After Uria Ohana, an Israeli-born Lubavitcher chasid, was attacked recently in Brooklyn by teens who allegedly stole his kipa and shouted at him in Arabic, the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations denounced the crime in no uncertain terms.
“This act is not representative of our community,” said Faiza Ali, the group’s community affairs director at a press conference at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. “We stand in solidarity with the Jewish community. A bias attack on Jews is an attack on all people.”
But when Ali approached Ohana afterward to personally express her concern, the scene was awkward.
“You can’t on one hand condemn a hate crime attack and on the other hand legitimate terror attacks in other places in the world,” said Ohana.
It’s a rap that members of CAIR frequently battle as they work to integrate themselves into New York’s diversity and tolerance scene, seeking a place among Jewish and other groups that frequently come together in the wake of a bias crime. And the incident points up just how fragile the coalition-building process is between Jews and Muslims, even at a time of growing outreach between the groups.
Critics say CAIR has a blind spot, or worse, when it comes to condemning Palestinian violence against Israelis.
Anti-terror watchdogs note that last year a federal indictment against the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development alleging that the group was a fundraising front for Hamas terrorism named CAIR as an un-indicted co-conspirator. The case against the foundation ended in October with a mistrial; a new trial is pending.
Around the same time, the Anti-Defamation League announced that it was “deeply troubled” by CAIR’s failure to address its past affiliation with the strongly anti-Israel Islamic Association for Palestine and to “unequivocally condemn terrorists by name.”
An online report by ADL on CAIR says the group endorsed and participated in several rallies supporting Hezbollah and hosted a forum with professors Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer, authors of a controversial study and book claiming that the pro-Israel lobby drives U.S. foreign policy.
Last week’s Brooklyn press conference marked the first time staff of the ADL and Jewish Community Relations Council appeared alongside a CAIR representative.
“This was a We Are All Brooklyn event,” said JCRC Executive Vice President Michael Miller, referring to a diversity coalition that includes his organization and several others, but not CAIR. “The JCRC does not work cooperatively with CAIR but in this instance the We Are All Brooklyn leadership wanted them to speak.”
After 9/11, as Muslim community organizations began to complain of increasing bias incidents, racial profiling and cases of unwarranted surveillance and prosecution, such groups have increasingly worked to increase their ties with Jewish organizations and others that battle intolerance.
Those efforts have bloomed into relationships between JCRC and the Council of Peoples Organizations, a South Asian immigrant group, and between the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC).
But CAIR remains a hot-button name. In 2002, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed a lawyer, Omar Mohammedi, to the city’s Human Rights Commission, Jewish activists campaigned unsuccessfully to have the appointment rescinded because of Mohammedi’s ties to CAIR, for whom he is general counsel. Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the only Muslim elected to Congress, also came under some criticism during his 2006 race for speaking at a CAIR event and for taking contributions from CAIR members, including founder Nihad Awad.
“There have been many attempts to encourage [CAIR] to speak out when suicide bombers target innocent men, women and children in Israel,” said Miller. “They have not done so, and as such JCRC will not work with them.”
In an e-mail message, CAIR’s Faiza Ali said her group "works closely with interfaith partners, including members of the Jewish community across the country to help enhance the understanding of Islam and build coalitions of mutual understanding and tolerance by focusing issues of universal concern." She included statements by CAIR denouncing anti-Semitic acts and praise from a Pennsylvania rabbi.
As to the condemnation of terrorism in Israel, she said "Unfortunately, all parties in the Middle East conflict have committed violence against civilians. We unequivocally condemn all these actions."
The group’s Web site contains a list of terror acts the group says it condemned, including the March, 2002 Passover seder bombing in Netanya, and similar attacks in Jerusalem, Haifa and Gaza, as well as the 2006 attack on a Seattle Jewish Center.
Following the 2004 beheading of an American Jewish civilian contractor in Iraq, which was videotaped and released to U.S. news agencies, CAIR started an online petition called “Not In The Name of Islam,” which declared that “no injustice done to Muslims can ever justify the massacre of innocent people, and no act of terror will ever serve the cause of Islam.”
However, the group has not posted the names of signatories, ostensibly because of technical problems and to avoid hateful messages, a spokesman told the Washington Post. The group has also denounced the Holocaust denial conference convened in Tehran by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Efforts to forge ahead in Muslim-Jewish ties while rejecting CAIR are reminiscent of the organized Jewish community working to further black-Jewish relations while sidestepping the Rev. Al Sharpton, a prominent African-American leader, who is seen by most Jewish organizations as having been divisive in the past.
Rev. Sharpton has long rejected that label, making several efforts to reach out to the Jewish community while refusing to apologize for past statements and actions during the 1991 Crown Heights riots and the deadly protests at a Jewish-owned store in Harlem five years later.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, co-founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, said CAIR officials have expressed a desire to work with his group as it prepares for a major Muslim-Jewish initiative.
“We are producing public service announcements featuring rabbis and imams speaking out against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia,” said the rabbi. “Many groups within the American Muslim community are reaching out to us.” He noted that MPAC cosponsored a summit of 12 imams and 12 rabbis last November and that it was working on a national “twinning” day to pair synagogues and mosques across the country.
As for CAIR, the rabbi said, “I don’t know enough about them. We are very careful in terms of due diligence.”
But the tangled-web nature of Muslim-Jewish ties may be evident in the fact that one of Rabbi Schneier’s partners carries baggage similar to that of CAIR. The Islamic Society of North America was also named in the federal action against the Holy Land Foundation, as a member of the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood, an alleged co-conspirator.
But Rabbi Schneier said ISNA “has been working very closely with the Union for Reform Judaism and just completed a landmark curriculum in Muslim-Jewish relations. When the secretary general of ISNA, Sayid Sayid, spoke at our summit in November he could not have been more gracious. They feel strongly it is time to move forward.”
Police have charged 18-year-old Ali Hussein of Queens in the attack on Ohana, an assistant rabbi currently living in Wellesley, Mass. Two other suspects in the attack were being sought.
Hussein was struck by a car while fleeing Ohana who chased him after his kipa was grabbed, authorities said. Ohana says the youths chanted “Allahu Akhbar,” or God is great, when they accosted him outside a subway station in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Hussein faces charges of aggravated harassment as a bias crime as well as larceny.
Of his giving chase to his attacker, Ohana told The Jewish Week “all I could think about was getting my yarmulke back.” He said he intended to press for the strictest prosecution of the suspects.
The We Are All Brooklyn Coalition, together with JCRC, is to hold a community conference to prevent hate crimes Wednesday, April 9, at Brooklyn College.