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Geller Forum Shifts To New Venues

Geller Forum Shifts To New Venues

Edison, NJ, shul and Great Neck Chabad host controversial speaker on radical Islam.

Pamela Geller, the controversial Jewish activist whose warnings about radical Islam earned her scorn and fierce opposition on the left — leading the Great Neck Synagogue to cancel her scheduled appearance last weekend, has also earned admiration on the right, with two other synagogues scheduling her in the wake of the cancellation.

The two synagogues where Geller spoke on Sunday were the Chabad of Great Neck, where the attendance was said to be over 600, and Congregation Beth El in Edison N.J. where she was heard by an estimated 150 – while the synagogue was threatened with a firebombing.

Rabbi Bernhard H. Rosenberg of Beth El, who has written extensively about the Holocaust, said he turned over the threat, made by e-mail, to the police, whom he said were investigating. The unsigned e-mail said, “why do I have the feeling this synagogue will be attacked with firebombs and tainted with swastika graffiti in the coming weeks?”

Additionally, Rabbi Rosenberg’s home was pelted around 40 times, “something was thrown at the garage door” leaving “indentations, big ones.” The police were notified about that, as well, and they’ve brought in “the [Middlesex] county bias people,” said the rabbi.

Despite the attacks that preceded her, “all I can say it was nonsense. The woman is very articulate. There was no meshugas. I found her speech [posted on YouTube] to be very logical and very professional. Geller, to me, seems straight down the pike.”

Even prior to Geller’s speech, the Edison area has experienced inter-religious tensions lately. Rabbi Rosenberg, who has written extensively on the Holocaust, agreed two years ago to omit Hatikvah from the local interfaith Holocaust commemoration when Muslim imams stayed seated in protest while the anthem was being sung, This year the rabbi felt that Hatikvah had to be reinstated because not to do so would be “giving in to the current atmosphere of anti-Semitism” in Europe and the Arab world, an atmosphere that Geller addresses.

The rabbi told The Jewish Week that he, too, believed that “extremist Muslims are a tremendous danger, especially in Europe.” The problem with the Jewish people today is that “we’re milquetoast,” said Rabbi Rosenberg, “in the face of all the threats and insults.” When he heard that Geller’s appearances were being cancelled elsewhere, he said, “Not on my watch” would he buckle and be party to a speaker being silenced and intimidated.

At the Chabad of Great Neck, earlier Sunday, Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky said the Geller event, with over 600 people, was “very nice, very peaceful,” with no threats or opposition. She was very positive. She did not attack Islam or religion. She specifically said that we are only opposing Hamas, jihadists, terrorism and anti-Semites.”

Geller was invited to the Chabad of Great Neck, after the Great Neck Synagogue cancelled her appearance, said Rabbi Geisinsky, “because she has a message, and it has validity: If there are those who want to attack the Jewish people we should be prepared to stand up and defend ourselves.”

Jewish groups that opposed the event protested the venue change as well. T’ruah: The Rabbinical Call for Human Rights (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights-North America), had commended Great Neck synagogue for canceling Geller’s appearance.

“We are now disturbed to learn that Great Neck Chabad and Congregation Beth-El in Edison, New Jersey have offered their homes as alternative platforms for Geller’s toxic brand of intolerance: rhetoric which goes beyond political dialogue and crosses the line into hate speech,” the group said in a statement.

In October, Rabbis for Human Rights-North America purchased ads in the New York City subway system bearing such slogans as “Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors,” to oppose anti-jihad ads placed by Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative.

“Rabbi Dr. Bernhard H. Rosenberg of Congregation Beth-El extended the invitation to me personally this morning, and I commend him for it,” Geller told The Jewish Week Thursday. “The cancellation by the Great Neck Synagogue was particularly cowardly, as it sends the message that if leftists and Muslims defame those they hate loudly enough and for a long enough time, they will succeed in getting them silenced.”

Great Neck Synagogue on Thursday morning cited security concerns and rising costs associated with the event in announcing the cancellation.

“As the notoriety and media exposure of the planned program this Sunday have increased, so has the legal liability and potential security exposure of our institution and its member families,” said the executive board of the Orthodox congregation in an email to members.

“In an era of heightened security concerns it is irresponsible to jeopardize the safety of those who call Great Neck Synagogue home, especially our children, even at the risk of diverting attention from a potentially important voice in the ongoing debate.”

In an earlier email before the venue change Geller said ” While I understand the synagogue’s action, I deplore the cancellation.”

Protests and counterprotests were planned for the event, which would also feature Greg Buckley, Sr., whose 21-year-old son, Lance Cpl. Greg Buckley of Oceanside, L.I., was killed last August by a policeman in Afghanistan.

The event, according to one e-mail, was planned to enable Buckley to tell of his son’s murder and “to shine the spotlight on the plight of our brave young soldiers and military families and their demand for respect and justice from our government, which has so far been denied.”

But those questioning the event focused on Geller’s appearance.

“She is very much anti-Syrian and anti-Muslim and has said she would use our holy book, the Koran, as a door stopper,” said Habeeb Ahmed, who is one of 14 Nassau County Human Rights Commissioners and the first vice president of the Islamic Center of Long Island.

Jewish groups also opposed the event. T’ruah: The Rabbinical Call for Human Rights (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights-North America), had commended Great Neck synagoguge for cancelling Geller’s appearance.

“We are now disturbed to learn that Great Neck Chabad and Congregation Beth-El in Edison, New Jersey have offered their homes as alternative platforms for Geller’s toxic brand of intolerance: rhetoric which goes beyond political dialogue and crosses the line into hate speech,” the group said in a statement.

In October, Rabbis for Human Rights-North America purchased ads in the New York City subway system bearing such slogans as “Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors,” to oppose anti-jihad ads placed by Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative.

Ahmed said that when he learned of her scheduled appearance, he called the synagogue and “left a message with the rabbi’s office saying it was not appropriate for a house of worship to invite Ms. Geller, whom the ADL [Anti-Defamation League] and the Southern Poverty Law Center have said is a hate monger. … She will be dividing the community. We have worked hard to bring Jews and Muslims together in general and in Great Neck in particular, where for more than 20 years we have had programs and a dialogue between American Muslims and Jews.”

In her first email to The Jewish Week Thursday, Geller said “It is a very sad day for freedom-loving peoples when fascist tactics trump free speech. This reinforces a terrible precedent: that Islamic supremacists and leftists can get whatever they want, and silence their opponents, by keeping up pressure on decent people until they cave in …

“In mosques and Islamic centers, the most vitriolic jihad supporters and preachers of hate speak freely. No one complains. No one demonstrates. No one utters a word of protest. But my work that has been consistently in defense of human rights is not allowed to be given a hearing.”

Jeff Wiesenfeld, a member of the shul, supported the cancellation in a mass email on Thursday. “Our synagogue did what it HAD TO DO. However, it bodes ill for all of us. OUR community was convulsed, but the Islamists and their enablers won.”

The controversy against Geller’s appearance is the latest in a series of free-speech skirmishes to hit the Jewish community in recent weeks. A Brooklyn College event featuring supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BBS) movement led to a raucous free-speech fight, and a panel on Israel last weekend was hosted by a liberal congregation in Chelsea — but only after a liberal Upper West Side synagogue canceled the original event, for fear that BDS would be discussed.

The fight to keep Geller from speaking, however, is a bit different. Many of the other fights have been waged by conservative, pro-Israel members of the community against the BDS movement, against liberal author Peter Beinart and even against film festivals that put the experiences of Israeli Arabs in the spotlight. The Geller protest was being waged largely from the left and from the interfaith community.

An e-mail in support of Geller was critical of Ahmed for “mobilizing a lynch mob of local liberal activists and community organizations to harass Rabbi [Dale] Polakoff from Great Neck Synagogue with hundreds of phone calls, demanding he cancel the event or protests will ensue. … It is an absolute disgrace that a man of public office should roll out a campaign of intimidation and censorship because he objects to the viewpoint of one of the speakers.”

As a result of Ahmed’s e-mails in which he identified himself as a county Human Rights Commissioner, the Nassau County Attorney’s office launched an investigation last week to determine whether Ahmed “misused his title,” according to Brian Nevin, a senior policy adviser to Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano.

“They are looking to see if any rules in the county charter were broken,” Nevin said. “It may be that there is no policy — and he has apologized.”

Also voicing his concern about Geller’s appearance is the Rev. Thomas Goodhue, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches.

“I never intended to organize a massive protest [against her appearance], but a lot of people are concerned,” he said. “A number of rabbis I spoke to are concerned, and I believe she presents a very bad image of Judaism.”

He said that when he first heard of her planned appearance he called the synagogue and spoke with one of the rabbis to verify it.

“My call was meant to be in the form of a heads up — that there could be problems,” Rev. Goodhue said. “She has the right to speak — and I am certainly not going to go — but I have to question whether it is appropriate for a house of worship to give her the microphone. … I tried to convey to the rabbi that I would be deeply offended if a church invited a hate monger to come.”

Geller said in an e-mail interview that when she has spoken in the past there was “pressure from leftists and Islamic supremacists to get me canceled … but the pressure has seldom been this intense.”

One reason, she suggested, is that “in general, leftists and Islamic supremacists are growing increasingly desperate: they know that they are perpetrating a Goebbels-like Big Lie, and so even though they have immense influence in the media and in government, they are avid to silence anyone who speaks the truth, because they fear how the truth, even when spoken in a small venue, exposes them.”

Asked if she ever said that she uses the Koran as a doorstop, Geller replied that her comment about “coffee-table size Korans” given out by an American-Islamic group “was a joke, a rhetorical flourish.”

In response to the countless phone calls and e-mails Great Neck Synagogue received from both supporters and critics of the event, it issued the following statement:

“Great Neck Synagogue rejects the categorizing of any religious majority based on the actions of a minority. It does though believe that it is absolutely appropriate and with independence of free speech to speak about the actions of such a minority and to evaluate their impact on the perception of the majority of their co-religionists, and on the community in general. It is within such a framework that the Men’s Club has invited Pamela Geller to speak. She will be joined by Greg Buckley, Sr. father of Marine Corporal Gregory Buckley Jr., who was murdered by Jihadists.”

Both sides in this issue are claiming that the other is using devious tactics to galvanize support for their message. And just as Rev. Goodhue said his organization is not calling for the event to be cancelled, so too did the ADL deny rumors that it too wanted to see it called off.

Etzion Neuer, director of community service and policy for the ADL’s New York region, said his organization’s only role was to call the synagogue to make sure it was aware of Geller’s views.

Neuer said Geller is “seen as a pro-Israel advocate or part of a movement to counter extremism. But when you scratch the surface, what you get is less about making a legitimate case for Israel and more that is anti-Islamic bigotry. Part of what makes her problematic is that there are real legitimate concerns about radical interpretations of Islam, which the ADL has spoken about forcefully. But Geller, under the guise of fighting radical Islam, absolutely demonizes an entire religion. In directing her rhetoric at the entire Islamic faith, she fuels anti-Islamic bigotry.”

Asked about the ADL’s assessment, Geller wrote: “It is a shame that the ADL long ago abandoned its mission of defending Jews and now devotes its time to attacking Jews who deviate from its leftist and self-defeating political line. I have consistently invited peaceful Muslims who sincerely reject the Koran’s exhortations to violence and hatred to join in my efforts, and am doing them out of love for Muslims and a desire that all people be freed from oppression.”

An e-mail urging attendance at the event said supporters hoped to “gather in force” at the synagogue April 14 before the 10 a.m. program.

“We need to assemble a big crowd inside as well as outside with flags and signs: ‘We will not be silent against jihad,’ ‘Commissioner Ahmed must resign!’ ‘We will not be censored!’ ‘Support Israel, Defeat Jihad,’ and ‘Justice for LCpl Buckley.”

Adam Dickter, Helen Chernikoff and Jonathan Mark contributed to this report.

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