewish-Muslim relations.  You have to place the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s opposition to Park 51 in lower Manhattan in that context.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been busy reporting on how Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City is perceived by the Muslim community here–which is at about 800,000 strong–in the wake of Bloomberg’s admirable defense of the mosque and community center near Ground Zero.  (The fruits of my labor are here at the Gotham Gazette.)  A lot of different issues came up in my discussions with Muslim community leaders in New York City, but Bloomberg’s staunch support for Israel came up in a number of interviews.  Bloomberg’s role in not standing up for Debbie Almontaser, the founding and former principal of the city’s first dual-language Arabic school who was felled by a right-wing smear campaign, also had something to do with Israel, as Kiera Feldman points out in this excellent article. Bloomberg’s relationship with the Muslim community is one prominent symbol of the role Israel plays in the challenge of forging strong Jewish-Muslim solidarity, all the more important in a time of rising Islamophobia that bears many of the same hallmarks that characterized anti-Semitism.

In early 2009, around the same time that the massacre of the al-Samouni family occurred in Gaza, Mayor Bloomberg flew in to Israel on his private jet along with NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelley and Representative Gary Ackerman.  Bloomberg went to Sderot, the Israeli town that saw many rockets from Gaza rain down, and laid the blame for the Israeli assault on Hamas: “That they are putting people at risk is an outrage. If Hamas would focus on building a country instead of trying to destroy another one, then those people would not be getting injured or killed.”

This trip enraged the Arab and Muslim community in New York City.  Shortly after Bloomberg’s trip, Palestine solidarity activists organized a rally outside of City Hall, throwing shoes at a portrait of Bloomberg.

“His relationship with Israel, supporting Israel with no limits, hurts us,” Zein Rimawi, a member of the New York City-based Arab Muslim American Federation, recently told me. “Don’t forget: We are Arabs, we are Muslims, and the people in Gaza are Arabs and Muslims and we support them.”

Bloomberg made many New York Muslims happy with his defense of Park 51.  But Israel looms large, and it’s obvious that his disregard for the suffering of the people in Gaza dealt substantial damage to his relationship with the New York City Muslim community.  Take the relationship between Bloomberg and Muslims as a lesson that those interested in forming stronger Jewish-Muslim coalitions must deal with the question of Israel.  Fighting Islamophobia and the right-wing Zionist project of expelling Palestinians from their historic homeland depends on strong Jewish-Muslim solidarity.

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