Mainstream Jewish Groups Need to Understand That Interfaith Dialogue Legitimized CAIR
JNS.org – Perhaps some people were shocked when a leader of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) recently engaged in an epic rant against Jews, their synagogues and their organizations. Zahra Billoo is the executive director of the group’s San Francisco branch and a former leader of the anti-Trump “resistance” Women’s March. But when she told a conference convened by the radical anti-Israel American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) that they should shun mainstream groups like the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Federations and Hillel, the Jewish establishment reacted angrily.
As scholar Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum told JNS, it was amusing that those organizations, who were dubbed “polite Zionists” by Billoo, only reacted strongly when they were attacked by name even though CAIR’s record of extremism had been clear for most of the last two decades. The fact that CAIR not only failed to repudiate Billoo but supported her after her speech was hard for even those most determined to treat the incident as unimportant to excuse.
Though it was first created as a political front group for those seeking to fundraise for Hamas terrorists in the US and has remained a bastion of anti-Israel hate, CAIR has largely succeeded in persuading many Jews as well as the media and government institutions that it is a civil rights group. So long as their most vocal critics within the Jewish community were figures like Pipes or Steven Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), who has focused not just on its origins but the activities of the group and its partners like AMP, many in the Jewish establishment were not only willing to give CAIR a pass, but were actively helping it go mainstream.
But the question now that the veil has once again been torn away from their deceptive marketing by Billoo’s frankness, is whether American Jewry and its leading organizations are capable of drawing the proper conclusions from recent events. More to the point: Will Jewish community relations councils (JCRCs) and others who are dedicated to promoting interfaith dialogue with Muslims finally understand that as valuable as that effort might be, it can’t be achieved by having partnerships with groups like CAIR?
American Jews and Muslims need to understand each other and that is facilitated by outreach and dialogue wherever possible. But as is often the case with efforts to seek commonalities with other minorities or faith groups, those involved often regard the process as more important than safeguarding the interests of the Jewish community.
That failing was key to CAIR’s efforts to rebrand itself as the Muslim version of the ADL. Just as has sometimes been the case with outreach to the African-American community — when antisemitic extremists and supporters of Louis Farrakhan can sometimes present an obstacle to the desire of liberal Jews to embrace them — Jewish groups have often been eager to create events where they engage in dialogue or break bread with extremists within the Muslim community regardless of the consequences.
CAIR took advantage of that to take in gullible liberals or those merely interested in burnishing their reputations as Jewish leaders. In this matter, it became not uncommon for JCRC organizations around the country to regard CAIR chapters as legitimate partners for dialogue. Many Jewish liberals saw no problem with working with CAIR on issues on which they agreed — like amnesty for illegal immigrants — or to oppose efforts to enforce existing immigration laws. In this manner, CAIR’s goal of being normalized and becoming the central address for the interests of American Muslims — most of whom have little interest in extremism — was advanced.
That is why it may be a little late for advocates of Jewish-Muslim dialogue to take the position that CAIR’s endorsement of antisemitism should not deter Jews from continuing to work towards that goal. In all too many communities, it is simply impossible to separate CAIR from the cause of interfaith outreach involving Jews and Muslims. Having already bestowed legitimacy on those involved in this group and its various allies, many Jews are all too eager to treat Billoo’s comments or the failure of CAIR to condemn her as an insufficient reason to rethink their choices.
Part of the problem has been the willingness of those that Billoo called “polite Zionists” to treat those whom she labeled as “fascists” or “Islamophobes” as an embarrassment to the Jewish community. In her speech, she divided Jews into three groups.
On the one hand, she advocated continued work with “good Jews” who shared CAIR’s anti-Zionist goals such as the members of IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, which have actively sought to support the antisemitic BDS movement and, in the case of JVP, actually engaged in promoting a blood libel against Jews. But she cautioned that the “polite Zionists” were just as bad as those that were actively engaged in exposing their activities and stands, work that is often put down as bigotry by supposed arbiters of extremism like the leftist Southern Poverty Law Center rather than providing the country with the information it needs to make informed decisions on dealing with CAIR.
All too often mainstream groups have acquiesced to the labeling of the Middle East Forum and the IPT as being anti-Muslim — just as Billoo does — instead of acknowledging that they have been doing the hard work of exposing the truth about CAIR and associated groups. The fact that CAIR is pushing a story this week intended to distract attention from Billoo’s ongoing antisemitic rhetoric — in which she is claiming that she is the victim of a “prolonged Zionist onslaught” — about the IPT having paid an informant inside the group to give them information about CAIR’s activities illustrates how determined they are to marginalize their most potent critics.
Unfortunately, mainstream Jewish liberals have often foolishly bought into the misleading rhetoric about Islamophobia. That is a charge that is intended primarily to change the conversation from one about the hate emanating from Islamists to one about mythical anti-Muslim backlash. This is the same trick that an antisemite like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) has used to fend off legitimate criticism of her extremism and promotion of hate.
Instead of stubbornly pretending that the problem can be restricted to Billoo and pushing on with business as usual in interfaith efforts, what the mainstream Jewish world needs to do is to pause and examine their own complicity in CAIR’s ability to foist itself on American Muslims and be recognized by the media and government institutions as a respected civil rights group. Dialogue with Muslims should not be avoided but it must be conditioned on mutual respect. That requires Jewish groups to call out CAIR and its allies and all those associated with them as members of hate groups, not candidates for dialogue. If that is too much to ask, then there’s no point in listening to them vent their outrage about what Billoo said.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS–Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter @jonathans_tobin.