Hours after news broke of the shooting in San Bernardino, California, a group of Muslim community leaders gathered at a press conference to deliver a harsh condemnation of the deadly attack carried out by Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik. The activists were members of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an organization that has emerged as the most prominent voice of American Muslims fighting Islamophobia and calling for multi-faith tolerance.
But for most in the organized Jewish committee, CAIR is out of bounds.
For Jewish groups that see building ties with the American Muslim community as a key communal interest, CAIR’s position at the center of Muslim life poses awkward problems. But a mix of decades-old judicial allegations that the group has had ties with Hamas and more recent anti-Israel rhetoric from CAIR officials has served to render the group unacceptable for most Jewish organizations.
“We don’t see CAIR as an organization we are willing to work with,” said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s center on extremism. “Do we think CAIR is made up of a group of would-be jihadists? No. But we have concerns about things they’ve done in the past and about their current policies.”
Jewish groups have struggled for over a decade with choosing their Muslim counterparts. While finding broad commonality on civil rights, immigration and social justice issues was never a problem, organizations had to walk a thin line when dealing with the issue of Israel, imposing their own litmus tests on Muslim and Arab organizations before joining them around the table.
“It’s as if there is some taboo or directive from an unknown authority,” said Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s national communications director. “We’re always open to working with a variety of organizations; we don’t have to agree on everything, but we can build coalitions.”
Recent events, however, and the rise of Islamophobic rhetoric in America, may signal a new willingness among some in the Jewish community to reexamine their approach toward CAIR.
“I think it’s only a matter of time before we will be working with CAIR,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, an organization devoted to creating dialogue with non-Jewish communities. Schneier said that CAIR has become the preeminent civil rights group for Muslim Americans and that Jews should take a new look at the organization. “The Muslim community needs the Jewish community right now,” he said. “There is an opportunity for us to help and that is why I am willing to revisit our position on CAIR.”
The California attack and the heated discussion that ensued, which included a call by Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump to bar entry of all Muslims into the United States, have put CAIR in the national spotlight.
The group took a leading role speaking out on behalf of its community with a message aimed at distancing Muslim Americans from the individuals who carried out the San Bernardino attack. It provided a rapid response to attempts by Trump and others to turn the battle against extremist terrorism into a problem targeting Muslim Americans as a group.
“We stand in solidarity in repudiating any possible ideology or mindset that could have led to such a horrific act,” said CAIR – Los Angeles Executive Director Hussam Ayloush in a hastily organized press conference following the attack. “There is absolutely nothing that could justify it.”
But critics of the group from the right found CAIR’s outspoken role troubling. When CAIR officials brought the brother-in-law of Syed Farooq, one of the two apparent murderers in the San Bernardino shootings, to its press conference to express the family’s “shock” at his actions, Chad Jenkins, a Fox news panelist and former FBI agent, said, “Those family members would have been key personnel for those FBI agents, and other law enforcement agencies to interview after the immediate fact, to try to find out what the motives were and why this attack took place. Instead, they’re doing public appearances with that organization.”
The episode also provided an opportune moment for critics to raise issues from CAIR’s past, when it faced accusations of having ties with a terror organization.
In the Jewish community, the debate over CAIR has been playing out for more than a decade. On a national level and in local settings, Jewish activists have been trying, many times unsuccessfully, to square their wish to create broad communal Jewish-Muslim coalitions with CAIR’s central position in the Muslim American community and concerns about its past and its attitude toward Israel.
Those who have broken with the mainstream and engaged in dialogue with CAIR have often faced resistance.
In Chicago, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs worked in cooperation with the local CAIR branch on joint programs such as an iftar, or breaking-the-fast dinner, at a synagogue during the Muslim month of Ramadan.
The two groups have also worked in coalitions on local issues. CAIR was the first group to offer help when an Orthodox synagogue was defaced and its members joined a repainting effort the next day.
“We felt comfortable talking to them about issues in Chicago,” said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who was on the group’s board at the time. He noted that prior to working with CAIR, leaders of the Chicago branch had denounced terror and suicide bombings in Israel. The partnership, was fruitful in other ways, he recalled.
At one point, CAIR leaders made sure that activists removed signs deemed anti-Semitic from a rally protesting Israel’s war in Gaza. “I was impressed with their commitment to peace and to condemning terror, even though we did not see eye to eye on the issue of Israel,” Lopatin said.
But the Chicago Jewish federation was clearly less comfortable with the relationship. In meetings, they presented JCUA with documents alleging ties of CAIR to terrorism and urged the group to sever its relationship with CAIR-Chicago. After looking into the claims, JCUA decided there was no basis for ending partnership on local issues.
In Minnesota, Jewish Community Action, an organization focused on social, racial and economic justice, has also broken with the organized community and has been partnering with CAIR on a variety of local issues.
“As a Jewish organization, we know all too well what it means to be locked out, to be the other,” said Vic Rosenthal, JCA’s executive director. He said that the group has heard of concerns regarding CAIR’s positions on Israel, “but we make sure that what we work on with them are only issues that have to do with local and state policy in Minnesota,” Rosenthal said.
For national organizations, however, ignoring CAIR’s views on Israel is not an option.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a communal umbrella group, debated relations with CAIR and other Muslims groups at its 2009 plenum. The organization, which represents local communities and national groups on domestic policy issues, including Israel-related matters, adopted a carefully worded resolution that left the decision of whether to join coalitions with certain organizations to a case-by-case examination.
“Tensions remain and are difficult matters for community relations agencies to navigate,” the resolution stated. “However, they should not necessarily preclude efforts to dialogue.”
JCPA itself, said senior vice president Ethan Felson, does not engage in dialogue with CAIR because of concerns regarding its policy on Israel. Still, JCPA does not necessarily pull out of broader coalitions in which CAIR is a member.
Most Jewish organizations have chosen a similar path. They bypass CAIR by partnering with organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America and the Muslim Public Affairs Council who have less-pronounced views on Israel, as well as with local religious and communal leaders.
Opponents of CAIR in the Jewish community point to two major concerns they have about the organization. The first has to do with the 2007 Holy Land Foundation trial in which executives of the Texas-based foundation were found guilty of providing aid to Hamas. CAIR, alongside other Muslim American groups, was added by prosecutors as an “unindicted co-conspirator” to the criminal case. This status did not allow CAIR to defend itself in court and therefore the allegation remained on record and still haunts the group.
A ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found that in publicly naming CAIR and more than 200 other entities as unindicted co-conspirators in the case, the government violated their Fifth Amendment right to due process. In response, the government acknowledged that revealing the names of these entities was an “unfortunate oversight.” But the court would not move to remove CAIR and other groups from the list. Its ruling stated that “maintaining the names of the entities on the List is appropriate in light of the evidence proffered by the Government.”
Adding to this concern was a 2013 internal directive by the FBI instructing its agents to refrain from “non-investigative cooperation” with the group until it clarifies questions regarding CAIR’s ties to Hamas.
Some in the Jewish community dismissed the claims of terror ties, terming them outdated and unsubstantiated. For most, it was the issue of Israel that raised red flags.
According to the ADL, CAIR has sometimes been slow on the national level to condemn terrorism, and its leader, Nihad Awad, has made accusations against Israel over many years, calling it racist and describing Israel as a “terrorist state.” In its report on the group, ADL stated that “CAIR has a long record of anti-Israel activity.”
“It shows you what is the real bottom line here,” said Hooper of CAIR. “It’s about views on Israel.” He added that Muslim Americans “will never give up their support of the Palestinians and their right to live free of occupation.”
Schneier believes this is an obstacle the community can overcome.
“No one said everyone has to agree on everything,” he said. “We can have an understanding that when it comes to the Middle East we agree to disagree without being disagreeable.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com or on Twitter @nathanguttman
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.