A Jewish politician reflects on being mistaken for a Muslim
"Youssefi, that’s a nice Muslim name,” he said, with a skeptical look at my campaign flyer. It was mid-spring. I was canvassing as a candidate in the recent Toronto municipal election. This resident (let’s call him Alan) and I had had a long chat already, but it was clear that something was bothering him – and that something was not my position on municipal issues. It was my name.
I didn’t correct Alan’s misperception right away. He had already told me that he was Jewish, but I didn’t immediately tell him that I, too, am Jewish.
I struggled with what the right response would be in these circumstances. I didn’t want religion or ethnicity to matter. I wished for voters like Alan to judge and support me based on my professional and community service and on my approach to municipal issues. I didn’t want people to hold a candidate’s religion against them, simply because that person is Muslim. I also knew that some voters would not give me a fair chance if they thought I was Muslim.
Canvassing was a fantastic, enjoyable and positive experience overall. Many residents were not only interested and engaged, they were also welcoming, even grateful that I was running. I felt heartened and grateful for their support and for our ultimate performance. However, because of my name – I am Iranian-Jewish-Canadian and it has its roots in Zoroastrianism – I also ran into or heard about voters, particularly Jewish ones, who assumed that I was Muslim and who, based on that assumption, either dismissed me outright or approached me with great caution, holding back, even if we completely agreed on the issues and on how to improve municipal politics and the city.
Some residents asked me directly or indirectly about my background. And over and over, their attitude and expression changed once they found out that I am Jewish and not Muslim. They became at ease and warm. For some, this reaction may have reflected their joy in making another connection with me, for others, it was clearly relief that I was not Muslim.
As for Alan, I did eventually let him know that I am Jewish, at which point his countenance changed. Soon after, he apologized. “Please pardon my cold reception of you earlier,” he said.
Not all Jewish residents who thought I was Muslim regarded me in a reserved or suspicious manner. And I want to be clear that some Muslim voters are also prejudiced against Jewish candidates, just as some non-Jewish voters are prejudiced against Muslims.
However, given the demographics of Toronto’s Ward 16 (Eglinton-Lawrence), where I ran for city council, I more often experienced the doubt and suspicion of Jewish voters in relation to Muslims.
There was even a Jewish man who wanted to see another candidate win, and who, when talking about me to others, apparently referred to me disparagingly as “the Muslim lefty” – a description which he clearly felt would act as a double whammy against me.
I believe that these occurrences illuminate an underlying problem that we Jews need to address. That is, Jewish resistance to Muslim candidates – a resistance that could result in our dismissing highly qualified persons that could serve us well.
I understand why many Jews would be suspicious of a Muslim representative in government. I grew up in Iran until the age of 11. I am aware of the deep roots of anti-Semitism in many Islamic societies. I have observed how often anti-Israel and anti-Semitic feelings are conflated. And I am well-aware that Israel is subjected to a double-standard when it comes to the scrutiny and criticism of its actions. I know that many Jews fear that a Muslim person in government may be unfriendly to Jews or go even further and work against Jewish concerns and causes.
But do we Jews have our own prejudices to confront? Are our votes informed and guided by prejudice? Do our fears of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel candidates push us to act in a manner that is, at best, uninformed, and at worst racist? Does our own intolerance prevent us from judging and choosing candidates based on their qualifications, skills, values, vision and integrity? If we dismiss these candidates outright, and never bother to find out about their positions on domestic political issues, let alone their attitude toward Jews and Israel, are we not ultimately harming democracy and hurting ourselves?
The Muslim population in our country is growing. Our civic and political interactions will bring us into greater contact with Muslims of all backgrounds. Increasingly, there will be Muslim candidates running for office at all levels of government in Canada. And many will represent Jews in government.
We can treat this reality as a threat against which we have to brace ourselves, or we can seek the opportunity to reach out, find those candidates who will serve our city and country well, who will represent us fairly, and who are also open to improving understanding and dialogue between Jews and Muslims.
If we act on our fears and dismiss these candidates outright, then we will exacerbate the distance and distrust that already exists between us. If we don’t attempt to create meaningful connections, to build dialogue, and to collaborate on common objectives, then we will further polarize our communities.
Reaching out, building bridges, and overcoming our own prejudices: they are required of us by our humanity, by our ethical values and morals, by our history, and, arguably, by our religion and traditions. What’s more, they are also required for our own self-preservation.
If we fail to build these bridges, we will all lose.
Dyanoosh Youssefi is a former criminal defence lawyer and legal studies professor. She can be found on Twitter at @DyanooshY.