December 16, 2021
In a speech late last month Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) told her audience that “when we talk about Islamophobia, we think oftentimes about the vehement fascists. But I also want us to pay attention to the polite Zionists. The ones that say, ‘Let’s just break bread together.’ They are not your friends.” She went on to describe “a well-funded campaign to bolster Islamophobia around the world and an interconnected network of Zionist-supporting organizations working to harm Muslims.”
Almost sixty years earlier, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr wrote, while he sat in a Birmingham, Alabama jail cell, that “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Billoo and King both speak as frustrated leaders of their movements. Both are dedicated to uplifting a marginalized and oppressed community. Billoo, like Dr. King, must challenge entrenched and widely supported legal and social constructions that reject the wrongs being done to her community. Dr. King demanded that our nation see an American racist reality that is still hard for many to accept. Billoo is challenging a strongly shared belief that Israel is a beacon of democracy and deep ignorance about the reality of Palestinian life under Israeli control. In depicting Israel as an aggressor, as an Apartheid state, she offends.
Billoo, like Dr. King, receives constant instruction about what language to use and what kinds of protests are acceptable. Billoo, like Dr. King, is strongly condemned when she ignores this “wisdom” and dares to speak her truth.
And so, it was not surprising that The ADL (Anti-Defamation League), took offense at Ms. Billoo’s words. It was also not surprising that they could not include even a word about the plight of the Palestinian people. The organization’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt pulled out his “antisemitism” trope and tweeted back “Throughout her speech Ms. Billoo blamed America’s Jewish institutions – from civil rights orgs to respected campus orgs to charitable orgs to virtually every synagogue in the US – for a variety of America’s ills, including Islamophobia…To so brazenly refer to the vast majority of American Jews as enemies solely because of their connection to the Jewish homeland, to repeatedly blame Jews for Islamophobia, and to unapologetically promote tropes used against Jews for millennia, is grotesque.”
Billoo is not wrong when she points to the network of Jewish organizations that stand behind Israel, right or wrong. She is not wrong in calling out even “liberal” Jewish organizations and voices who continue to council patience, who blame the oppressed for the way they are protesting, and who couch their mild critique of Israeli policies in mealy-mouthed words. She is not wrong if she recognizes that her organization (CAIR), faces opposition from voices who have greater financial and political power. The CAIR Foundation’s last IRS filing (1919) shows it with total revenue of $5.2 million and total net assets of $2.74 million. ADL, which is just one of the organizations standing with Israel and condemning assertive, pro-Palestinian voices, reported total revenues of more than $90 million in the same year.
Dr. King’s words were heard as prophetic by some in the Jewish community. King resonated with memories of oppression that echo through the Jewish narrative of enslaved people, of pogroms, and of the holocaust. For some, they served as a strong call to action. From another jailhouse, this one in Saint Augustine, Florida, a group of brave Rabbis wrote about what had called them to act in support of Black liberation. “We came to St. Augustine mainly because we could not stay away…We came because we could not stand quietly by our brother’s blood…We came in the hope that the God of all of us would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often…We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.”
Too many voices in the Jewish community, too many large well funded Jewish organizations (ADL, Jewish Federations, AIPAC, and even J Street) have chosen to play the role of victim in the face of Israeli aggression and Palestinian calls for justice. They mirror northern liberals who cheered on Dr. King when he marched to the streets of someone else’s community but told him to slow down, to quiet down when he came to their neighborhood and pointed out their own sins. They mirror those who after hundreds of years of oppression, counseled patience and were shocked and offended when violence broke out. To quote Dr. King again, “We do not need allies who are more devoted to order than to justice. I hear a lot of talk these days about our direct action program alienating former friends. I would rather feel that they are bringing to the surface many latent prejudices which were always there.”
Antisemitism cannot be a “get of jail free” card if it is to mean anything at all. Those, like Rosenblatt, who seek to use it as a shield, cannot be allowed to do so without protest from all people who are truly committed to freedom and equality.