Its leaders won't condemn terrorist groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah, but the co-founder and executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Nihad Awad, says his organization fights "Zionism on [a] daily basis."
Awad co-founded CAIR in 1994, and is the only person to run it. In a speech to the anti-Israel group American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) last Friday, he cast Zionism as inherently hateful.
"For me, at CAIR, as the executive director of CAIR, the nation's largest Muslim civil-rights and advocacy organization, we deal with racism, Islamophobia, and Zionism on [a] daily basis," he said.
AMP is a radical group that opposes Israel's existence. It is suspected of having grown from the ashes of a now-defunct American propaganda arm of Hamas called the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP). Osama Abuirshaid, now AMP's national policy director, has said the organization seeks "to challenge the legitimacy of the State of Israel."
Awad and others who spoke at AMP's national convention, held in Chicago over Thanksgiving weekend, share that mission, though some of them are more circumspect than others about saying so. None of the AMP speakers criticized Israeli policies. Each took issue with Zionism, the ideology that calls for a Jewish state in Jews' ancestral homeland. Anti-Zionism of the sort heard in Chicago ignores the political and demographic realities of life in Israel, where Israeli Arabs serve on courts, as military leaders, and in the Knesset. Such rhetoric is also routinely described as anti-Semitic by Jewish and other groups. "Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor" is included in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)'s working definition of anti-Semitism, which has been adopted by 20 countries, including the United States.
That Awad would even slip into such talk at the AMP convention was telling. You won't find references to "deal[ing] with Zionism" on any CAIR web page. To the general public, CAIR casts itself as an organization focused solely on protecting the rights of Muslim Americans. But the record tells a far more disturbing story.
Awad and his CAIR co-founder, Omar Ahmad, previously worked at the IAP, which was part of a network of U.S. groups created by the Muslim Brotherhood to support Hamas politically and financially. CAIR was added to the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood's Palestine Committee, the roster listing the network's various groups, as soon as it was created. As a result, CAIR was included in a list of unindicted co-conspirators in a 2008 case in which federal prosecutors said that the group was "a participant in an ongoing and ultimately unlawful conspiracy to support a designated terrorist organization [Hamas], a conspiracy from which CAIR never withdrew."
The conspiracy in question was meant to support Hamas in its efforts to destroy Israel. In saying CAIR "deal[s]" with Zionism daily, Awad was sanitizing that mission through euphemism. It's small wonder that at the AMP convention, he praised his fellow speaker, the controversial Islamist activist Linda Sarsour, calling her "one of our best examples in the community. . . . Not only she stands [sic] up for Muslims, but she stands up for other people. She fights Islamophobes. She fights Zionism. And she fights racism and xenophobia. And that's how we Muslims should lend our voices to other causes."
A Palestinian American born in Brooklyn, Sarsour has risen to something of a position of prominence in progressive-activist circles over the last decade, first protesting post-9/11 law-enforcement surveillance of Muslims in New York City, then helping to organize Black Lives Matter protests after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and finally co-chairing the Women's March and serving on its board from its founding until she was ousted in September over a long history of anti-Semitic rhetoric. (She landed on her feet, becoming an official surrogate of Senator Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign.)
Like Awad and other AMP convention speakers, Sarsour is adept at tailoring her message to her audience. At the 2018 Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) conference, for example, she blamed Jews for police shootings of unarmed black people because of an Anti-Defamation League program that takes police executives to Israel to learn about fighting terrorism and riots. But during a talk at New York University last March, she put on a softer face, saying she is "cool with" people who don't share her views on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict as long as they can work together on other causes.
"I never went to a movement and asked people to fill out a form and say, 'Please tell me all your political views.' I mean, that's not how it works," she said at NYU. Other people are trying "to pin up Jewish Americans and Muslim Americans," she claimed. "Who benefits from dividing these communities? . . . It actually makes us all vulnerable. So I don't play into that."
In Chicago on Friday, she was once again singing a harsher tune: Progressive Zionists, she argued, cannot be her allies.
"You tell me, 'Oh, I'm with you. You can't push me out of the movement because I'm also against white supremacy,'" Sarsour said. "Ask them this: How can you be against white supremacy in the United States of America, and the idea of living in a supremacist state based on race and class, but then support a state like Israel that is built on supremacy, that is built on the idea that Jews are supreme to everybody else? How do you, then, not support the caging of children on the U.S.–Mexican border, but then you support the detainment and detention of Palestinian children in Palestine? How does that work, sisters and brothers?"
For starters, there aren't terrorist groups running a government on the other side of the Mexican border, calling for America's destruction and building attack tunnels and launching rockets at civilians in pursuit of that goal. Sarsour might in turn be asked how she can stay silent when Hamas endangers Palestinians in Gaza through such activities and hurts their quality of life by prioritizing the creation of a terrorist infrastructure over the growth of Gaza's economy. She also could be asked why, as a "progressive" activist, she is so eager to alienate American Jews, a reliably progressive voting bloc. More than 70 percent of these voters backed Hillary Clinton in 2016, and in the 2018 mid-term elections, nearly 80 percent of them voted for Democratic candidates.
Yet Sarsour's willingness to antagonize American Jews isn't really all that puzzling when you consider another fact: They overwhelmingly support Israel. An American Jewish Committee survey of American Jews released in June showed that 72 percent of respondents believed "a thriving State of Israel is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people." The most recent Gallup poll data finds that 95 percent of American Jews view Israel favorably.
So there was Sarsour in Chicago, joining CAIR's San Francisco chapter director, Zahra Billoo, to shun the possibility of alliances with Zionists. Billoo, who last year told AMP, "I am not going to legitimize a country [Israel] that I don't believe has a right to exist," spoke at an AMP session Saturday, criticizing what she saw as the unfair sacrifices needed to engage in interfaith dialogue.
"I agree, more polarization is good," she said. "For so long in Muslim interfaith conversations we talked about the 'Israel litmus test.' [The feeling was that] if a Muslim shows up to an interfaith space, we need to be willing to compromise on Israel's right to exist for us to be able to participate in that conversation. I'm done with that. If there's anything I learned from the Women's March debacle, it's that we give and we give and we give, and it's not enough. We change the name, we acknowledge the right to exist and . . . it's not enough. And so let me state unequivocally that I am now applying the 'Palestine litmus test' to any interfaith space that I am in. If you want to be in community with me, my people, and the Palestinians I work in solidarity with, then let's have a conversation about how Israel as it exists today is an illegitimate state. . . . I am not going to support its right to exist. And I'm not going to say that just so people feel better about it. If you want to be in community with me, if you want to work with me, where are you on Palestine?"
The "Women's March debacle" Billoo referred to must have been a source of personal bitterness for her. In September, she spent about 48 hours on the group's national board, only to be removed by other group leaders who "found some of her public statements incompatible with the values and mission of the organization." She'd joined the March's board as Sarsour was leaving it. During Sarsour's tenure, the group had endured a series of charges of anti-Semitism that prompted several prominent sponsors to cut off support before she was jettisoned along with a few other prominent board members at the heart of the controversy.
To judge by the inflammatory, uncompromising rhetoric heard in Chicago, none of the offenders in question have learned their lesson.
Steve Emerson is the executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism and the author of six books on terrorism and national security,