Dec 21, 2023 - Podcasts

Daniel Lubetzky and Lonnie Ali: Fighting hate with humanity

"As a passionate Muslim and a passionate Jew, we have come together to humbly share a path forward for how to transcend the construct of 'us vs. them' and side with humanity instead." That's from a recent open letter to college students across America, written by Daniel Lubetzky, founder of KIND Snacks, and Lonnie Ali, co-founder of the Muhammad Ali Center and wife of the late Muhammad Ali.

Lonnie and Daniel have both witnessed the growing hatred on American college campuses as the Israel-Hamas war rages on, and they say students themselves are at the heart of the solution. In their letter, they detail what they call ten ways to side with humanity, including: "It helps, not hurts, your cause to empathize with the pain of the other side" and "to get the full story, pop your social media bubble."

  • Plus: the new challenges for DEI programs on college campuses.

Guests: Daniel Lubetzky, founder of KIND Snacks and co-founder of the Starts with Us movement; Lonnie Ali, co-founder of the Muhammad Ali Center, and wife of the late Muhammad Ali.

Credits: 1 big thing is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, and Jay Cowit. Music is composed by Alex Sugiura. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can send questions, comments and story ideas as a text or voice memo to Niala at 202-918-4893.

Transcript

NIALA BOODHOO: Antisemitism and Islamophobia are on the rise on college campuses.

LONNIE ALI: To hear a Jewish student or a Muslim students talk about, they didn't feel safe and this is a place where they go to learn, you know, it's supposed to be a special time in their lives. And instead of being able to do that fully, they have to be worried about their physical safety.

NIALA: One Jewish and one Muslim voice share their roadmap for a more peaceful way forward for college campuses - and for all of us.

DANIEL LUBETZKY: You do not cede the moral high ground by dismissing the pain of the other side. You do not become stronger in advocating for your people or advancing your people's goals by denying the other side's humanity.

I'm Niala Boodhoo. From Axios, this is one big thing.

"As a passionate Muslim and a passionate Jew, we have come together to humbly share a path forward for how to transcend the construct of 'us vs. them' and side with humanity instead."

That's from a recent open letter to college students across America–written by Daniel Lubetzky and Lonnie Ali. Daniel is founder of KIND Snacks and co-founder of the Starts with Us movement, and is Jewish, Lonnie Ali, co-founder of the Muhammad Ali Center, and wife of the late Muhammad Ali, is Muslim. She's also a founding partner of Starts with Us, which calls itself a movement working to end "polarizing politics and endless culture wars."

Lonnie and Daniel have both witnessed the growing hatred on American college campuses as the Israel-Hamas war rages on. In a report from the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International published last month, 73% of Jewish college students surveyed said they had experienced or witnessed antisemitic incidents on their campuses since the start of the school year. 44% of non-Jewish students said the same.

Before the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, around 67% of Jewish students said they felt "very" or "extremely" physically safe on campus. Since the attack, 46% said they felt safe.

All this led to last month's contentious House committee hearing on antisemitism on college campuses, which resulted in an angry outcry over university presidents' handling of the problem.

FBI data released this fall shows that hate crimes were already at record rates - the highest since the FBI began collecting data. CAIR, The Council on American-Islamic Relations, also reported an increase in Islamophobic and anti-Arab incidents across all ages in the US since the war began, including the stabbing death of six-year-old Palestinian American Wadea Al-Fayoume near Chicago on Oct. 14. The attacker, who also seriously injured Wadea's mother, has been charged with murder and hate crimes.

CAIR says that between October 7 and December 2, reports of bias or requests for help were up 172% over the same period last year.

Now, Lonnie and Daniel say college students themselves are at the heart of the solution. In their open letter they detail what they call ten ways to side with humanity - including - quote: "It helps, not hurts, your cause to empathize with the pain of the other side" and "to get the full story, pop your social media bubble."

I sat down with Lonnie and Daniel to talk about overcoming hate and division in this moment.

NIALA:  Daniel, Lonnie, welcome to One Big Thing. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

LONNIE: Thank you Niala.

DANIEL: Thank you, Niala. We're very energized to be here with you.

NIALA: Let's talk about what we're seeing on college campuses because we are seeing hatred and division. I feel like I should say, right, this isn't an oppression Olympics. We're not talking about who has it worse. But anti Semitism and anti Muslim sentiment are different. Can I ask how you each explain those differences?

DANIEL: I think for me, it's not that useful to do it that way. and I have a lot of, very dear Jewish friends that are obsessed with prioritizing the pain of my people. I don't find that useful because hate is hate and extremism, extremism. And And hate ends up begetting more hate and extremism ends up metastasizing to eat all of it.

I've been doing this work for over 30 years, and there's enormous momentum in the places where you might not know it. You know, in the Arab world, there's a lot of people that recognize the need to stand against Islamist fundamentalism. And there's a lot of progress from Muslim voices that are not coming through. And why are they not coming through? Because social media ends up amplifying the voice of the most scandalous extremist voices.

The reason Lonnie and I wrote, co-wrote, a letter for college students with 10 ideas for how they can deal with this moment and be more constructive is that we're realizing the impact of this. But it's very clear that extremism on the Israeli side, extremism on the Palestinian side cannot represent our people because we're going to end up landing in a cycle of violence yet again. You can be a proud representative of your people. I'm very proud to be a confused Mexican Jew and a very proud American citizen, and at the same time see the humanity of and build bridges with Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and recognize that what we need to do is stand up against extremism from any side.

NIALA: Lonnie, how are you seeing that play out, you think, on American college campuses then?

LONNIE: Well, it's the rise of anti Semitism on campuses and, against, Muslim students. And it's just something I did not expect, you know, to hear a Jewish student or a Muslim students talk about, they didn't feel safe and, you know, and this is a place where they go to learn, you know, it's supposed to be a special time in their lives.

And instead of being able to do that fully, they have to be worried about their physical safety. It's just something that should not be. And as most students today, and a lot of adults, we do get a lot of our news across social media. We look at our phones, you know.

And we do need to pop that social media bubble that a lot of students live in because a lot of them are misinformed. You know, they too are victims, in a way, of these algorithms And I think that it's important that they have that dialogue. Not in a silo. Not with just each other. But with people sitting across from them who may have opposing views. I think it's important that they listen to each other and to feel that, that same pain that they, that, you know, the person across the table is feeling.

To be empathetic, to be compassionate, to be curious about that other person and their life story and their journey. You know, how they see it through their eyes. You have to listen critically, you can't just think critically, you have to listen critically. And, um, it's important that I think universities take that step to offer students that opportunity.

DANIEL: I don't know if you know the Niala, but my father was a Holocaust survivor. He was in the Dachau concentration camp he like Muhammad Ali transcended a lot of racism and hate to become kind people that brought light to the world. The knowledge that Lonnie is talking about that students lack and which they're only gonna acquire if they are critical thinkers and if they educate themselves deeply because social media and the way people and it's very superficial, it's just sensationalistic, you're not going deep to understand the nuance. And you cannot solve problems if you don't understand the other side. And so for you to advance your people's cause, you need to better understand the issues. And then the toolkit for how to develop the skill sets to be problem solvers, rather than to just be screaming, it's about, like Lonnie said, curiosity, compassion, and courage.

And these things take a while to build. And instead, what we're seeing young generations be taught is just this very simplistic, rigid dialectics of oppressor versus victim, which don't serve anyone. Because you're replacing one form of racism with another. And you need to go deep. When I was at the Muhammad Ali Center and I walked through, the museum, it was stunning for me to learn things that I thought I knew that I didn't even know about. You know, do you realize that Muhammad Ali won on behalf of the United States, international competition, and then he came back to Louisville and he was denied service. They wouldn't serve him in the restaurant. Like, just to grasp that, to, to go to a museum, which I did with my daughter, with our school, where they teach you about slavery, and to learn how horrible and pernicious that was, those are interventions that I think are extraordinarily useful, because you understand the history, you should go to the Holocaust Museum, you should go to a slavery museum, you should understand the past, so for you to prevent it from being repeating. But what you should not do is pigeonhole people into oppressor versus victim.

Because that's robbing every human being, both the oppressor and the victim, of the personal agency to be a protagonist in their own lives and do something better. You're an oppressor even if you treat people with kindness and respect. You're a victim and have no ability to change your life. We need to really transcend those very simplistic dialectics.

And I also want to point out one thing that's very important to remember. Yes, the situation is pretty bad. Yes, there's a lot of antisemitism and anti Muslim hate and intolerance, but let's also keep perspective. You know, at any one campus, I was talking to the head of the Arizona State University or to the head of Hillel there, there were eight students that were just really, really I would say anti semitic and really, really, uh, insensitive.

There were 200 people that were following with very extremist cries to annihilate Israel and all means necessary. But there's 80,000 students. There's just a lot of more silent people that need to recognize that they cannot just be silent anymore.

That moderation is not enough, that you need to take action to become a builder. Human beings are moderate, they just want to respect each other. They don't want, they're not haters. But even if it's a tiny, tiny minority of people that have these extraordinarily extremist agendas, they will stop at nothing, right?

NIALA: So what is your advice for moderates then, for the people who are listening? What should they do?

DANIEL: You need to become a builder, not just in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, here in our own shores in the United States, whether you're talking about gun safety and gun rights, when you're talking about choice and abortion and life, whether you're talking about borders, all these issues, 60 to 80 percent of the people agree on 60 to 80 percent on all of these issues. To go from moderates to builders, you need to start taking action.

And it starts with the simplest of things. Every single day, how do you treat people? Every time you walk in on those college campuses, look at the other side with humanity, particularly the side that you might think that you want to hate. Give them a glance of love and respect. That was Muhammad Ali and Roman Lubezkty.

You know, my dad was an extraordinary human being. He was not as famous as Muhammad. That's what they both had, right? That kindness in their heart. And Lonnie always talks to me about that.They didn't know a stranger. Like, treat everybody as a human that they are. Give them the permission to be human and then start building bridges. Don't immediately dehumanize and attack-

LONNIE: Let me say this too. Muhammad was an extraordinary man, just like Daniel's father. And he was celebrated in the West Bank, in Gaza. Just like he was in Israel.

He, he, he went to both. He was celebrated in all of those places. And why? Because he had that love for all people. And they all recognized it. And, you know, I think, and I, and I said a lot about the universities, but I should also say that we as parents, as grandparents, aunts and uncles, it's our duty too, to teach the children, our children, to show that compassion and understanding every day.

You know, and it does take courage sometimes to walk across to somebody that you know you don't agree with, that may look different from you, and find common ground with that person.

But you should be curious enough to do that. And to have the compassion to understand their path in life, where they came from. And that's what Muhammad did. He always met people with no agenda. He didn't care where they came from, what their background was, you know, what, what life baggage they carried with them.

He always was able to go through all of that and see the humanity, no matter how deeply it might be buried in that person. He was always able to see that and to touch that humanity.

NIALA: In a moment, more with Lonnie Ali and Daniel Lubetzky, plus a look at new challenges for DEI programs on college campuses. This is 1 big thing.

Welcome back to 1 big thing from Axios, I'm Niala Boodhoo. Daniel Lubetzky of kind snacks and Lonnie Ali of the Muhammad Ali Center are my guests this week – talking about building bridges during a moment of hate and division.

Daniel, you have been a longtime advocate for business as a tool of peace, going back to when you were in college. As you're thinking about harnessing that energy, can you explain how you think about business as a way to foster peace in a situation as seemingly intractable as what we are seeing in Israel and Gaza?

DANIEL: When the war ends, we're going to need to reconstruct. We're going to need to create a Marshall Plan with accountability. What do I mean by a Marshall Plan with accountability? We're going to need to business leaders in the United States, in Europe, in the Arab world, in Israel, in Palestine, entrepreneurs are going to need to work to rebuild hospitals and schools and, uh, jobs and apartments and opportunities.

And we're going to need to equip the Israelis and the Palestinians with the responsibility and the duty to be part of the solution and, and guide us to confidence building measures and attach all of the aid that we need to raise. To concrete positive building measures, because otherwise if the money just flows and then Hamas steals it, if the money just flows and we don't tie it to the citizens on the ground having the power and the responsibility to be part of the solution, we'll face this again in 5, 10, 20 years.

It's been happening. We need to break that cycle. By starting to invest in a sustainable way where we recognize each other's humanity. That means people on the ground voting with their feet and saying, I affirm that I'm going to be part of that solution. And if so, here you go. We're going to invest in you. But everybody needs to slowly but surely start building towards that.

NIALA: Lonnie, can I ask you to just end by what your message is to American college students now?

LONNIE: That, really, the light really is shining on them at this moment here. They can be the force for change. They can be the positive path forward, and show the world the way it should be. The dialogue that should take place, the bridges that should be built, the understanding that should be held, and the compassion that should be felt.

And I think that if we are able to give them those tools that they need to, uh, advance that kind of action, we would have met our purpose here with our initiative to, in our letter to students on college campuses. Don't let social media and misunderstanding, misinformation, divide us here in America.

Don't let that happen. There is an opportunity for us to be those people that we want the world to look at and to be like. There has to be an understanding of compassion toward the Jewish student on campus, and the Muslim student on campus, or any student on campus who is fearful and afraid, for whatever reasons, and we do have to be that solution.

NIALA: Lonnie, Daniel, thank you both for your time, I appreciate it.

DANIEL: Thank you so much, Niala. And Lonnie, I sent you a gigantic hug.

LONNIE: Yes!

NIALA: One side effect of the volatility we are seeing on college campuses, is that DEI initiatives are in the crosshairs. That's according to Axios reporter Erica Pandey… I asked her to tell us more.

ERICA PANDEY: So what's happening is that conservatives who've had diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in their sites for a long time are saying that the antisemitism we're seeing on campuses That university professor's testimony we saw where they failed to answer a pretty simple question about antisemitism is all related to these diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.

And they're saying that colleges have been so focused on supporting certain groups that they're neglecting other groups. I spoke to Stacey Burdett, who's an antisemitism expert and was a VP at the Anti Defamation League, about this issue. And she said that this moment is exposing a real hole in DEI, which is that maybe it hasn't historically included Jewish students and accounted for Jewish fear, but she said the solution might be to expand DEI rather than to take it away when evidence shows that it does help a lot of minority groups with feeling included on campus with higher matriculation rates.

One thing we're watching is there have been bills in at least 20 states to limit or defund DEI. That's according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. So expect this anti DEI groundswell at universities to just keep growing.

NIALA: That's Erica Pandey, reporter and author of the Axios Finish Line newsletter.

And that's all for this week's edition of 1 Big Thing. You can always send feedback by texting me at 202 918 4893, or emailing podcasts @ axios.com.

The 1 Big Thing team includes Supervising Producer Alexandra Botti and Sound Engineer Jay Cowit. Alex Suigura composed our theme music. Aja Whitaker-Moore is Axios' Executive Editor, and Sara Keuhalani Goo is Axios' Editor in Chief.

I'm Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening, stay safe, Merry Christmas to those who celebrate, and we'll be back with you here next Thursday for one final pod for the year and a look ahead to what's next in 2024.

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