On the night of August 1, shortly before the pair of horrific shootings the following weekend, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), an Islamist influence organization with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, and J Street, a left-leaning group which claims to be "the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans," came together for a panel discussion titled "Ethnonationalism in Israel & America"at Leo Baeck Temple, a Reform Jewish house of worship in Los Angeles.
Salam Al-Marayati, MPAC's president and co-founder, moderated the dialogue. Ken Chasen, the synagogue's rabbi who also participated, described Al-Marayati as "one of America's most important voices in promoting a public understanding of Islam and of the Muslim community in America" and "the perfect person to moderate tonight's conversation."
Such a description ignores Al-Marayti's deeply controversial, anti-Israel history, most notably his statement, reported by The Los Angeles Times, that shortly after 9/11 he said, "We should put the state of Israel on the suspect list." Al-Marayati evidently regarded Israel as so evil he found it plausible that it might have murdered thousands of Americans merely to distract "from what's happening in the Palestinian territories."
The panel also featured Josh Lockman, J Street's Southwest regional director and a former Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign adviser, and Hedab Tarifi, MPAC's chair of its foundation board and a longtime Islamist activist with numerous connections in Southern California including serving on the board of the Shura Council of Southern California, an organization which has sponsored talks by radical imamslike Siraj Wahhaj, Suhaib Webb, and Yasir Qadhi at fundraisers.
Chasen described Tarifi as one who "for more than two decades has been one of LA's most dedicated, longtime, Muslim bridgebuilders."
Chasen's opening remarks to the audience of approximately 100 people noted the panel would analyze "ethnonationalism" regarding "its implications for us as citizens, as advocates, as progressive activists." Even-handed analysis was quickly abandoned as Chasen articulated the evening's primary theme, that President Donald J. Trump is a racist and his racism empowers the racism of Israel's racist prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
We watch as the prime minister of Israel makes common cause with some of the world's most antisemitic regimes to advance a nationalist agenda that veers widely from the values that gave animation to the declaration of establishing the state of Israel. We watch as our own president chooses a path that habitually dehumanizes Muslims and people of color both with words and policies and in so doing contributes to driving the Israeli and Palestinian people further from solutions than at any time in this century... We see the racist hand in one strengthening the racist hand in the other.
Al-Marayati started the discussion by asking and answering, "What is ethnonationalism? ... Whenever anyone says 'we are better than them,' that is ethnonationalism. That is the Satanic whisper that corrupts the heart..."
Lockman spoke next, joining in on the shadowboxing: "This president has done vile, horrific, racist, and evil things – we need to call it out as it is – since he took office in 2017."
Then Lockman went a step further, blaming Trump himself for the recent shootings at synagogues. Defending Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who has faced previous criticism for anti-Semitic remarks on social media, Lockman said, "But her tweets, as Salam referenced the two massacres, did not cause the massacre at Pittsburgh, the massacre at Poway, those were caused and incited by a cancer that's metastasizing on the Right that's being fueled by our president and those in his party, I hate to say." Lockman would go on to claim of Netanyahu that "this is a prime minister who has possibly done more damage to Israel's democracy than Trump has done to our democracy."
Tarifi spoke next, first describing her background as a Palestinian living in Kuwait and coming to America following Operation Desert Storm before invoking multiple anti-Semitic canards of Jewish control of politics and Jewish obsession with money. She said, "When I compare those laws that are in Israel against Palestinians and what Trump is taking here in the United States, it makes me wonder who is learning from whom and who is leading whom."
She then later added, "I don't think Trump cares about having peace in the holy land. Trump only cares about how much money his family will get out of his presidency. So he appoints his son-in-law to go and be the envoy and talk about peace."
The only mention of Islamist and terrorist organizations for the whole evening – groups which have an explicit ethnonationalism to purge all Jews from areas under their control – came briefly from Tarifi downplaying Hamas as "only a group of people that took control of Gaza" and lamenting that originally "Hamas was not political, it was a social group just like the Muslim Brotherhood were in Egypt in the early days. But sadly, they turned political." She then drew a moral equivalency, stating, "I tell you, my family in Gaza are under siege by Hamas as they are under siege by Israel."
The panel then went right back to scapegoating Trump and Netanyahu for all the world's ills.
During the question and answer session, one of the few disagreements of the night emerged: whether to support a one-state or two-state solution. Advocates of both views on stage and in the audience admitted the huge hurdles each approach faces today.
Just as Lockman chose to explicitly blame Trump for the synagogue shootings, he and his employer did the same thing in response to the terrorist act in El Paso. Lockman retweeted Time editor-at-large Anand Giridharadas: "People are dying in the United States of America because of the president's words."
The official J Street account, which Lockman also retweeted, sought to tie the president to the attack: "As Jewish Americans, history calls us to stand against the dangerous politics of hate and racism which helps fuel this violence. We need to challenge it, whether it comes from the darkest corners of the internet or from the President of the United States."
In the landscape of Jewish and Muslim political organizations, J Street and MPAC have cleverly positioned themselves as moderate and "mainstream" compared to more radical groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Jewish Voice for Peace. However, as the panel at Leo Baeck and the response to the shootings demonstrate, this supposed moderation still has the same effect of misdirecting attention from where it needs to be and scapegoating easy targets.