The boycott of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s annual interfaith breakfast last week by 15 Muslim leaders who were upset over press reports about city police counterterrorism efforts to infiltrate Muslim neighborhoods and mosques has split leaders in both the Muslim and Jewish communities.
A letter to the mayor explaining the boycott was signed by about 75 religious leaders and organizations from various backgrounds, more than a half-dozen of them Jewish. It said the boycott was called because the exposé by the Associated Press last August revealed “astonishing” civil rights violations that were defended by Bloomberg.
“According to the investigation, the police department monitored and collected information on New Yorkers at about 250 mosques, schools, and businesses throughout the city, simply because of their religion and not because they exhibited suspicious behavior,” the letter said.
Bloomberg has defended the police, denying that it targets any ethnic group or neighborhood in the city.
“We have great race relations here,” he once said on his weekly radio show. “The communities — whether they’re Muslim or Jewish or Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or whatever — all contribute to this city.”
P. Adem Carroll, director of the Muslim Progressive Traditionalist Alliance in New York, said the boycott was simply to shine “more attention on the issue of surveillance and whether there are sufficient safeguards and oversight over the New York Police Department.”
There was concern, Carroll said, that the police department used “Islamophobic consultants,” whom he characterized as “right-wing people selling the idea that all Muslims are suspect. … “Surveillance is a problem if you do not have a warrant. Is spying on a complete community ever OK? Many of us would say no because it is intrusive and a fishing expedition and inherently problematic; it’s a very sensitive issue.”
He pointed out that the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition wrote three letters to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly requesting a meeting in light of the AP stories and received no more than an acknowledgement that the letters had been received.
But Imam Shamsi Ali of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York said he met in late November with Kelly to discuss the AP stories and that Kelly “agreed to meet with mainstream Muslim leaders” to discuss the matter in detail.
“Because of that, I am optimistic we can still engage and discuss the issue,” he told The Jewish Week. “I’m just waiting for the commissioner to schedule a meeting. No one will be left out [of the meeting]. … I do believe in dialogue and engagement.”
Imam Shamsi said he told those calling for the boycott about Kelly’s promise to meet but was told the boycott was designed to put “pressure on the mayor because he knew of the spying on the Muslim community.”
Carroll said he did not learn of Imam Shamsi’s meeting with Kelly until Tuesday when someone mentioned it at a press conference with Bloomberg at which the mayor and local religious leaders denounced the Sunday night firebombing of four Queens locations, including the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Jamaica. A fifth firebombing in Elmont is also said by police to be linked to the case.
“We are a decentralized community and sometimes … communication is lacking,” Carroll said of his failure to learn of Imam Shamsi Ali’s meeting with Kelly. “I certainly didn’t know it.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, said he was out of town for the mayor’s breakfast but would not have boycotted the event.
“Within the New York Muslim community there is some internal conflict,” he said.
“There are different voices expressing themselves. … It’s no different than what is experienced in the Jewish and African-American and Latino communities. It only shows how truly American the Muslim community has become.
“There are those who feel the mayor has been totally responsive to their needs, and others I would label activists who are upset about alleged insensitivity and racial profiling by the New York Police Department. My sense is that in the coming years New Yorkers need to heighten their sensitivities about the needs and concerns of the Muslim community.”
He pointed out that there are 23 states that have proposed anti-Sharia laws, something Rabbi Schneier called “absurd and will only heighten hysteria and nervousness on the part of Americans to the Muslim community.”
One of the Jewish leaders who signed the boycott letter, Rabbi Michael Weisser of the Free Synagogue of Flushing, said he decided to attend anyway in the hope of asking Bloomberg to arrange a meeting with Muslim leaders. He said he didn’t get a chance to speak with the mayor but did “speak to a number of people who work for the mayor and encouraged them to reach out to the Muslim community to try to come to some meaningful resolution.”
“I’m in full support of what the Muslim community is trying to achieve — a dialogue with the mayor to get to the truth of this matter,” Rabbi Weisser said. “I’m in favor of building a bridge of communication rather than allowing this to fester. I think [Bloomberg’s staff] was receptive.”
Among the other Jewish leaders who signed the letter posted on the Internet were Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, rabbinic director of the National Center for Jewish Healing and the New York Jewish Healing Center; Rabbi Michael Feinberg, executive director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, and Diane Steinman, former director of the American Jewish Committee’s New York chapter. Also signing the letter were two Jewish organizations: Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Jews Against Islamophobia.
Rabbi Weintraub said he was out of town but would have boycotted the breakfast.
“This is not a small thing,” he told The Jewish Week. “This kind of surveillance is really profiling. I would have wanted to make the statement with all the others that this is problematic and can’t be excused. It is something the mayor has to work with the police department on to make our security more sophisticated and just.”
The American Jewish Committee backed the mayor in the controversy.
The group said in a statement: “As an organization long devoted to promoting positive interfaith relations, we at AJC have every confidence the Mayor and the NYPD fully share that goal, while seeking to ensure the safety and security of all of New York’s residents.”
Imam Shamsi Ali said that despite his concerns about the issues raised in the AP story, he believed it was important to attend the mayor’s breakfast to demonstrate that Muslims “are an integral part of the New York community and that we cannot separate ourselves.”
He noted that although 15 Muslim leaders boycotted the event, 30 others attended, including those from Jamaica, Astoria and Harlem.
“In my view, the boycott was not effective in putting pressure on the mayor, and that is why he didn’t even mention it [in his remarks] at the breakfast,” Imam Shamsi said.
He added that Tuesday’s press conference to denounce the weekend fire bombings brought out a large number of religious leaders and city officials.
“It was a good opportunity to build trust with city officials,” he said. “I have never seen such gathering of the entire community. All imams came and more importantly the interfaith community came to show solidarity and unity. That is what New York City is all about.”