Less than two months after Zahra Billoo, a longtime leader of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), lambasted Jewish houses of worship before a packed room at the American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) convention in Chicago, a Texas synagogue was targeted by an Islamist hostage-taker. On November 27, 2021, Billoo warned 3,000 AMP conference-goers to be wary of “polite Zionists,” those Jewish individuals or organizations who seek peace and understanding between Jews and Muslims in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Billoo went on to slander mainstream Jewish organizations including “Zionist synagogues,” Jewish Federations, the Anti-Defamation League, and Hillel chapters on campuses, referring to them as the Islamophobic enemy. “I’m not going to sugar-coat that,” she said, “they are your enemies. Make no mistake of it. They would sell you down the line if they could.”
Amid rising antisemitism in the United States, remarks such as these send chills down the spines of Jewish people who feel increasingly vulnerable and marginalized as an age-old hatred rears its ugly head. All the more so because these vicious comments were made by a self-described civil rights activist to raucous applause in a major American city.
Billoo’s opprobrium for campus-based Hillel organizations is particularly deceptive and distasteful. At colleges and universities from coast to coast, Hillel leads the way in fostering nuanced, informed, and respectful dialogue across political, ideological, and cultural boundaries.
But, speaking of her so-called “polite Zionists,” who favor a negotiated two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, Billoo forcefully discouraged the audience from breaking bread with anyone who believes in Israel’s right to exist. “They are the same ones who want to ban Muslims,” she averred.
Billoo is no stranger to controversy. For years, she has railed against Israel and Jews, celebrating Hamas’ firing of rockets at innocent Israeli civilians and calling those who support Israel proponents of “baby killers.” In 2019, Billoo was removed from the board of the Women’s March for “public statements incompatible with the values and mission of the organization.”
What might be most disturbing is that CAIR defends Billoo’s remarks and continues to promote her, providing a national platform. It is a shame to see CAIR’s commitment to fighting Islamophobia and right-wing fascism so soiled by concurrent expressions of antisemitism. Billoo’s coded language–replacing the word “Jew” with “Zionist”– is no excuse.
Indeed, Zionism is as integral to Judaism as observing the Sabbath or keeping kosher.
To quote Alyza D. Lewin, President of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, “Zionism as a political movement of the Jewish people may have originated in the 19th century, but the desire and determination of Jews to return to their ancestral homeland in Israel is thousands of years old, as old as Abraham, Moses, and the enslaved Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land.”
Yes, for the vast majority of American Jews, Zionism is a deeply held and deeply felt component of their Jewish identity. CAIR and AMP’s campaign to separate Zionism from Judaism is a cynical crusade built on a house of cards.
The path to peace is paved with diplomacy and dialogue, not boycotts and anti-normalization. Each of us has to decide whether we will be part of the problem or part of the solution.
If we are going to be part of the solution, we have to bring together people of different backgrounds and faiths. We have to encourage meaningful dialogue. We have to talk about two states for two peoples. We have to empower people to take tangible steps to promote coexistence. Being part of the solution means we can acknowledge Israel’s imperfections, and we are happy to have that conversation.
But Billoo’s speech shows how Israel’s detractors, from CAIR to AMP to the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) groups on campus, refuse to be part of the solution. Instead, they are part of the problem. They reject dialogue with pro-Israel students. They are vehemently opposed to the very idea of a Jewish state. If these groups had their way, millions of Jewish, Arab, and Christian Israelis would either have to flee or live under tyranny. To be part of the solution, you have to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. If you can’t accept that, you are part of the problem.
As Democratic U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres said recently, “When you use inflammatory language such as apartheid or ethnic cleansing or genocide, you’re not promoting peace. You’re inciting hatred, and you’re not part of the solution. You’re part of the problem.”
AMP and SJP share an Illinois-based corporation called Americans for Justice in Palestine Educational Foundation. If they truly want justice for the Palestinian people, they will stop fueling ethnic strife and instead embrace the concept of constructive dialogue. This is the only path that will result in real reconciliation. It’s time to leave the old divisive rhetoric behind before more “Zionist synagogues” and other Jewish spaces are targeted.