Zahra Billoo, who heads the Council on American-Islamic Affair’s San Francisco office. by the Forward

Muslim leader’s warning about Hillel, ADL and other pro-Israel groups prompts backlash

A speech by a leader in the Council on American-Islamic Affairs — the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group — drew a concerned response from some pro-Israel Jewish groups after she warned that Muslims who support Palestinian rights should not work with Jewish organizations that support Israel.

Zahra Billoo, who heads CAIR’s San Francisco office, addressed the American Muslims for Palestine convention in Chicago last month, telling attendees that they should be wary of partnering with Jewish organizations that take liberal positions on domestic political issues while also supporting Israel.

“Pay attention to the polite Zionists,” Billoo said, “the ones that say, ‘Let’s just break bread together. We oppose a Muslim ban in the United States — but we cannot support Palestinian human rights.’”


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Billoo in her Nov. 27 speech cited the Anti-Defamation League, Hillel, Jewish federations and Zionist synagogues as examples of organizations that Muslims who advocate for Palestinian rights should be wary of working with. Organizers said more than 3,000 people attended the convention at which she spoke.

Her speech, resurfaced online by pro-Israel activists last week, comes at a time when Jewish establishment organizations have been grappling with how to work with progressive activists who often hold staunchly different views on Israel.

In late October, a local chapter of the national environment group Sunrise Movement boycotted a voting rights rally over the inclusion of three Jewish organizations that support Israel but are primarily focused on domestic politics — the National Council of Jewish Women, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs — before ultimately apologizing.

The following month, Rep. Jamal Bowman, a New York Democrat, faced backlash for a trip he took to Israel and the West Bank that was sponsored by the liberal pro-Israel group J Street, with some members of the Democratic Socialists of America calling for the group to withdraw its endorsement of the congressman.

The groups that Billoo called out by name in her speech have fraught histories with American Muslims and pro-Palestinian activists, with the ADL accused of failing to support Palestinians’ rights as it lobbies for civil liberties domestically, and Hillel refusing to work with anti-Zionist organizations.

Billoo has clashed with the ADL before, and the organization successfully called for her to be removed from the board of the Women’s March in 2019 over social media posts she had made about Israel.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco condemned Billoo’s speech Tuesday, calling it “antisemitic and deplorable.”

While Billoo mostly focused on Zionist organizations in her speech, she also seemed to hint that attendees should be wary of individual relationships with people who do not share their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Oh, you get along because you’re all in Girl Scouts together? Talk to them about what is happening in Palestine and see how that conversation goes,” Billoo said. “They will take your friendship and throw your Palestinian brothers and sisters under the bus.”

Billoo also praised two Jewish organizations that are vocal opponents of Israeli human rights abuses — Jewish Voice for Peace, which is anti-Zionist, and IfNotNow, which does not take a position on Zionism — calling them “on your side.”

A video of her speech was flagged by the pro-Israel blog Israellycool last week.

Author

Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a staff writer for the Forward, where he covers U.S. politics and American Jewish institutions. You can reach him at arno@forward.com and follow him on Twitter @arnorosenfeld.

Muslim leader’s warning about Hillel, ADL and other pro-Israel groups prompts backlash

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