The Heart of the MLI Trip Controvery: Silencing Palestinians

The suffering of the Palestinian people is not meant to be your lesson.

If you are a Muslim that is staunchly against occupation and you haven’t heard of the Muslim Leaders Initiative (MLI) yet, then you are in for a treat. MLI is a faith-washing trip that sends prominent members of the Muslim American community to occupied Palestine in an attempt to normalize the conflict. It is sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute, which is directly linked to a foundation that has pumped millions of dollars into the Islamophobia industry.

Since last year, members of our community have actively taken part in the program — some even taking the opportunity to write articles about their experiences, their changing perspectives, and their personal growth. After all, what is Israel but a birthright to the privileged wanting “perspective”?

What is dangerous about this trip is the silencing of the Palestinian narrative. This trip is, at its core, violence. To silence the narrative of an occupied population by taking a trip funded by the same people who fund the army occupying them is violence. The Muslim American community should and is entitled to hold its participants accountable.

When Muslim Americans choose to take a violent reality as a personal exploration of theories, politics, ideologies, and philosophies of difference and religion, they are ignoring the physical presence of poverty, racism, occupation, imprisonment, barriers, and apartheid.

Hartman’s prerogative with the MLI trip is to garner some Israel-sympathizing propaganda from the Muslim American community. And it accomplishes just that. A Muslim American who participated in the trip last year wrote about their experience in a TIME article titled, “What a Muslim American Learned from Zionists.” The participant wrote that, “It wasn’t until I met numerous Palestinians that I realized the fear many Israeli Jews have is not a figment of the imagination.”

What fears, exactly? What imagination does a physical reality that is flooded with an occupation that has torn families apart, destroyed villages, uprooted olive groves, imprisoned children, and continues to kill its population serve? The participant wrote that Hartman took a huge risk with this initiative — that the fellowship ultimately transcends tensions to reach an understanding and empathy needed for prosperity and self-determination. It would be laughable if it weren’t heartbreaking how very much this is all disconnected from the reality of the Israeli occupation. How such a privileged Western logic was nourished by the physicality of massacred Palestinian villages.

It is crucial that Muslim Americans realize that just because they share the same faith with the majority of Palestinians — the majority and not all — does not mean that they are allowed to pretend they share the same grief, loss, and daily violence. We cannot co-opt the Palestinian narrative to “better understand” Zionism. The occupation is not a place where Muslim Americans can “learn from Zionists.” Ask a Palestinian — I trust that they’ve learned a few things from Zionists that they’d love to speak about.

The Palestinians are not living in the shadows and margins of their homeland so non-Palestinian Muslims can build privileged and sheltered understandings of their narrative. This daily violence is not your playground of comradeship. They are not imprisoned, killed, and beaten everyday as a consequence of standing up against their occupiers so you can learn how to empathize with the occupying status quo.

No matter how many dialogues, conversations, and debates you will have in a ritzy hotel room in a safe space of occupied Palestine, there will come a day where you will shake hands with your Israeli hosts, thank them for their generosity, and fly off to your Western abode where you will sit in the safety and luxury of your home and write about your trip.

What you neglect to understand is that while you were there, and when you are back home, and as you are blogging about the necessity of this trip, there will be a home raided, a man taken from his family, an infant dying from the cold in Gaza, a family barred from seeing their relatives, a Palestinian banned from praying in their place of worship. Their reality continues, while your perspective is “enriched.”

The Palestinian struggle of over 67 years is not there for you to learn from Zionists, interfaith with Zionists, and empathize with Zionists. No amount of articles, trips, personal statements, or lessons will ever erase your responsibility.

Many of you pat each other on the back for the amazing work you’ve done for Muslims and minorities in the U.S. To be progressive in your ideology, you must maintain it regardless of geography — especially if you’re planning to co-opt an indigenous struggle. If your activism and passion does not extend to outside of your borders, how is the community you belong to in the U.S. going to take you seriously? Isn’t justice a principle and not a convenience?

If you really wanted to learn about Zionism and Israel, go on your own terms. Buy your own plane ticket and go see it for yourself. Unless you get a kick out of being sponsored by Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian foundations, then I don’t see why the participants never took part in an earlier trip to occupied Palestine — especially when there are countless movement-led opportunities to do so. You might not get the privilege of accessing historical and religious sites that Palestinians are barred from entering daily like you would with Hartman, but maybe you’d get a better grasp of the real face of Zionism.

We must begin holding ourselves accountable for our actions. When Palestinians call on you to support them and participate in the BDS movement, it is up to you, as a Muslim, as a human, and as a conscious citizen to oblige. They are asking you to empathize with them, with their families — alive or killed — and with their memory and narrative. When you choose to take this trip regardless of the calls for boycott, then you are rendering their narrative as worthless. You are complicit in using the Palestinian struggle as a stepping-stone for your own personal gain.

In an essay, Audre Lorde declared, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The Muslim Leaders Initiative is not an initiative of change or empowerment. You cannot destroy empire when you are drowning in your free trips and benefits from it.