Adam Milstein: Don’t Link Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

Tensions rose considerably on elite college campuses across the U.S. during the 2024 Passover holiday.

Tensions rose considerably on elite college campuses across the U.S. during the 2024 Passover holiday.

Images of so-called “pro-Palestinian” and “anti-war” encampments at prestigious schools like Columbia, Yale, George Washington University, Northwestern, USC, and UCLA were plastered across the news and social media. Such slogans as “Globalize the Intifada,” “We Are Hamas,” and “Al Qasam’s next targets” (referencing Hamas’s next targets) have become not just commonplace but the preferred rhetoric of the students and professors who make up these groups. Khymani James, a leader of the protests at Columbia, stated proudly that “Zionists don’t deserve to live” and that everyone should “be grateful that I’m not just going out and murdering Zionists.”

The debate over the difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and whether there is a difference at all, has been at the forefront of our political conversation for the past two decades. It’s been thrown into much starker relief since October 7th, and especially since the ramping up of anti-Israel protests on campuses in recent weeks. When student leaders who celebrate terrorism and call for the death of Zionists are lionized by left-wing groups and politely dubbed by the mainstream media as “pro-Palestine” and “anti-war,” Jews expect this to be condemned as antisemitism. More often than not, this condemnation never comes.

The answer to why may lie at the heart of a conversation we’re not having – the lumping together of antisemitism and Islamophobia, which can be just as dangerous as the decoupling of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. So often, when antisemitism is condemned, Islamophobia is condemned in the same breath, furthering the assumption that they are counterpart prejudices. Wherever one finds antisemitism, there must also be reciprocal Islamophobia embedded in the discourse. Case in point, Politico reported that after the October 7th attacks, Vice President “Harris urged Biden to make sure he condemned Islamophobia at the same time as he spoke out against anti-Semitism.” It begs the question: Why can’t antisemitism be condemned without caveat, without a nod to another group that is entirely separate and often the perpetrators of Jew-hatred?

In a recent article for The Jerusalem Post, storied American from Israeli Descent philanthropist Adam Milstein[AM1]  explores why this is problematic. He likens it to the use of “All Lives Matter” amidst the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Those who used the phrase “were perceived as dismissive of the unique struggles of the black community.” By “universalizing a concept when a specific group of people is harmed,” the message is “tantamount to an empty platitude or even a bigoted retort.” Similarly, invoking Islamophobia as a “counterpart of antisemitism” effectively diminishes concerns about antisemitism. According to Milstein, “[w]hen lumped together, the message is muddled at best and offensive at worst.”

Furthermore, antisemitism and Islamophobia refer to two very different phenomena that have no connections to one another. The term antisemitism refers to hate and bigotry toward Jews, but Islamophobia doesn’t represent hate against Muslims but rather irrational fear of Muslims.

Milstein is one of the most prominent Jewish philanthropists in the U.S. today. In 2000, he and his wife Gila founded the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation[CR2]  to strengthen American values, support the U.S.-Israel alliance, and combat bigotry and hatred in all forms. The Foundation builds coalitions that provide Americans with facts and knowledge to advocate and take effective action against radical movements that spread hate, bigotry, and discrimination.​ . If anyone can speak to the current complexities of the fight against antisemitism and the many strategies that are employed to downplay it, it’s Milstein.

First, Milstein insists we unpack the origin of the term Islamophobia. Though it has existed since the 19thcentury, he attributes its present usage to Ayatollah Khomeini, the first leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who issued a fatwa against author Salman Rushdie in 1989 following his publication of The Satanic Verses. When Queen Elizabeth II knighted Rushdie in 2007 for his achievements in literature, the Ayatollah called Britain Islamophobic. Pascal Bruckner, a leading French “New Philosopher,” states that in the 1970s, Iranian fundamentalists invented the term “to declare Islam inviolate,” and that whoever criticizes Islam “is deemed a racist.” Bruckner categorizes this as “a new thought crime, one which is strongly reminiscent of the way the Soviet Union dealt with the ‘enemies of the people.’”

Indeed, Milstein reports that since the weaponization of the term, “the Islamophobic label has been used increasingly to deter and ultimately criminalize any scrutiny of the behavior of any groups or individuals who happen to be Muslim, even when those are committing atrocities like Hamas or advancing radical or harmful ideas, like Iran’s mullahs.” This is especially complicated given that Muslims “harbor antisemitic views more than any other religious community.” Milstein cites rallies across the Muslim world following October 7th in which calls to kill Jews and eliminate the Jewish state were rampant. According to polling, the majority of Muslims in countries like Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey have unfavorable views of Jews. But even stating these simple facts is deemed Islamophobic in some circles. That’s why Milstein argues that “lumping antisemitism and Islamophobia together creates a bizarre and ironic situation where the victims and perpetrators are treated the same and looked at from the same lens.”

Nothing plays into the Ayatollah’s hands quite like Islamophobia being used to quash criticism of violent Islamist regimes. Milstein lauds the remarks of French prime minister Manuel Valls following the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in 2015, who stated plainly that “Islamophobia is often used as a weapon by apologists for radical Islamists to silence critics.” Unfortunately we do not see public figures like Valls, in the U.S. or abroad, taking such a pragmatic stance. When college students call to “burn Tel Aviv to the ground” and openly support Hamas and Houthi rockets, where are the pragmatic, sensible voices, the university administrators and political leaders, who can shape the discourse for the better? Why are they not clearly condemning these vile antisemitic sentiments? It’s safe to assume that they stay silent out of fear of being labeled Islamophobic, as shameful as being labeled a racist.

Milstein makes clear that we cannot keep falling into this trap if antisemitism is to be properly called out. “Confronting CAIR,” the American wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, “is not Islamophobic,” says Milstein. “Confronting Rep. Rashida [CR3] [AM4] Tlaib, who referred to the October 7 attack as ‘resistance,’ lies about Israel regularly, and invokes ‘from the river to the sea,’ is not Islamophobic.” Confronting Rep. Ilhan Omar, who as recently as April 26, 2024, invoked the blood libel by calling Jewish students who support Israel “pro-genocide,” is not Islamophobic. “These individuals and organizations deserve to be publicly criticized and discredited not because they are Muslim, but because they are guilty of antisemitism and hate.”

Clear distinctions must be made between the very real antisemitic threats that are quickly becoming normalized and the cudgel of Islamophobia which is used to silence critics of Islamist regimes and the Americans who so vociferously support them. Milstein is adamant on this point: “We cannot let accusations of Islamophobia silence us when we confront and defend ourselves against the radical ideologies that exist in Muslim communities and are now growing in Europe and America. Such ideologies undermine our values and seek to target the Jewish people in Israel and worldwide[CR5] [AM6] .”

Those in positions of power and influence should take a page from Milstein’s book and listen when he says that it’s time they “recognize that antisemitism and Islamophobia don’t go hand in hand, and have nothing in common.” Because linking them only “leads to more divisiveness and misunderstanding of both communities.” If antisemitism and Islamophobia are to be combatted, they must be understood and assessed as separate prejudices.