How Mainstream Jewish Organizations Whitewash Islamists

The Middle East Forum’s recent report detailing the Islamic Relief’s domestic and international ties to various Muslim Brotherhood shill organizations, Hamas-linked charities, and even the Muslim Brotherhood itself generated little buzz in the Jewish world. After a slew of investigations against terrorism linked charities such as the Holy Land Foundation under George W. Bush, which yielded information implicating a number of famed unindicted co-conspirators such as CAIR, ISNA, and other organizations with links to the Muslim Brotherhood (some of which went to great lengths to clear their boards of suspects, but the ideology remains in place), the excitement about going after Muslim Brotherhood domestic proxies and financing seems to have died down. Under Obama, investigations of CAIR, ISNA and their ilk were tabled by the Justice Department, seemingly for good. And the Trump administration did not prioritize going after the Muslim  Brotherhood at all, except shelving the attempts to designated it as a terrorist organization but blacklisting some Middle Eastern proxies.

Worse than simply ignoring a number of remaining charities, such as Islamic Relief, whose members are incestuously tied up with these Islamist organizations, who are in turn part of a wider Muslim Brotherhood-backed network, which includes terrorists who have served on the boards of these organizations and are now in prison, there are institutionalized attempts to partner with these charities and organizations in a gesture of desperate appeasement. One needs to look no further than the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, which included major and respected Jewish organizations such as AJC, and ISNA, the aim of which, apparently, was to work together and domestic issues and counter anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The success of this endeavor was predicated on a few things:

First, ISNA’s Jewish counterpart’s firmly believed that ISNA is a legitimate and representative messenger of the Southeast Asian Muslim communities in the United States. In reality, many moderate Muslims are afraid of voicing disagreement with major Islamist organizations – or are dismissed as fringe and unrepresentatives, whereas ISNA and its ilk claims to speak for all  of US Muslims, regardless of actual membership.

Second, the thought was that ISNA had to some extent disassociated itself from the previous unsavory activity and not being actually on a terrorist list, was perfectly ok to do business with. The Islamic Relief report speaks of individual members who crosspollinate across the spectrum of these organizations and charities; an ISNA member with a murky background is cited for his involvement with Islamic Relief. Full disassociation is not at issue here; all these organizations share similar ideas (revolutionary political form of Islam), frequently white wash anti-Semitism and hatred for Israel, and donate to Middle Eastern charities linked to Hamas and other terrorist organizations and Muslim Brotherhood proxies.

Third, the idea was that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are exactly the same, conflating hatred for Jews qua Jews, and philosophical disagreements and criticism with Islam as a religion (without necessarily implicating discrimination against individual practitioners).

Fourth, the long-term goal of such a project allegedly is to separate the Southeast Asian crowd from the Gulf State funders, allegedly responsible for the spread of bad ideas. One problem: both Indonesia and Bangladesh, alarmed by the spread of extremism within their own borders, have recently turned to Saudi Arabia with help in building more moderate mosques, as Saudi Arabia’s new leadership dedicates itself to moderate Islam and combatting the spread of Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology. THese organizations, however, are indigeneous to US communities and don’t take direction from the governments of their countries. Rather, they populate their mosques with established imams from home countries (including Pakistan), who may be poorly educated with no knowledge of classical Arabic, much less any moderate interpretations of Islamic theology, and who educate their children in a similar manner.

Fifth, the representatives of the Jewish community are looking to pass judgment on what constitutes “radical” or “moderate” Islam, while having frequently a perfunctory grasp of their own religion. With only a surface acquaintance with Qu’ran, frequently distributed by the same Islamist organization, with a particular manner of interpretation, their grasp of how these partner organizations are structured and educated may be at best naive.  Furthermore, they are dedicated to a good faith effort to battle common problems and back common bills, expecting that these efforts will somehow distance their Islamist counterparts from their ideological proclivities, sources of funding, imams, or Jew hatred.

Sixth, the Jewish organizations are making the mistake of legitimizing and strengthening only one type of organizations, while dismissing genuinely moderate Muslims as fringe or not sufficiently influential. They likewise justify the failure of the new partners to combat Jew hatred in their communities as an issue that would cost these would-be advocates their credibility. In other words, Jewish organizations are passing an unsubstantiated and unflattering judgment that American Muslims are duty bound by their culture, religion, and upbringing to be suspicious of Israel and to hate Jews who support Israel – although many could be completely apolitical and simply not care or be uninformed and open to other perspectives from respected community leaders. This attitude marginalizes any good faith attempts at reform within these communities, and dooms the Muslims to being stereotyped a certain way and stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy of not being able to assimilate and to challenge bad ideas.

Seventh, there is an expectation of good faith from the Muslim counterparts – even though the organizers are fully aware of their nature, background, and history. There are no institutional checks on the abuses of this alliance. In essence, the Jewish leaders have allowed their good name to be used to whitewash whatever else these organizations are doing behind the scenes. Repeated embarrassing incidents have not led to reforms, strings attached, or the setting of clear goals and expectations.

For instance, there’s the curious story of Wajahat Ali, an anti-Zionist, who wrote an article about settlers, engaged with pro-Israel Jewish organizations in the US, and was subsequently disinvited from an engagement by ISNA by another member who is well known to the members of the Muslim Jewish Advisory Council. How awkward. That incident was recent, and generated buzz on social media but did not seem to affect the relationship inside the Council or between the member organization. Which means that the Jewish leadership is ok with partner organizations abusing their own members for engaging with the Jewish organizations, which is kind of the whole point of this exercise.

One of the guests of the council is Azhar Azeez, who is involved in multiple Islamic Relief chapters. Islamic Relief-USA was found by Shin Bet (Israel’s FBI) to be linked to Hamas and Hamas-linked charities. Azeez was the Director of Fund Development at the time and was in part responsible for these contacts and relationships. He is also ISNA president.  He was also a founding member and past president of CAIR’s Fort Worth chapter – just one specific example of the close links between members of these various organizations, which may share resources, best practices, ideology, external connections, and funding sources.  In essence,someone who views Hamas charities as perfectly legitimate conduits for funding from the United States (which is illegal) was a guest of a joint effort between a major Jewish organization and one of his own entities, which is likewise linked to the same network.

This effort runs in contrast to the Shalom Hartman Istitute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative, a controversial effort, which engaged people like Wajahat Ali, but looked beyond superficial efforts towards breaking down boundaries and changing minds. To that effect, it took a number of its Muslim participants on a trip to Israel, with at least some coming back with a gained sense of perspectives and  who on went to write about their experiences. Unfortunately, however, by inviting people like Debbie Almontaser, who spearheaded a magnet school allegedly to promote Arabic language and culture, but which attracted Hamas sympathizers. to speak at their conferences and failing to address their troubled past, the Initiative may have undone a great deal of the progress in that regard.  That initiative, however, seems to be an exception rather than the rule for the mainstream Jewish community’s engagement with Muslims. For instance, several rabbis of liberal Jewish congregations signed CAIR’s political protest statements, essentially placing their values in the same camp as that of an organization that is known for its virulently hateful speakers, and protegees, such as Linda Sarsour. One official, for instance, compared Jews serving in IDF to ISIS terrorists.

Linda Sarsour specifically have gained increasingly wider platforms, as she was invited to speak on a panel about anti-Semitism, despite the virulently Jew-hating rhetoric on her Twitter and interviews. Sarsour is a BDS supporter, but also one of leaders of the Women’s March, which has gained wide support in the liberal Jewish circles.  Much has been said that Linda Sarsour’s personal views were not the focus of the March, but by welcoming her as a leader, the participants were giving her a higher profile and tacitly accepting her hateful positions. Sarsour, however, may be failing in mobilizing American Muslims having focused almost exclusively on self-promotion, and now is allegedly contacting leaders of moderate Muslim communities in an effort to bring them to the fold and to use their constituencies as evidence of her own success.

Overall, thankfully, most mainstream Jewish institutions have not been welcoming to Islamists and Jew haters and have a strong bipartisan rhetoric of calling out troubling and downright anti-Semitic rhetoric and activity. However, there is a concern that the two major recent initiatives that have at least partially welcomed Islamists to the dialogue and joint legislative efforts with the Jewish community are a dangerous virtue signaling gesture to appeal the younger, more hard left generation of American Jews, who, increasingly are aligning themselves with progressive anti-Israel organizations such as JStreet, New Israel Fund, IfNotNow, who call their double standards on Israel a form of “criticism”, while denying the same level of scrutiny to major human rights violators.

Indeed, there is a growing enthusiasm among young Jews, particularly in cosmopolitan urban areas, to engage with their Muslim counterparts, and to explore faiths, cultural traditions, and perspectives on current events. But is downright capitulation to the strong-arming triumphalism of Islamist organizations, which endanger moderater Muslims as much or more as they do anyone else, really the answer?  Unscrupulous and unvetted proliferation of interfaith dialogue groups shows that there is more superficial enthusiasm than a good faith effort at identifying and cultivating partnerships based in common principles and goals, and friendships based in commitment to mutual understanding, not just convenient and poorly thought out joint actions.

It’s difficult not to believe that at least some of the enthusiasm is based more in tokenism or the “cool” factor of a latest virtue signaling trend than in genuine curiosity about Muslim communities.  Many of these efforts do not go far past joint events in synagogues and mosques. How often do these young people invite each other home to dinner and to meet their families and close friends? How frequently do they  work on joint projects that do not involve interfaith overtones? What foundations are they building to set these efforts up for success beyond being featured in another Forward or NY Times human interest story? However, it’s hard to deny that the “mainstreaming” of increasingly more extreme positions is starting early – in colleges and various young professional efforts that have lost patience with what they view as patronizing ossified bureaucracies of larger Jewish organizations, excessively focused on fundraising to the exclusion of legitimate community concerns, programming, recruitment, appeal to younger demographics, and much else.

There is a need for engagement, for learning, for philanthropy, and for intercultural exchanges that is either not being met or being met in a way that is limited and oversimplified.  But kowtowing to organizations like Islamic Relief and their ilk is not the answer. Ignoring troubling national security implications is not the answer. Disregarding legitmate concerns from the critics is bound to backfire. And placing the Jewish communities in danger of infiltration by bad actors or accusations of acting like a fifth column and a facilitator and enable of anti-American efforts is something Jewish organizations should be vigilant about avoiding.- The heads of all major and minor Jewish organizations, older and younger, should be reading the above report, asking some tough questions, and engaging in intercommunity discussions about the proper way to respond to real, identifiable, and well documented threats. They should also be empowering real partnerships with the many Muslims who likewise eschew extremism and hatred for the US, Israel, and the Jewish community, rather than justifying and apologizing for the groups who have chosen that path.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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