Jacob Bender is set to be the voice of Philadelphia-area Muslims, to take on discrimination they encounter in workplace and in the public sphere, and to fight expressions of hate.
And his Jewish faith, Bender believes, can only help him do the job effectively.
“The Muslim community is under attack from Islamophobic forces, and it is the obligation and responsibility of people of good will to stand up and say this is a bigoted attack,” Bender said. “This is fully in keeping with my life goals.”
The Council on American Islamic Relations’ Philadelphia branch announced the appointment of Bender as its executive director October 15. Bender is the first Jew, and the first non-Muslim, to serve as director of a CAIR branch.
“The needs of the Muslim community are really the needs of any minority community in the United States,” said Iftekhar Hussein, chairman of CAIR-Philadelphia’s board of directors. “Jacob, being Jewish, understands that from his own background.”
An activist on Jewish-Muslim interfaith issues who has been involved in the past on the progressive end of Middle East peace advocacy, Bender will face two entirely different sets of expectations in his new position.
He will meet a local Muslim community expecting a non-Muslim to represent its needs just as well as would a member of their own faith.
He will also face a national Jewish leadership that has all but deemed CAIR off-limits for any dialogue.
In a lengthy document published in 2006, the Anti-Defamation League accused CAIR of holding extreme positions on Israel and of having links to individuals and groups that expressed support for terror organizations.
Jewish groups have also pointed in the past to the fact that CAIR was initially named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case of the Holy Land Foundation, an American-based charity charged with raising funds for Hamas. But in 2012 a circuit court ordered that the reference to CAIR be expunged.
“CAIR is far off the radar screen of the Jewish community,” said Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “The Jewish community looked at their record and said, ‘We won’t work with this group.’”
While no official policy has been adopted, the Jewish community has excluded CAIR from all joint interfaith activities with the Muslim community and has focused on ties with the Islamic Society of North America and with local mosques and imams.