Perhaps some people were shocked when a leader of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) recently engaged in an epic rant against Jews, their synagogues and their organizations. Zahra Billoo is the executive director of the group's San Francisco branch and a former leader of the anti-Trump "resistance" Women's March. When she recently told a conference convened by the radical anti-Israel American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) that they should shun mainstream groups like the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Federations and Hillel, the Jewish establishment reacted angrily.
As scholar Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum told JNS, it was amusing that those organizations, which were dubbed "polite Zionists" by Billoo, only reacted strongly when they were attacked by name even though CAIR's record of extremism had been clear for most of the last two decades. The fact that CAIR not only failed to repudiate Billoo but supported her after her speech was hard to excuse for even those most determined to treat the incident as unimportant.
Though it was first created as a political front group supporting fundraising for Hamas terrorists in the U.S. and has remained a bastion of anti-Israel hate, CAIR has largely succeeded in persuading many Jews as well as the media and government institutions that it is a civil rights group. So long as CAIR's most vocal critics within the Jewish community were figures like Pipes or Steven Emerson's Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), who has focused not just on the group's origins but also on its activities and its partners like AMP, many in the Jewish establishment were not only willing to give CAIR a pass, but actively helped it go mainstream.
Now that the veil has once again been torn away from their deceptive marketing by Billoo's frankness, the question is whether American Jewry and its leading organizations are capable of drawing the proper conclusions about CAIR. More to the point: Will Jewish community relations councils (JCRCs) and others who are dedicated to promoting interfaith dialogue with Muslims finally understand that as valuable as that effort might be, it can't be achieved by partnering with groups like CAIR?
American Jews and Muslims need to understand each other better, and that can be facilitated by outreach and dialogue. But as is often the case with efforts to seek commonalities with other minorities or faith groups, those involved often regard the process itself as more important than actually safeguarding the interests of the Jewish community.
That failing was key to CAIR's efforts to rebrand itself as the Muslim version of the ADL. Similarly to Jewish outreach to the African–American community — when anti-Semitic extremists like Farrakhan supporters can present an obstacle to liberal Jews' desire to embrace them — Jewish groups have often been eager to engage in dialogue or break bread with extremists within the Muslim community regardless of the consequences.
CAIR took advantage of that desire to dupe gullible liberals or those merely interested in burnishing their reputations as Jewish leaders. As a result, JCRC organizations around the country came to regard CAIR chapters as legitimate partners for dialogue. Many Jewish liberals saw no problem working with CAIR on issues on which they agreed — like amnesty for illegal immigrants — or opposing efforts to enforce existing immigration laws. In this manner, CAIR's goal of being normalized and to become the central address for the interests of American Muslims —most of whom have little interest in extremism — was advanced.
It is now little late for advocates of Jewish-Muslim dialogue to take the position that CAIR's endorsement of anti-Semitism should not deter Jews from continuing to continue the dialogue. In all too many communities, it is simply impossible to separate CAIR from the cause of interfaith outreach involving Jews and Muslims. Having already bestowed legitimacy on CAIR and its various allies, many Jews are now all too reluctant to treat Billoo's comments or the failure of CAIR to condemn her as a sufficient reason to rethink the process.
Part of the problem has been the willingness of those that Billoo called "polite Zionists" to treat those whom she labeled as "fascists" or "Islamophobes" as an embarrassment to the Jewish community. In her speech, she divided Jews into three groups.
On the one hand, she advocated continued work with "good Jews" who share CAIR's anti-Zionist goals, such as the members of IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, which have actively sought to support the anti-Semitic BDS movement and, in the case of JVP, actually engaged in promoting a blood libel against Jews. But she cautioned that the "polite Zionists" were just as bad as the third group, those actively engaged in exposing CAIR's activities and stands, whose work is often put down as bigotry by self-appointed arbiters of extremism like the leftist Southern Poverty Law Center, instead of providing the country with the information it needs to make informed decisions about CAIR.
All too often mainstream groups have acquiesced to the labeling of the Middle East Forum and the IPT as "anti-Muslim" — just as Billoo does — instead of acknowledging that they have been doing the hard work of exposing the truth about CAIR and associated groups. The fact that CAIR is pushing a story this week intended to distract attention from Billoo's ongoing anti-Semitic rhetoric — in which she is claiming that she is the victim of a "prolonged Zionist onslaught" — about the IPT having paid an informant for information about CAIR's activities illustrates how determined CAIR is to marginalize its most potent critics.
Unfortunately, mainstream Jewish liberals have often foolishly bought into the misleading rhetoric about Islamophobia. That is a charge that is intended primarily to change the conversation from one about the hate emanating from Islamists to one about mythical anti-Muslim backlashes. This is the same trick that anti-Semites like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) have used to fend off legitimate criticism of her extremism and promotion of hate.
Instead of stubbornly pretending that the problem can be restricted to Billoo and pushing on with business as usual in interfaith efforts, what the mainstream Jewish world needs to do is pause and examine its own complicity in CAIR's growing ability to foist itself on American Muslims and to be recognized by the media and government institutions as a respected civil rights group. Dialogue with Muslims should not be avoided, but it must be conditioned on mutual respect – and self-respect. That requires Jewish groups to call out CAIR and all those associated with it as members of hate groups, not candidates for dialogue. If that is too much to ask, then there's no point in listening to Jewish organizations vent their outrage about what Billoo said.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.