Anti-Israel boycott movement (file)
Anti-Israel boycott movement (file)Reuters

A trip to Israel organized for Muslim-American leaders by a North Carolina imam has led to strident protests and even boycotts by dozens of pro-Palestinian groups. 

The Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) was launched in the summer of 2013 under the initiative of Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University and Yossi Klein Halevi of the Hartman Institute of Jerusalem. The program invites North American Muslims to "explore how Jews understand Judaism, Israel, and Jewish peoplehood." The participants are also encouraged to "experience how Palestinian [Arabs], both inside and outside Israel, identify themselves."

The Palestinian Authority (PA)'s Ma'an news agency quoted three Arab academics and activists living in PA-areas who objected to the trip. Some of them see it as a violation of the BDS campaign to boycott 

Israel internationally, while others say the participants allowed themselves to take part in an "Israeli propaganda tour."

But many Muslims in the U.S. did not suffice with mere criticism. Ma'an reported that over 43 pro-Palestinian or Muslim-American community organizations, and 200 independent activists, have already signed a letter promising not to invite participants to speak, and calling for a "complete boycott" of the group. Physical threats against them have not been heard.

"Coming here doesn't mean I agree with Zionism," Antepli told Ma'an in his own defense. "This is about learning. My religion says even if knowledge is all the way in China, go and learn it." He explained that the trip, which he said was his idea, was focused on Muslim-Jewish interfaith relationships in the U.S., and that not understanding religious Zionism hinders Muslim leaders' attempts to reach out to Jewish counterparts.

Critics in the PA called the trip a "brainwashing" tour, and that it could lead to unwanted "normalization" with the "Israeli occupation." 

More specifically, "prominent activist" Mazin Qumsiyeh said that the trip violates the "Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel" campaign. He emphasized that this includes an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. 

Imam Antepli, again on the defensive with the Ma'an reporter, conceded that the MLI trip might violate "certain aspects of BDS." The report then noted that "throughout the interview, Antepli seemed to misunderstand BDS as an organized movement combating Israel," when, in fact, it is merely "a series of ethical principles focusing on not engaging or normalizing with the Israeli state and Israeli-funded institutions." The precise difference between them was not made clear. 

"Short of a change of heart on the part of organizers and participants, an end to funding, or massive public pressure, however," concludes Ma'an sadly, "it appears that the Muslim Leadership Initiative is here to stay, and will be returning to Palestine next year."