Simran Jeet Singh::I’m excited to introduce our guest today. She’s a very dear friend of mine, Ilyse Morgenstein-Fuerst. She’s an associate professor of religion at the University of Vermont and associate director of its Humanities Center. Before joining the religion faculty there, she earned her B.A. in religion at Colgate University, her MTS at Harvard Divinity School, which is where we met, and she completed her Ph.D. in religious studies with an emphasis on Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her specialization within the broad scope of the study of religion is Islam with a particular regional focus in South Asia.
Her monograph, her first, was Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion. She’s also an editor of the new volume called “Words of Experience: Translating Islam with Carl Ernst.” And more than any of this, she’s probably best known for her podcast that she’s a co-host, it’s a hit, it’s called, Keeping it 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion. So if you haven’t heard it, you really must. It’s as entertaining as it is informative.
So, I just want to say that at Ilyse is an increasingly well-known figure in the world of religious studies and on academic Twitter. Her handle is @ProfIRNF. And she’s also one of the smartest and most passionate people I’ve known. So, we’ll talk today about anti-Semitism and Muslim hate and other forms of bigotry that we encounter.
Hi everyone. It’s nice to see you. Thank you for watching the Religion News Service series, “Anti-Racism as a Spiritual Practice.” I’m your host, Simran Jeet Singh. And this episode is part of the second season of our series, which we filmed late in 2020. The first season, which was entitled, “Becoming Less Racist,” can be viewed on religionnews.com. We thank Columbia University and Trinity University for their support in making the second season possible. I’m also grateful for you for being a part of this journey and this incredibly important conversation.
Ilyse, nice to see you. How’s everything on your end. Are you holding up?
Ilyse Morgenstein-Fuerst: I’m holding up okay. It’s always hard to listen to those introductions. I, you know, after all these years they make me so uncomfortable.
Singh: They’re so uncomfortable. And so, I made yours is extra-long and tried to list every single thing I could about you to make it even more uncomfortable.
Morgenstein-Fuerst: That’s what friends are for.
Singh: Yeah, exactly. So tell us — you know, you and I have known each other for more than a decade now, but I actually never actually sat down with you and asked you about your, your life growing up. So tell us about your childhood, your upbringing. What was that like?
Morgenstein-Fuerst: Oh, that’s a good question. I mean, I have a therapist, so we’ll do this in the short way.
I’m a Jewish woman from New Jersey. I spent most of my life in Bergen County, which is just over the George Washington Bridge and also the traditional, ancestral and unceded territories of the Lenape people. Yeah. And yeah, my family was pretty stereotypically New York Jews, like Yiddish in the house, lots of bagels on the weekend. Pilgrimages to Zabar’s. I had a favorite aunt who lived in Manhattan her whole life. And she referred to Brooklyn and the Bronx as the country and where we lived as the sticks. It was great. Like, just great. I always thought Seinfeld and Woody Allen movies were about my family, is kind of the people I come from. And I never understood why non-Jews liked it, truly. Like what are you doing?
But my life is also interesting as I talk about on the podcast. Not – it’s not as clear-cut as that because I am also an adopted person. And so, my family are white Ashkenazi first and second-generation Americans from mostly Poland and Russia and what would now be the Ukraine, and a little bit of Austrian and there, like you name it. Shtetl Jews – they’re them. But my bio parents were not that, my bio parents were young college students of unknown but not quite as pale European folk.
And so, my experience as a Jewish person was both in this like post-Holocaust echo chamber with World War II looming large in a very progressive synagogue with loads of commies and socialists and union labor organizers and as someone who is like a full foot and three inches shorter than my dad, the only person in my family with, with brown eyes And so like, if you look at pictures of me and if you look at the Keeping it 101 website, there’s one of the episodes has a picture of my, and my siblings as kids. And it’s like, which one of these doesn’t belong? And it’s pretty clear which one it is. ‘Cause like, who let this real tan kid into this like super pale family?
And so, I think I bring that up when people ask me those questions, of like, what was life like? Because I think it’s really important that I name and learned to name that all my feeling of difference was a lot about being racialized as like, not quite right. There was something not quite the way that I should have fit in with my family. There was a lot of like, you let the nanny’s kid play on the soccer team. How generous of you. Whoa, that’s so racist, right? Like, or a lot of like, you must speak Spanish. There’s a lot of that because the assumption of my bio parents is that they were Latinx. It’s based on two facts in a legal document.
And so, there was a real sense of like, huh, I’m being read as different. And so, I think that was really fun formative to me growing up as a Jewish person, but also as someone who, you know, completely, I want to be clear, identifies as a white woman and a white Jewish woman.
Singh: Yeah, that’s super interesting, I mean, to, to think about. You know, a lot of, a lot of conversations around racism and anti-racism these days comes to this question of belonging, right? Like we, we get to the diversity and then we get to the inclusion and then we get to the question of belonging. And, you know, I’ve, I’ve, I’ve shared with, with this group, my, my own experiences of not feeling like I belonged in, in various contexts growing up in Texas you know, with the turban and a beard, but I haven’t really thought about the experience of not belonging in your own family.
Can you talk to us a little bit about, like, do you have memories of, of wondering like, If you, if you really fit in, if people really cared about you and then, and then how do you, how do you develop a sense of belonging if you feel like you’re an outsider in your own home?
Morgenstein-Fuerst: Yeah, that’s a really good question. And a, and a hard one. And I want to be really clear that issues of like what we would call transracial adoption, so, adoption is between and among races, like racialized families is something that folks who are more oppressed than me, but there’s a lot of literature on this. Right? And there’s a lot of literature and it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time in my own personal activist life dealing with around like, why we’re comfortable placing brown and Black and Asian children with white families, and the reverse is really not the case, and what history of the removal of children from like capital and Native communities and Black communities and like traffic, frankly, like the trafficking we see around that.
And so, I want to, I want to like both own that I felt those feelings and can speak to them and can speak to the way I felt racialized, but that also, I’m really conscious to be really clear that my experience of that is like a fraction of what – there’s been quite a lot of research done on East Asian, particularly Chinese girl adoptees in white, often Jewish families in the Northeast. So, I don’t want to own that space. That’s not mine.
But I always knew I was adopted. My parents are really open and honest with me. And if that’s ever your path or your parent, I fully recommend that. That’s really good for people to know who they are and it not be like a secret sit-com situation where like someone calls and picks up the phone and you’re like, What? It’s my mom? No, that’s stupid. It’s bad writing. It’s lazy. It’s like, frankly, why I don’t like. Star Wars, because like, you just find out your dad is someone evil and you’re like, Oh, that might be me. Like, no, that’s not how nature and nurture works. Like, I don’t like it. I don’t like it. I have a lot of beef with orphan narratives and I have kids. So, all we watch are orphan narratives because every stupid kid’s movies about orphans, I can’t handle it. I can’t handle it.
So, I always knew, I joked that I was an orphan. I think that my parents sometimes were deeply horrified by my ability to be like, I have no family. They’re like, we’re right here. Like we picked you up on day three, man. Like we’re right here. But I think on the flip side, not fitting into your family is like a common adoptee concern, like, and some of it’s really practical, like when you go to a doctor’s office and they ask you what your family history is, and you can’t answer. And like, it’s 2020. So, everything is about genetics and family background and what you’re predisposed to. And like, I can’t answer those questions. I don’t have that information. And until this year in the state of New York, I wasn’t even allowed to request that information because like legally speaking the bio parents were protected in ways that, that, that didn’t assume that 38 years later there would be like developments that needed genetic information.
And some of it’s more the casual stuff. It’s like what I think scholars would talk about as microaggressions. It’s the ways that like people asked where I really was from when my mom would be like, these are my three kids. It’s like, well, who’s that one? That one kind of, that one’s a little weird looking. Or it’s the way that we came up with this whole narrative of like, well, on my dad’s side, some of his sisters, they tan really well and everyone has curly hair. Like it was this whole like elaborate weaving so that when people ask the question of like, why, like I’m joking about Sesame Street, like, which one of these doesn’t look like the other, we had to come up with narratives for that.
And so, I think I was both acutely aware of my story and that that was really empowering and important for me as like a young person just growing up and knowing the truth about themselves. But I also think it meant that I became a really good storyteller because people would ask the most inappropriate questions and feel really entitled to like my mom’s gynecological history. Right? Cause like, well, why couldn’t you have your own children? It’s like, well, we’re just on the corner, ma’am like, we’re just getting a glass of milk. Like I don’t, why are you asking that? That’s so insensitive and upsetting and sexist and, and really like really sexist, right? Like why is my mom’s reproductive capability anybody’s business? And it’s only someone’s business if they think women can only be breeders.
So, I think figuring that question out – I joked in a grad seminar we took, we had to do an intellectual genealogy and I, the conceit of that paper, which I’ve thought about a lot, was that at any moment I could be someone else. So, my birth certificate gets me in a lot of trouble. Simran, and you’ll appreciate this as someone who is profiled all the time. I have been turned down for driver’s licenses in three states because my birth certificate, my original birth certificate has two birth dates on it, because the first birth date in this – so it’s a legal size piece of paper and the state of New York. And it has in that legal-sized piece of paper an eight and a half by 11, that has my, you were born in 1982. You did this, you did that. Here’s your parents’ names. And then the bigger piece of paper has this other date on it. That was, it just says, made official, and it’s like the end of 1984. That looks like you made that up in your garage because it’s like, why does your birth certificate have two dates on it? And so, trying to explain to the DMV that like, no, that’s cause like before 1984, I was probationarily the person on my birth certificate. Like, like Ilyse Morgenstein could have been somebody else altogether.
And so, I think that question has been something that I think about a lot in my work and in my own life, like, what does it mean that had the state decided that Flo and Lord Morgenstein weren’t capable or competent or had like the next couple online, gotten me instead that, that even, even my birth certificate would be different. Right? And those double dates for me always feels like, to be a nerd about it, that liminal space, it’s like this evidence of that liminality.
Singh: Yeah. It’s so interesting. And you know, there, there are a million things that I want to say. I mean, the first, just because you said it last, it has to do with like our, our assumptions around legal documents as those being official standard-bearers and how they’re imperfect. And, and part of my experience, and it sounds like similar to yours, is that those have been weaponized against people to really create problems. Right?
And so just the, just the very simple example that comes to my mind is, is the, you know, my, my running hero Fauja Singh:, he completed a marathon at the age of a hundred. And the Guinness Book of World Records and all the record books won’t recognize it because he doesn’t have an official birth certificate. I mean, he was born in 1911 in India. Birth certificates weren’t standardized in India until the 1940s. And even then – my parents don’t have birth certificates. My wife who was born in 1984, doesn’t have a name on her birth – Like it’s not a normal thing.
So anyway, it’s, it’s just thinking about some of the things we take for granted and how these expectations can really be colonizing and harmful. So, I appreciate that.
I want to ask you about your Jewishness as an adopted person, right? So, part of Jewish tradition is that it’s blood. And a lot of Western expectations of religion has to do with heritage, blood heritage, and, and so that’s not you. And yet you grew up identifying as Jewish and you still do. And so, what does that look like for you in terms of, I guess, I guess squaring your identity as an adopted person, but also as a Jewish person?
Morgenstein-Fuerst: That’s an awesome, awesome question. And it’s really hard. ‘Cause Jewish law and legal history is pretty clear on adoption. Like there’s gotta be special circumstances. “Real” Jews are matrilineal. So, like born of a Jew.
It was one of the major things that my parents wanted to know about the couple and particularly the woman who gave birth to me. Like it was, it was primary. There were some experiences. And like, you know, when this gets recorded and my mom inevitably watches like should be bad, but I don’t care. It’s my story.
You know, like my paternal grandmother was like really suspicious that I was adopted. Like really suspicious in like, I don’t know if you’re really family kind of way. The rabbis were really suspicious and like I don’t know. It doesn’t, what if – like we should do a mikvah, so this like cleansing bath that kind of like welcomes you back into the community. And that has like real gendered kinds of affiliations to it too.
So, I grew up really suspicious of Jewish claims to blood. I grew up in this post-Holocaust family with Holocaust survivors, like around and certainly a strong narrative. Right? Like my grandfather was in the army and did all this liberation work. And, and I was like, it’s really weird that we think, like, for example, being adopted makes me, before I came fully into like a pro-Palestinian politic, I was really upset at birthright programs run through the state of Israel and the Hillels on campuses. Right? So, this program that isn’t always run through Hillel, it’s its own program. Birthlight Taglit sponsors American Jews who have never been to Israel to go to Israel and fulfill their birthright.
And I remember picking a fight with like the gal on campus who was just like trying to get us to sign up on a clipboard, like outside the dining hall and being like aggressive of like, well, whose birthright is it? Like you’re going to check my mikvah status? I’m adopted, some Catholic could have adopted me. Would it be my birthright then? Like I was irate and scary.
But the concept of that, that like baked in bloodline concept felt so eugenic-y and upsetting and exclusionary. And frankly, it felt like Nazi propaganda to me, like I remember feeling that as violent growing up. So how do I square that? I don’t know.
I squared the way a lot of religious people do, which is like, I don’t read this in my own tradition. I see why this is the case. I understand bloodlines quite honestly – and I’m going to give you like a little bit of a trigger warning around sexual violence now – but I understand bloodline arguments as part of the rape clause, right? Like if you are constantly a subjugated like group of people and you are subject to sexual violence than having your own children be part of your own community makes sense to have matrilineal bloodlines be part of the way you imagine community. I get it. I also really hate it. And so, I think I kind of sit in the space of like, that’s not for me.
And I challenge my community on that constantly. And I sit in my synagogue and ask about why we prioritize that kind of kinship network when we, I think not better than others, but I think Jews have a really good sense of like, what happens when your population is made refugees and you have to remake family somewhere else. And so, if we have to remake family or remake community somewhere else, then like, why are we so fixated on this like community by blood piece of it?
Singh: I appreciate that. I, I hadn’t really expected to go here. But, but I, but I really like you know, your, your authenticity here in, and your, and your transparency. I guess my question is, is prioritizing, like what, what does that look like for you in terms of – okay, so you’ve talked about how you want to deprioritize the bloodline. What within Jewish practice do you then prioritize as someone who is, you know, very conscious about being involved in justice work?
Morgenstein-Fuerst: I think I prioritize the justice piece. I mean, it sounds really silly, but I think I prioritize the pieces of Jewish practice that feel like they’re focused on liberation. So, I really care about Passover, right? Like I really care about this holiday, my family. I really, I really care about it. I have like a whole like, feminist anti-racist like Haggadah program that we run in my family that we’ve been building on for like, 15 years that my poor husband keeps having to keep track of all the papers, because I can’t keep track of it. Like he’s in charge of that stuff in our house.
And I think that holiday’s always been really important to me. Right? ‘Cause like Moses gets floated down the river. That boy is an orphan because, Lord, we love an orphan story. Right? And we’ve got all this stuff kind of baked-in around freedom and we’re not supposed to enjoy our freedom until everybody is free.
And so, my sense of that is that where I want to push my community is that everyone needs to be everyone like that. Can’t just be Jews that doesn’t make any sense. And I don’t think that that’s what my spiritual practices that come out of Judaism, I don’t think that that lines up. Now we could probably have an argument about orthodoxy and all that kind of stuff, but like, I come from a long line of Jews who did thinking around organizing around labor movements. And that was never just about like, well, we want Saturday off, but you Christian should work on Saturday. Like that was not the movement.
And so, I think, I think there’s a really strong social justice component of Judaism that feels louder to me and feels more true to what I find to be the beautiful parts of my community and my tradition. And so those are the pieces that I want to be the loudest, which doesn’t mean you cut it out. Like I’m not an exerciser. Like, I don’t think you cut the pieces out you don’t like, I think you have to kind of sit with them and how uncomfortable they make you.
So, like every year we have this blood conversation in our synagogue with whatever rolls around in the Torah and every year I’m the obnoxious person, who’s like, what do we do about adopted kids? Like, we have a lot of those in our community. Like, forget everybody else. Like, let’s just make this personal, right? Like, how do you imagine me in this community? ‘Cause you’re really happy to have me when I’m like running the, We Love Muslims program or when I’m like singing songs real too loud at the top Shabbat programming. But like, what do you do with me, actually?
And so, I think starting small and then letting the loud parts be loud and making quiet or deprioritizing the stuff that just doesn’t sit with the rest of it, I feel like is, I don’t know, that’s my own religious way of getting about it. Probably bad history, but it’s okay, practice-wise.
Singh: Do you want, I wanna ask you more about that, but before I do – a practical question. You just mentioned this idea of, you know, and people are having broader conversations, you bring it down to the very specific, right? You, you were talking about this conversation about bloodlines and adopted children, and then you said, well, what about our community? What about me? How do you think about me? Is that, do you find that to be a helpful practice in conversations around race and oppression and justice? Or do you, do you think that then makes people too focused on a particular thing and then they get lost in that?
Morgenstein-Fuerst: I mean, both. Yes. I think that it helps people – I have a lot of thoughts about this. I think it works because I think it is a strategy that is grounded in I statements instead of You statements. I think people respond to those better, just in like a psychological way. If I want my community to look a certain way, I can’t say like, you did this. I think I can say, I felt like this when; when you did this, I felt like this. So that we’re, we’re talking about harm as opposed to intention. We’re talking about consequence as opposed to what you meant or did I not understand. So, I do find that using the personal – I think the personal is political and the political is always personal. And so, letting that be visible is part of it.
I think that where that becomes a burden is that it can be myopic. I think it can be, well, we’ll make an exception for Ilyse, but, not for everybody else. Like this was a case-by-case exception. And I think you have to be willing to be vulnerable. Like I think it puts a lot of pressure on me to say, Hey, when you say this, this is really upsetting, and I’m clearly not the only adopted person in the room because we’ve had this conversation before, and some of our adopted children in the community are trans-racial adoption. And so, they’re experiencing this probably within a context of microaggression and racism. And so, we should be more cautious about how we’re thinking about this. But I think it does put the onus on the person who has been slighted or harmed to then name that harm and further perform that harm in order for people to see them.
So, I do see the problem in all of it. But I kind of stand by the idea, or I stand by my experience, that speaking in I statements and speaking from the personal and making oneself I guess vulnerable, but also visible, can do a lot of work in, in really small conversations and in local conversations.
Singh: Yeah. I mean, I’ll affirm that in the sense that, you know, if, if, if you feel comfortable, I found it very effective to, to share a personal experience. And part of the reason why, and you’re right, Ilyse, that this, it’s vulnerable and you open yourself up to all sorts of criticisms and you also end up doing more emotional work in this, in this approach. But if you do feel comfortable, what it cuts out is the argumentation around, well this fact often this, this is my, this is my knowledge that I’m bringing to the table. Because it goes from, you know, arguments based on fact to something that’s of personal experience and that really opens people up in a different way. So, I just, for those thinking about practices and engagements in anti-racism it’s, this, this has been one that’s effective for me. So, I just wanted to call that out.
Okay. So, so you’re, we’re talking a little bit now around your prioritization within the Jewish tradition of, of justice work and then sort of how that’s formed you or, and, or at least what speaks to you. I’d love to hear from you how this has manifested itself in your professional work. Right? So, a lot of us are thinking about these ideas and at the same time, we’re trying to think about and imagine our futures, right? Like what does the world look like for me? What is my, what can I do with my life? And not, not that it’s – in a way that’s not just a, you know, a hobby or something I do on the weekends, but how do I orient my career around justice work? And then you’ve done that. And so, I’d love for you to speak to how you’ve done it. And any advice you might have for people.
Morgenstein-Fuerst: No small question. I think that I find – so a lot of my work is about as, as Professor Singh: has said, about South Asia, Islam, Islamophobia and that nexus of like imperialism and power and how essentially racial categories and religious categories got invented at the same time and then were pushed down the throats of everybody who wasn’t a white Christian Protestant, usually a cis man, all the fun stuff.
And so, you know, I’m going to say, it makes me so uncomfortable to think about thinking and writing as, as justice work. Not because I don’t agree, but because I think it feels like it, it takes up a bigger slice of credit and then it’s, I don’t know, then it deserves. But I think in my work. I really try to name the problems of systemic racisms and systemic bias. I have made a little career of studying the history of those things.
So, my first book is about essentially, how do we know Muslims are erased in India? And then how is that deployed against them globally in the British empire? And I ended the book with like, Hey, we’re watching Donald Trump get elected. It came out in 2017. Don’t blame me. Here’s how I see this lining up. Like here’s how this actually sounds like this, this rhetoric that was invented way back when. Like sentence by sentence. This sounds really similar. So how do we feel – like the Mark Twain line of like, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes, right? Like, this rhymes, where do we get that from? And how can we do better?
I think I’ve also, as Simran has said, made it my gig to do some public-facing work. So, my academic book is something that none of you will read. It’s like an academic book that was meant to get me tenure and that’s fine, but like I run this podcast and the whole, the whole idea of the podcast is, we’re two academic women who study race, gender, and religion, and we want everyone to know about it. And we want everyone to know that it’s dangerous not to know about it.
And so that place of, I’m, I’m a few things as an activist and I think as a scholar. I’m, I’m a drop in a bucket activist, which I have said for years is like, everybody has something to add to the bucket, even if it’s just a couple of drops and collectively, if we’re all adding a little bit of drops, then the tide rises. Right? So, I’m like, rising tide raises all boats, but you don’t need to be the entire ocean. You just need to add your drops. So, that’s part of my thing.
Everything I’m doing should contribute in some way to these values that I hold. And sadly, Simran, as you well know, those values are really, like the bar is low. You know, when we teach about Islam, students sometimes come in and it’s like, I don’t know anything about Muslims, but I know they’re scary. It’s like it’s a really low bar. It is. It’s a really low bar. I have complained for years that I have my art unit and my Islam class has gotten smaller and smaller as the list of hate crimes against Muslims have gotten longer and longer because it’s more important that my class confront Islamophobia head-on than then I teach you about Arabesques. And at the same time, I think where I struggle, because taking away the beauty of Islamic tradition and Muslim creativity is also a really dehumanizing kind of thing.
But all of that’s a rambling answer to say, I really think about everything I do as being able to be a drop in the bucket and how big that drop is, is how big my audience might be. And I do see my role and this is like, I don’t want to give any right-wing nuts fodder, but I do see my role – every single classroom you’ve ever been in is a political space. Whether you know that or not. Professors claiming it’s a neutral space, that’s a politic, because who’s allowed to be neutral? Yeah. It’s not. Simran with a beard and a turban is not, is not seen as a neutral actor. And so neither are white professors with like elbow patches. So that claim of neutrality is already political. And I see my classrooms as a political space and I make no bones about it. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to convert everybody, but it does mean that I am trying to portray the subjects that I teach that have been so historically just maligned, I’m trying to work against that. And you know what? I get like 120 students a semester. So, let me at ‘um.
That was too rambly. Jump back in, help me out.
Singh: I like it. I like – there’s a lot of wisdom in what you’re saying. And I want to ask you about figuring out how to be a drop in the bucket.
But before I ask you about that question, why, why Islam? Right? So, here’s, here’s a woman who’s Jewish. Anti-Semitism is a real thing. It’s been a real thing. It’s an increasing problem, especially in this country. You could do that but instead you’ve chosen another community. And so, where does that come from? How does that fit in with your worldview?
Morgenstein-Fuerst: I mean, it’s going to sound dumb, but it’s kind of like 9/11 plus a good professor. So I was a first-year, first-time college student when 9/11 happened on a Tuesday morning. And in that classroom, my professor was Omid Safi, who is an incredibly big name. And I think was part of this series? Question mark? Part of some of the, like – he’s a big guy and he does a lot of things. I can’t keep track of that man. He’s a dear friend all these years later. And we literally watch the second tower come down. Like we walked across campus having left class and like got a cup of tea and watched the second tower come down together.
And I’m a bridge and tunnel gal from New Jersey. Most of my family was living in or around New York City at the time. And so that was really cataclysmic for me. And it felt like anti-Semitism. It did, the way the news was talking about Muslims, the way that I watched Omid have to navigate campus and have to account for every Muslim ever as one of the only Muslim people on campus, the way that immediately after 9/11, brown kids on my hall were like, worried about traveling and were getting their papers in order.
So, all of that felt like, okay, I have been training for this my whole life. You don’t grow up as a Jewish person learning about the Holocaust for nothing. It was, it was that feeling exactly. It was really like, it was our turn then, and this might be their turn now and like [Expletive], no, over my dead. Oh my God. Sorry. Over my dead body. I swear like a sailor. I’m so sorry. I kept it together. But I feel like the Holocaust brings it out.
So, I mean, really it was that it was that feeling of like, Nuh uh, never again means never again. And I think I think that at the time people I was close with thought I was like a panicker and a conspiracy theorist, but I think that that that inner voice that said, this rhymes, this history feels like it rhymes. And I was brought up to think never again, and that we stand up for our neighbors, and we would never allow this to happen. We would never be a bystander. That was just part of my, again, my spiritual and religious tradition. And, and so then I was like, okay, well, if it’s about Muslims right now, then, then I can just, I can just major in this.
And frankly, originally I thought I was going to be a civil rights attorney. At the beginning, I thought that I thought that I would get a major in religion and I would apply to law school and that’s what I was going to do. And I applied, I mean, I applied to law school at the same time I was applying to div school. It just so happens that I went the one way as opposed to the other, but I thought that that was going to be part of it.
And I think, you know, my next project is on shared histories of Islamophobic and anti-Semitism. Like that is the next project I’m working on. Not because I’m a Jewish person, but because again, it rhymes and we’ve done a lot of work to nationalize Islam and Judaism so that we can’t see that shared history at all.
And so I think, I dunno. I feel like I’m uniquely positioned with both my identities and my training to say, what would happen if we knew a little bit more about that? How could we see solidarity between these communities that might have really radically different political views or might have some litmus tests that the other one doesn’t pass like, but what if we could also see that there is a shared history of experiencing racialization between these two groups that could be productive, as we all need to like fight white Christian supremacy and genocidal actors.
Singh: Can you give us a taste of that next project? What is, what is the – you use the word rhyme and I haven’t heard that before, but I really, I really love it because what it means to me is that it’s not exactly the same thing, but there’s something, there’s some connection there. And so, what’s the connection between anti-Muslim racism and anti-Semitism? How do they, how do they fit with one another? And how might they be a little different?
Morgenstein-Fuerst: Well, so, you know, I love me some British archives, and I think one of the funny things about the British archives is that the Brits show up in India in particular, and they’re like, we know what to do with these Muslims. They’re like the Jews of Europe. We know how to dominate them. That’s what they’re like. They’re really legalistic. They’re kind of tribalistic. They’re really, you can’t break them, because it’s a birth thing. So, like, even if you try to convert them, they’ll still be secretly Muslim, just like those Jews are secretly Jews. And you see these reports – like report after report, after report that’s about this stuff.
And so, I’ve been fascinated by that for years. And so, one of the things I’m really thinking about is, when did anti-Semitism stop referring to the Semites, which used to mean Arabs and Jews, and only start referring to Jews? And we know that history, that’s a history that people have done. It’s literally a Holocaust history. But why we are so invested in that history is about where Islamophobia and anti-Semitism doesn’t line up. And that’s where white supremacy and anti-Blackness is part of the story. Because white Jews were persecuted during the Holocaust. And so anti-Semitism becomes the horror of horrors. And I’m not saying it’s not. But it becomes special and it cannot include all of these non-white predominantly Arab – like when we think of Semite. And again, this is all in quotes. These are like 19th-century racialization terminologies that are gross. And if you’ve ever took a class with me, we would spend lots of times on why they’re gross.
But I think where, where that history feels important to me is that again, it’s this liminal thing, right? For a while there, it could have been both ways. For a while there, anti-Semitism could have been just about Jews and Muslims together as problematic branches on the Abrahamic tree. And then it wasn’t. Then it really was about racism and specifically the like languages of white supremacy and anti-Black racism. And so that’s where for me as a Jewish person, thinking about Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred and anti-Blackness, is a place to own that Jews can both experience anti-Semitism and be participants in white supremacy and anti-Blackness.
So, those are the kind of like Venn diagrams of what I’m working on in this in this next book. It’s sketchy though. I’m, I’m sorry if that was all over the place.
Singh: Oh, that’s, it’s really interesting and really important. So, I appreciate that.
Okay, so, so one last question, before we invite other folks to, to ask their questions, and that’s the question about being a drop in the bucket. What advice do you have for us? How do we think about becoming drops in the bucket for ourselves and help and help raise that tide?
Morgenstein-Fuerst: Okay. So, the thing I always do is, I ask folks to think about a thing that they really care about, and that can be anything, right? So that could be religious literacy. That could be voter suppression. That could be, I don’t know, like, feeding people. So like really think about that. And then, then frankly, look around your community. I think you start at home. I think all politics are, are, I think are personal.
And so, yeah, it’s easy if you have the funding to like send a, send a donation to places that need it. And I think that’s important. But I think in terms of being the drop in the bucket, you have to actually do the work. And so, what issue is really important to you? What organizations can you join? What already exists? What do you need to do?
I’m sorry, I’m just seeing the chat. I was trying to ignore it, so I didn’t get distracted y’all – but I see some of you just said like, should it start at home? Yeah, you can start at home certainly. I don’t know that that’s always the most effective necessarily, but it can be depends on who your family are and if that’s safe.
But I think for me, it’s like, okay, I care about religious literacy, right? So, I can preach a big game in my classrooms, but like, what about my kid’s elementary school? So, it’s little things like looking at the school calendar and deciding that it’s unacceptable that the, that there are no non-Christian holidays on the school’s calendar. It’s a small ask, right? It’s like a link to an interfaith calendar and a, hey, this should be on the district calendar. Or, please take off Christmas. And like really pushing that, because what does that tell our religious minority students and their parents? And what does that mean in a district where a lot of our parents are new Americans – a lot of our non-Christian nonwhite families are new Americans who are overwhelmingly Muslim? What does that mean? And what does it mean for me to advocate for that? Yes, on behalf of my own family, but also so that someone who’s brand new to this country doesn’t have to explain what Ramadan is to like a white Board of Ed.
And so that’s what I mean by like being that drop in the bucket. Maybe it doesn’t seem like a big action, right? It’s not a protest. There’s no signs. Nothing’s going to change. We’re not gonna get off for Rosh Hashanah, or Ramadan, or like Guru Nanak’s birthday, right? Like none of that’s going to change anything. But what happens when Muslim parents look at the calendar and see themselves represented? Or what happens when the principal looks to schedule Back to School Night and actually sees that like, maybe we shouldn’t do it on Rosh Hashanah this year. That was literally a difference between kindergarten and first grade for my family. Is that, is that a doable kind of ask?
Singh: Yeah, very, very helpful. And I think the idea of you know, we, you say it all the time, think globally, act locally, but I think in terms of activism, it’s, it’s a really practical way of getting of getting involved. And, and in, in my experience, and I think in yours too, Ilyse, I can speak for you because I, because I know your work that’s, that’s sort of the pathway, right? You start, you learn, you practice and then your footprint gets bigger as you evolve. So yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense.
So, I want to thank you for your time. Really appreciate having you on.