When a scarf means an invitation to hate

When a scarf means an invitation to hate

Why a Jew should care when Muslim women are targets for attacks

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Image courtesy Shutterstock
Image courtesy Shutterstock

am thinking of donning a hijab. This morning I listened to an NPR report in which Muslim women, recognizable by the hijabs that veil their heads and necks, describe being cursed at by other drivers while riding in the car with their children, and even being attacked. They now worry for their safety. They are considering their options — remaining defiant, removing the garment, or disguising their head coverings with a baseball cap or more “normative” clothing in America. 

That scares me. It means the hate rhetoric is gathering steam.

Although the FBI tracks hate crimes, there are no hard statistics for what many Muslims are reporting as an increase in incidents since the Nov. 13 attacks by Islamist jihadists in Paris and the Dec. 2 shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., carried out by a couple espousing Islamist ideology. (The FBI does report that incidents targeting Muslims increased in each of the last several years.)

But attacks like those discussed on NPR may not even show up in such tallies, according to Sheryl Olitzky of North Brunswick, because Muslim women are not reporting these incidents “for fear of creating more problems.” 

Olitzky is cofounder and executive director of Sisters of Salaam Shalom, an interfaith group that brings together Muslim and Jewish women for dialogue. At its Dec. 3 annual conference in Princeton, the group gave its Person of the Year award to a ShopRite employee who protected a woman in a hijab who had been harassed while shopping at the supermarket. 

Olitzky, a member of Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, said she has occasionally donned a hijab in solidarity with her Muslim “sisters.” She described the experience as “awful.” 

“You’re shunned,” she said. “There’s whispering, no eye contact, no smiles, nothing from strangers. It’s as if you are an alien. It’s terrible.”

Kat Vizcaino doesn’t have to assume an identity to have that experience. Vizcaino, a New Yorker who works in finance, is a Muslim who does interfaith volunteer work with Salaam Shalom and other organizations. She wears a veil only on a holiday or if she is heading to a mosque, never at work. Attitudes, she said, vary with the moment. 

After terrorist incidents like the violence in Paris, “there’s a spike in attacks,” she said. Sometimes when she is in a hijab, she’ll hear “F*** you, f*** Islam,” or “Go back where you came from.”

“That’s funny,” she said, “because I’m from here.”

Other people keep their distance. “The best way to get a seat on the train is to wear a hijab,” she said. “People step away from you.” 

For Vizcaino, the difference between wearing and not wearing a hijab is stark. “Without a veil, no one cares at all.” Few of the women in her circle will report any incidents. “We don’t want to make things worse,” she said.

As for me, I can already hear the critics, discussing whether it is appropriate to don the garment of a different religion, even in a gesture of solidarity. I can hear the Jewish critics, describing the act as somehow blasphemous or even self-denying. I can hear the feminist critique, and women objecting to someone taking on this garment that symbolizes for many the oppression of women. 

And yet, isn’t it more important for Jews, in light of their history, to stick up for their neighbors? And aren’t women the people most at risk of being recognized as Muslims, and must vulnerable to discrimination? Isn’t feminism about defending women — and women’s choices?

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Puerto Ricans were on the receiving end of much of the discrimination in New York, along with African-Americans. Before that, it was the Italians, the Irish, the Jews, the Mexicans. Today, it is Muslims and Syrian refugees. Each new group poses a new threat.

I have met one Syrian refugee, a professor at a law school. I met him at a Shabbat dinner at a friend’s home. He expressed how excited and “privileged” he felt to be attending a Shabbat dinner — his first ever. He enjoyed tasting all the foods. And he talked about missing his young children and his wife, who are in Canada, where her brother lives. He didn’t complain about being separated from them, because he pointed out how much worse it could have been for them if they hadn’t secured places in North America after fleeing Syria. 

Yes, terrorism is scary. No, I do not want to be a victim. But neither do I want to be a bully. I don’t think it makes us any safer to treat our neighbors as possible suspects until proven innocent. And I expect that nothing helps fanatics gain followers more than societies in which Muslims are shunned and made to feel like perennial outsiders. Whenever I hear rabbis or other Jewish leaders talk about the Muslim “problem” — their theology, their ideology, their anger at Israel — I wonder if those same leaders have relationships with any of their Muslim neighbors or counterparts, or if they’ve spent any time in a mosque, learning firsthand about the religion. 

Vizcaino said many mosques offer free classes. One organization she is involved with in Manhattan, Nusantara, offers a weekly “Islamic Forum” where non-Muslims can ask experts about the tenets of the religion. 

The best thing to do, she said, is to “get more education.” 

To show support, she suggested people should address Muslims with “Salaam Aleikum”; the reply will undoubtedly be “Aleikum Salaam.” The expression is an offering of peace. “It’s like a mitzva to wish it back,” said Vizcaino. 

Or one can follow Olitzky’s example. When she sees a woman in a hijab, she tells the woman, “I’m disgusted with the hate rhetoric, and I support you.” Of this approach, Vizcaino said, “It’s like water in a desert to get kindness like that. Other people just look at you and you feel their anger and you can almost hear their curses under their breath.”

We Jews like to tell the story of the kind of radical empathy I’m describing. The story is told that when the occupying Nazis ordered the Jews of Denmark to wear the yellow star, King Christian X ordered his people to wear the star of David in solidarity. 

The story is apocryphal, but we tell it because we want it to be true — and because it does reflect the truth about many Danes’ commitment to saving the country’s Jews. 

We embrace that story because we want to know that there are people and countries who will stand up for people who are different from them, especially when it becomes dangerous or uncomfortable to do so. 

What is the point of repeating such legends if not to learn from them?

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