Boston - At a June 20 meeting at a synagogue in the Boston suburbs, a pro-Israel group quickened the drum beat against a local Muslim group accused of receiving funding from Saudi Arabia.
Charles Jacobs, president of The David Project, received a standing ovation from a crowd at Kehillath Israel Synagogue in Brookline after he raised further questions about the funding of the Islamic Society of Boston.
“We come to share the continuing flow of troubling facts,” Jacobs said to the crowd of 300. “We are more concerned now than we have ever been about a Saudi influence of local mosques.”
The meeting was the latest sally in a protracted public relations and legal battle over a new mosque being built by the Islamic Society of Boston in the Roxbury neighborhood of the city. The David Project and a number of other pro-Israel advocates have accused the Islamic Society of having ties to terrorists and receiving funding from Saudi sources. The Islamic Society in turn sued The David Project and its allies for defamation. Three weeks ago, the Islamic Society announced that it would drop its lawsuit, but The David Project’s meeting last week suggested that the issue is not going to die.
Across the country, Muslim-Jewish relations have been tested by questions about financial and political ties to the Middle East. The suit in Boston has been a particularly intense showdown in a city where there have been many efforts at interfaith cooperation. Members of the community who have been involved in bridge-building say that the legal battles have touched all corners of the community and that these battles have raised questions about how possible dialogue might be in the current environment.
“I’m not naive. I’m not a Pollyanna,” said Moshe Waldoks, a rabbi at Brookline’s nondenominational synagogue Temple Beth Zion. “But that does not obviate the need for continuing an ongoing dialogue. The question is, ‘How do we operate out of hope and not out of fear?’”
The battles in Boston began in 2004 when James Policastro, a resident of the Mission Hill neighborhood of Boston, filed suit against the city of Boston with the claim that it was illegally supporting religion by selling a parcel of land to the Islamic Society of Boston for $175,000, well below market value.
Policastro’s suit was filed in the wake of a series of articles in the Boston Herald that alleged the mosque project was funded by Saudi and Middle Eastern sources and linked society leaders to Islamist terrorists. That same year, the local Fox station ran stories alleging that mosque leaders had ties to terror.
While Policastro filed the suit in his own name, much of the legal work was handled by a lawyer from The David Project.
The Boston-based David Project was created in 2002, but it quickly developed a national reputation for hounding Muslims that it perceives to be a threat to the Jewish community. In 2004, it helped release a movie about Columbia University professors who were accused of mistreating Jewish students who spoke up for Israel. The movie led to an uproar that divided the Columbia campus.
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University, said that The David Project has been effective in empowering young Jews and giving them the “slingshots they need to respond to critics of Israel.”
Now, however, Sarna said, “I think it would be a very unfortunate thing if the Jewish community in the United States were to create an atmosphere that implied open warfare with Muslims in their midst.”
In Boston’s Jewish community, a number of members have taken issue with The David Project’s pursuit of the Islamic Society.
“The David Project does not speak for the Boston Jewish community, although they raised some important issues,” said Alan Solomont, past board chair of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and executive board member of the Israel Policy Forum. “I don’t understand why our community is allowing certain voices to be heard above all the rest.”
The Islamic Society struck back by suing the Herald and the local Fox affiliate. Soon it added The David Project and a number of other parties, including Steven Emerson, who has served as an anti-terrorism consultant for many right-leaning Jewish organizations.
The lawsuit did not turn out well for the mosque. In the process of discovery, documents were released that suggested at least $7.2 million was wired to the society from Middle Eastern sources, mostly in Saudi Arabia.
It also came out that a society leader, Abdurahman Alamoudi, pled guilty to a 2003 indictment for his role in a terrorism financing scheme and is serving a 23-year prison term.
On May 29, the Islamic Society dropped its lawsuit without any money being exchanged and without acknowledging any of the accusations. At the same time, it was agreed that the suit filed by the private citizen, Policastro, would not go any further.
Muslim American Society Executive Director Mohammad Bilal Kaleem, who has served as a sponsor and spokesman for the mosque, acknowledges that the Islamic Society had received foreign funding. He said, however, that there had never been any strings attached, and that the fundraising and the leadership of the mosque are almost entirely local.
The David Project has kept alive a lawsuit it brought against the city of Boston last year, demanding documents about the land deal for the mosque. At the meeting last week, Jacobs asked, “Who is it we have dialogue with?”
“We now have a Saudi mosque in Roxbury,” Jacobs said. “That remains the problem.”
Despite the millions that have been spent on legal bills, the Islamic Society has managed to finish the mosque and is holding an opening ceremony June 29. In an effort toward reconciliation, 10 Boston rabbis planned to attend the ceremony, where a tree of peace was to be planted.
But not all members of the Jewish community have been so sanguine. Barry Shrage, head of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, said: “The David Project uncovered very serious problems in the mosque leadership. The current mosque leadership needs to confront that.” Shrage said he is hopeful now.
“There are many people in association with the mosque of high standing and moral sensitivity and want nothing to do with violence and terror,” Shrage added. “Now that the suit is over, a lot of people want to talk.”