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Kira Klawans: Why did you decide to become an activist about Islamophobia?

Rabbi Katie Mizrahi: Well, you know, it's interesting that you consider me an activist about
Islamophobia. I think that, um, I to me the idea of being an activist is something I've thought
about a lot in my life, you know, when I was in my twenties, I worked for an organization called
Rabbis for Human Rights for a while. At that time I was living in Jerusalem and I was working
about three days a week interviewing mostly Palestinian folks whose houses had been
demolished for usually political reasons or sometimes economic reasons but almost always for
bad reasons.
People who had ownership over a piece of land that was not disputed, who had built
houses or additions to their houses because their family grew but they couldn't get permission for
those additions, or for those extra building projects because of all kinds of bureaucratic,
discriminatory rules that were aimed at trying to keep the Palestinians from being able to build
even on their own land. So during that time, I would say that was I was an activist because I was
out in the field, in contact with these people who had these tragic situations, and I was writing up
their stories.
Then I actually was present for a house demolition that was happening in real time and I
was a witness to some terrible things, and that does feel like that was activism.
Actually, it was that particular house demolition that ended up very tragically. I was there
with a colleague and I got separated from him, so I was with a group of girls and we couldn't
really communicate because they didn't speak Hebrew or English and I didn't speak Arabic. Then
all of a sudden, we were in the middle of this conflict where the people of their village were
throwing rocks, and the soldiers were shooting, and we were in the middle, so we had to duck
behind a wall, and it was terrifying. Then I heard this horrible scream and looked and saw that
they had shot a man dead. I saw them carry him out and the impact it had on all these people, and
I was right in the middle of it; I was on the wrong, um, on the the receiving side of the bullets.
That was certainly a moment of activism but it was really traumatic; it was awful.
For a very long time I carried that memory as this horrible thing. I felt like I had gone out
into this dangerous situation trying to do some good and I didn't think I had done anything good.
It looked to me like whenever I was trying to do I was hoping that my presence there, as an
obviously sort of white, American-looking woman, might make the people who were carrying
out the home demolition pause and say, Oh we're being observed by this person, but that didn't
happen. This terrible tragedy happened, and all I could do is just be traumatized. For a long time
I thought, Well gosh, that didn't work. Maybe activism isn't worth it, you know. I don't know if I
have the strength to keep putting myself back out into those kinds of situations, and I didn't do
any good anyway, so I have this horrible story about it and these feelings about it.
Years later I had this breakthrough when I thought back on that memory, by realizing
that, first of all, I don't know the impact I may or may not have had. I do know that in that
moment I was there with this group of girls, and we were trying to communicate and we were
drawing pictures on a piece of paper, and I was drawing a picture of a gun and crossing it out and
drawing a picture of a Jewish star and pointing to myself and saying, Im a Jewish person and
Im on your side and I think this is wrong. I just hope that all those young girls who were in that
moment with me some of them grew up and remember me, and remember that whatever
horrible struggles they may find themselves in, they will also have a memory of a Jewish person
who was on the side of justice. Who knows what impact that may or may not have? I don't know.
In that moment everything around us was darkness, but we were actually making peace in
that moment, those of us who were trying to communicate to each other. That makes me feel
better about it, and now that I'm a Rabbi I can tell that storyI've told that story on Yom Kippur
at least a couple times at Or Shalomand I think that there may be impacts that happen from
that. That having me, as a Jewish leader, with that memory and that scar tissue in myself, that
that story doesn't have to be done. It can have a life and that my telling that story can help people
who are Jewish people, even people like me who love Israel and want a Jewish state but who
need to face the truth of what that looks like right now and what needs to change about it. Having
that story might yet be a way of making positive change in the world.
At that time, okay, I would say I was being an activist then; I don't know about now.
Since this election I have felt a deep sense of calling happening in my heart and in my soul. I am
deeply worried that our country is, uh, drifting into dangerous waters. I'm not sure that the
American democracy that I've grown up with and trust, I'm not sure that it's immune to the kind
of hatred and (pauses) bad behavior that I guess I'll put it this way. I think it's possible that if
good-hearted people now stay silent and don't stand up for our democracy, our freedom of
religion, our freedom of the press, free and fair elections, and protections for the vulnerable, I do
think it's possible that our democracy won't be a democracy forever by itself. I think it needs
people to be active citizens. A lot of people got very lazy the last couple decades. I think people
have not been paying attention, or not taking things seriously, or not voting, or voting but not
really holding their elected officials accountable. I know for myself, paying attention to whatever
news sources I pay attention to, but not really taking seriously that a lot of my fellow citizens
were paying attention to sources of information that I consider to be propaganda, or poison.
(Laughs) I didn't think that that was a serious issue; I just thought that was the fringes or I
thought that that was so outlandish nobody could take it seriously or any number of stories I
might have told myself. I realize now I should've taken it more seriously, and if we don't, I think
our country could could go in a very dark direction. I think that the Muslim immigrants at this
moment are a vulnerable minority group that have been singled out and attacked. As you know,
pastor Emil Niemller writes: When the powers-that-be go after one group, it makes all groups
vulnerable. I'm sure you've seen that poem that he wrote. Have you seen that one?
KK: Um, I dont think so.
RKM: Let me show it to you right now. Ill give you a copy.
KK: Thank you.
RKM: This is a Christian pastor who wrote [this piece] after World War II, which is very well
known. He says, First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not
a Communist. Then they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a
Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a
Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.
KK: Wow, that's a powerful poem, definitely.
RKM: Yeah, so you can see that this really captures this idea, that any group that makes
themselves feel safer or better because they're not the particular target at the moment is fooling
themselves. That actually, when the government, or the President, or the, you know, any kind of
powerful person or group attacks a minority groupeven if it's not your own minority groupit
creates this potential for all groups to be eventually singled out. Here, [Niemller] is talking
about World War II and the Holocaust, but it can apply to our moment, unfortunately. Immigrants
are being targeted. Muslims are being targeted and blamed for problems that are not just
problems specific to that group.
I think that one difficult issue is that progressive people like meand like the people in
our communityhave to really take seriously the problem of terrorism. Progressive Jews in a
way might have a special role to play in that conversation, because Jews and Israelis for a long
time have been dealing with terrorism. There are links between terrorist acts and religious
leaders. There are cases where people are acting in horrible wayscarrying out terrorist attacks
and using Islam as a justification. That is happening, but that doesn't mean that everybody who's
a Muslim is a terrorist. To take one or two bad actors as the defining character of a whole group,
especially a whole religion which constitutes, I think, the most. I think the latest count I saw
[is] that there's a billion Muslims in the world. I mean, theres a lot of people in our world who
are of the Muslim faith and there are not a billion terrorists in the world.
Most Muslims are good people, and they may have a different religious belief system or
practice than Christians, but that doesn't mean that they are all bad or all terrorists. We
understand this very well in the Jewish community and in the San Francisco community. I feel
like standing up for Muslims and speaking out against Islamophobia is There's lots of layers
to it. There's this historical layer, which is that the Jewish people in the 20th century were the
targets of horrible accusations and the destruction of the Holocaust. That historical experience
should teach us to be skeptical when any religious minority is singled out for criticism, for
attack, and so on. That historical experience should make us more sensitive to that happening in
our world and quicker to stand up and condemn it.
But also, there are deeper Jewish roots that aren't just historical rootsabout why it's
important to stand up for the vulnerableand those roots have to do with our Torah, our
scripture. The Jewish values that are at the core of what it means to be Jewish. Part of that is
about loving the neighbor, loving others, [and] treating others as we would want to be treated. If
you had to pick one principle that was the core of Judaism, well, in fact, I'll tell you a story.
There's a story about a Rabbi named Hillel. A person came to him wanting to convert to Judaism,
and said, I want to convert to Judaism, but only on condition that you can teach me the whole
Torah while standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel said, Okay, and he stood on one foot and then
said, Whatever you don't like, whatever is hateful to you, don't do that to somebody else. That's
the whole of Torah. Now go and learn. Then he put his other foot down and he said, The rest is
(Both laugh)
This is a very mainstream Jewish teaching. This is in the Talmud it's not, like, some
marginal San Francisco Rabbi thing, this is the heart of it. This is, you know, what the Rabbis say
it's all about. It's really about the golden rule. If you don't think that you would like your
religious group to be singled out, excluded from this country, and accused of being terrorists, and
if you don't think that your religious group would appreciate being the subject of special
surveillance and whatever other measures are being considered dont do that to someone else.
Don't do that to someone else. If, for some reason, in your further study of religion or Judaism,
you think that you found some other core principle that contradicts that, look again, because
that's really it. Thats it.
I don't know if I am an anti-Islamophobia activist right now, but I certainly am (pauses)
moved by that issue, speaking about that issue, writing about that issue, trying to take my
community out into the world to stand up for refugees, immigrants, and those who are being
targeted right now with hatred, so maybe I am.
(Both laugh)
Maybe I am, more than I realized, an activist.
KK: As I said, my mom works here and also gets the weekly emails, and she forwards them to
me because they are interesting to read. And I noticed that a few of them were about fighting
Islamophobia and how you went to a neighborhood mosque and exchanged services, along with
a few other organizations, and also gone around the neighborhood to help raise awareness of the
issue. Could you talk about that, please?
RKM: Well, I'm sorry to say I can't talk much about it because that happened on a day I couldn't
personally be there. What happened, as I understand it, is that some of our members We have
a committee in our community called the Interfaith Action Committee, and they are maintaining
partnerships with different faith groups including various Muslim groups in San Francisco.
What I believe happened that day is they took a letterI had written a letter on behalf of Or
Shalom a few months ago for the holiday of Sukkot, which is a holiday of welcoming and
hospitalityand we invited members of the San Francisco Islamic Center, I believe it's called, to
come join us for Sukkot and share a meal with us.
At that time I wrote a letter to that group talking about how even though there are those
who would seek to divide us from each other, that Muslims and Jews have much in common in
terms of our traditions. For example, we both admire and teach the teachings of Abraham, who,
among other things, was known for his loving heart and his ability to welcome others into his
tent. Anyway, I wrote this letter at that time and then more recently, the letter was taken and
distributed to other Muslim communities in the city. Then, that day, members of our committee
and other groups got together, and went out into a neighborhood that was near a local mosque
and just knocked on doors and invited people to have conversations about Islamophobia. Thats
my understanding of what happened, but I, unfortunately, wasn't able to be there that day.
KK: This had kind of been covered pretty thoroughly, but just in case you have anything else
you want to addhow has your religion affected your views of Islamophobia?
RKM: Let me think if there is anything else to add. (pauses) I do think that religion is a
powerful and potent force in the world and among people, and there are peopleMuslims,
Christians, and Jewswho would use the power of religious fervor for bad purposes. Thats
happened for thousands of years, unfortunately, so as a religious leaderas a RabbiI have to
really wrestle with that. For some time in my younger years, when I was a teenager, I was very
disillusioned with religion as a whole because of that. Because I looked around and saw what
happened in the medieval period with religious wars, the Crusades, and all kinds of things where
religion was a source of a lot of suffering, it seemed. Now that I've learned a lot more and had
my own spiritual experiences with positive religious communities, I realized that that potent
force can also be turned to good purposes. That religious communities and religious traditions
can guide people to learn how to be better people, to find strength in making hard but good
choices about their own behavior, about the way they create societies, how they take care of the
vulnerable, and so on.
I've come to the conclusion that it's better to engage with that powerful force and to guide
it for the good, rather than to just reject it, walk away from it, and let only the crazy people
define what religion is. In that sense, I feel it, and because of my position and what I do as a
Rabbi, I look to the Jewish community to be a place where we can take action, and find our roots
and our inspiration for doing the right thing in the world. Right now, I feel like there's a big
calling going on in my soul to to use everything I have to try to help our country get back on
track. To reject hatred as a new, normal way to to think about minorities and groups.
Hopefully, we have woken up in time to to shift things in the right direction. We'll see.
KK: Most of my questions were written before the border ban happened, so this is a bit
convoluted, but how do you feel that the government is affecting the peoples views on
Islamophobiawith the whole border ban going onhow the courts have already decided to
declare it invalid for a bit, and how people can still come in?
RKM: What was the first part of your question again?
KK: Do you think the governments been influencing the people's views?
RKM: I was out of the country for a lot of last year, and didn't see the way that the campaign
and the election took place for much of last year. We got back into the country in April or May,
so during last winter we were kind of tuned out to what was happening with American politics.
There was one day I remember tuning in and seeing a series of video clips strung together of
Trump in his rallies, inciting violence and singling out people in the crowd and saying, basically,
Beat up that person, take out that person, and it really pushed my button. Part of why it pushed
my button is because it reminded me of stories I've heard about what Hitler and his brown shirts,
as they were called, were doing by normalizing violence, normalizing hatred, singling out people
who were different for this or that reason, and encouraging a sort of mob mentality. That really
scared me, and that kind of shook me awake a little bit from afar.
I don't think that the government is something that you can talk about like, the whole
government is doing this or that. The government is so big that it has lots of different parts and
has lots of different actors. The government is made up of people and each person has their own
conscience of their own arena of action. I do think that Donald Trump approached his campaign
and used language throughout his campaign that played upon people's hatreds and fears, and
used a technique of scapegoating and blame to take people's justified unhappiness and link it to
particular other groups which may or may not be responsible in any way for that unhappiness. I
think the notion that there are immigrants taking jobs from Americans is something that, as far as
I can tell, is just not true. It's a pretty common accusation that's been used in different countries at
different times, but in this case I don't think it's based on reality. Its just basically based on
people's fears and telling a story which isn't based in fact.
I dont remember where we started with this question but. Oh, how is the government
doing this? I think that when the leaders of any group are careless and reckless with their
language, it has impact. When a leader is using a certain kind of story or language to describe the
world, or to describe his political opponent, or to lay blame on a group, then it gives permission
to others to do the same. I think that there's very much a connection between the the rhetoric of
hate, fear, othering, and blame that happened during the campaignthat's happening now in the
beginning of the Trump presidencyand I think it's connected to the fact that there have been
more anti-semitic threats and incidents in the last year than in recent history in this country.
When the leader is role-modeling bad behavior, it makes others feel like they have permission to
do the same.
KK: Living in SF, do you feel like we're a bit sheltered from the opinions of the rest of America,
considering our state is so Democratic or very left-wing, typically?
RKM: Yeah, I think that we definitely have been in one of many different little information
silos, talking to ourselves, listening to each other but not to those who think differently. I know I
personally didn't listen nearly well enough to voices around the country who were expressing
anger, disappointment, and a different narrative of what their experience was in this country. I
think San Francisco can be very self-righteous, you know; the left can be very self-righteous. I
think that during the campaign, leading up to the election, I was noticing people in our neck of
the woods just sort of saying, Oh, you know, all those racists, all those racist Trump
supporters. I don't really think that all the Trump supporters are racist at all, or Islamophobes, or
anything like. I think there may be some, but the reasons that people voted for Donald Trump are
deeper than that, and worth listening to and thinking about. I think that Donald Trump himself
had some important things to say that weren't being said, and some important pieces of the truth
that resonated with people. I think we have to learn how to be in the same conversation with
others who think differently than we do, and I'm not sure how to accomplish that in our digital
age, you know? I also think that theres, at this moment (long pause)
The need for those conversations to happen, to change people's hearts and minds, and to
understand each other and figure out what we have in common, [so] that we can move forward as
a country. All of that is very important, and I think it will take a long time. It's got to happen at
some point, but in the meantime, I feel like there are some almost emergencies that are going on,
in terms of the possibility that our country will not be a democracy anymore in the same way that
I think it should be. I think that it may be that that's more important than all of this dialogue right
now. I'm not going to convince a downwardly mobile, white, middle-aged man who lost his
manufacturing job why sealing off the border in the south is a bad policy. I think it's more
important to just make sure that we don't take away the freedom of religion in the United States,
and that might be a fight that has to be fought first before we can go back and have those slow,
transformative conversations and dialogues with the people who brought us to this President.
(laughs) I don't think I would have said that a year ago. I would have thought that we should be
patient, dialogue, listen, and all those important things which eventually we do have to do, but if
we just do that and we arent ever willing to draw a line and say no further, then I'm not sure
what the dialogue is going to mean. I dont know how to explain it in another way.
KK: What way do you think is the best way to help combat Islamophobia?
RKM: I think the best way is to give people opportunities to meet normal Muslim people. We
definitely learned that watching people from the LGBTQ community making progress on their
rights, and how they're accepted and viewed by mainstream society. I think the biggest factor is
people just actually getting to know each other. It's much easier to fear someone who is an idea
in your mind that doesn't have any real person connected to it, but as soon as you meet real
people and get to know them, a lot of the fear falls away and a lot of the compassion can grow.
(pauses) And Im sure the same could be true of all those Trump supporters in Middle America
that maybe the best thing to do is go find a way to meet them and humanize them. It applies to
lots of groups.
KK: How does it feel to interact or discuss Islamophobia and other such issues with people
whose views differ from yours?
RKM: Well, recently I wrote an article in the Jewish newspaper in the city; I don't know if you
saw it.
KK: I think I did, actually. Was it the J Weekly?
RKM: Yeah, yeah. So in the article I said a few things about how the Muslim ban, as I called
it and I think it should be called, should be this call for Jews to speak out and act. I talked about
[not only] the spiritual and religious reasonsand the teachings in the Torah and Leviticus that
tell us not to wrong the strangerbut also the historical experience of Jews in the 20th century,
the Holocaust, and so on. I put this out there in the public arena, and people wrote letters. A
couple of other readers of the J wrote letters that were very angry and very upset, and saying,
"There are no such thing as vulnerable Muslims," and "How could you make this comparison
with the Jews in the Holocaust and the Muslims in the United States," and "You're not a Rabbi,
youre a so-called Rabbi," and "You should get removed just like Moses removed other people
from the community." They were very angry responses from peopleJewish peoplein the San
Francisco Bay Area. Thats one experience Ive hadthat putting out these ideas has not always
been well received by those who think differently.
I think it's unfortunate because they really miss the point. The point is not that I'm saying
that the Muslims in the United States are experiencing what the Jews experienced in 1944, thank
God. That's not at all happening right now, but we don't want to get there. My point is that if only
the Germans had spoken out and gotten their ship back on track earlier, maybe World War II and
the Holocaust could have gone differently or not happened. Something different could have
happened. The comparison isn't between what is happening to Syrian refugees and what
happened to the Jews in 1945. No, it's not the same. The Jews at that time were in a totally
different ball game of suffering and persecution. We don't ever want to go there again for
anybody thats the point.
The vulnerability of the Muslims in the world is not just vulnerability as in: Oh there's
no other Muslim country that will take them in. The vulnerability is also the vulnerability of
being recruited to be a terrorist. If we don't take care of the vulnerable, then someone else will,
and someone else may influence them in the wrong direction. And, you know, it is a real
problem. Europe has had real problems. There are really problematic people who are Muslims
committing terrorism. That's true. The question is, what do we do about it? That's what I was
writing about in that article, that it actually doesn't work to oppress, keep out, accuse, and punish
groups of people as a group. In fact, it just ends up strengthening the extremists in their midst, I
It's scary to open yourselfto be open-heartedbut it might actually be, in the end, safer
and certainly kinder.
KK: Is it harder to speak about these kinds of issues to people who have also been scapegoated
or also religious minorities, [and] who think the way that you were just talking about?
RKM: As a Rabbi, I'm usually talking to Jews, and I think most of the people in my circles feel
that the experience of the Holocaust has implications on Jewish behavior. Whenever we see a
group being targetedwhether it's the Darfur genocide, or Muslims being potentially excluded
from our country because of their religious backgroundmost of the Jews I talk to think of it in
that way, that there's this extra responsibility that we have because we're so aware of it. (pauses)
But again, there are certain parts of our community, even in the Jewish Bay Area community
there are pockets of people who really supported Donald Trump or who believe that he and his
administration are good for Israel, even though I very much disagree with that. There are people
who think that way.
I know that for many colleagues of mineother Rabbisthere is great difficulty talking
about any of this, because they feel like they have to make everybody in their congregation
comfortableeven people who have different political views. That's the Rabbi's position, to
make sure everybody in the congregation feels safe and welcome. Communities all over the
country have had a lot to to struggle with over the years about, How do we talk about Israel and
Palestine? How do we talk about any kind of divisive issue? Luckily Judaism has a lot to offer
about that. We have a long tradition of arguing for the sake of heaven, and a lot of guidelines
about how to have respectful discourse even if the disagreement is very powerful. I think we
have the tools, its just about whether we are willing to use them.
KK: Have you ever personally witnessed acts of Islamophobia?
RKM: Well, I do think that getting this letter from someone who says there's no such thing as
vulnerable Muslimsthat, to me, is a kind of Islamophobia. If a person is so unable to open their
heart to see that there are suffering, vulnerable Muslims in our world, it's hard to explain that
unless they have some kind of hatred in their heart, or racism of some kindthat's really
blinding them to having compassion. I mean, the images of the Syrian refugees are so powerful,
so horrible, that it's hard to look at them because they're so painful. To witness somebody
suffering and to either say, I can't look at that. I'm not going take it in, or to look at it and then
somehow create a story that they arent vulnerableI can't explain that unless it's some kind of
Islamophobia, so, yeah.
We have about five more minutes and then I have someone coming in.
KK: Wow, its almost an hour already. I guess Ill end it with what hopes do you have for the
future regarding Islam and Islamophobia?
RKM: Well, I'm hopeful because I have personally had contact with many people who are of
the Muslim faith and who are good people, both here and in other countries. I think that Islam
as its practiced by most Muslims in the worldis a religious path [that] leads people to be better
people, so that gives me hope. It gives me hope (pauses) that people really do seem to be
awake here and willing to become more active as citizens, to defend the rights of otherseven
not only in their own group. Our congregation has been very interested in making connections to
the Muslim community, standing up for them in this hour of need, and that makes me have hope
too. The hope I have in this moment has to do also with the idea that Jews and Muslims have
been in a lot of conflict over the State of Israel in the last several decades, and this moment in
America is this opportunity for Muslim and American Jews to find themselves on the same side
of a struggle, and to find themselves allies in this moment. That alliance and that ability to find
common ground, to find a reason to help each other, that might plant seeds for the future in
I hope that if Jews and Muslims in America in the next five years, ten years, can develop
a relationship with each other, learn the ways that we have common interests, and so on, maybe
down the road we'll be able to use those connections and relationships to find ways to help the
Jews, the Muslims, and the Christians share the land of Israel. I would hope so. We will see.
KK: Thank you so much for speaking with me, Rabbi Katie.
RKM: Im so glad that you asked me. I'm honored, and I hope that it was not too frightening to
be honest with you about some of the fears I have in our world. I think you're at an age where
you're being exposed to all kinds of stories on the internet, news, literature, and all kinds of
ways, that you're learning about both the beautiful things in our world and the scary things in our
world. Youre coming of age in a time where there's some things in the world that I think,
anyhow, are kind of scary. That's part of what you're walking into, but you're doing so with a lot
of wonderful support, tools, and people. I don't feel like the moment is a moment where we
should be checking our passports, getting ready to pack up, and get out of here because it's really
that dangerous, but it is a moment, I think, of waking up to the needthat the world needs us,
the world really needs us to say something, to stand up right now and to be strong for good
values. And I do think that will make a difference. But sometimes, the motivation comes out of a
place of worry. That's true for me, anyway.
Well, alright, take the poem and good luck with this project. I hope this is a useful thing
for you; I hope you got something that you can use.
KK: Yup. Im just going to have to write this entire conversation up.
(Both laugh)
RKM: Don't let it go on any longer, or there will be even more to write down.