The Pittsburgh chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Pittsburgh), a nonprofit organization that purports to focus on domestic civil rights issues and bias against Muslims, branched out to pursue a foreign policy agenda this summer by urging the U.S. Senate to cease its support of Israel during Operation Protective Edge.
CAIR-Pittsburgh joined several other chapters of the national group in a letter-writing campaign condemning Israel in its “disproportionate use of force against the Palestinians in Gaza.”
By Aug. 1, CAIR-Pittsburgh had collected several hundred signed letters directed to Pennsylvania Sens. Robert Casey and Patrick Toomey, according to the group’s website.
The form letters read, in part: “Because American taxpayers provide Israel with billions of dollars of aid each year, we have a right to demand that those funds not be used to take the lives of innocent civilians.”
In his response to CAIR, Toomey reaffirmed his support for Israel, rebuking “the unprovoked rocket fire at Israel” and calling on Hamas to cease such attacks, according to the senator’s press secretary. Casey did not respond to the campaign because it was a “mass petition,” according to his deputy press secretary, but Casey, along with 87 other senators last week, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry condemning Hamas’ attacks on Israel. Although CAIR-Pittsburgh participated in the letter-writing campaign this past summer, the group’s president, Safdar Khwaja, contends that CAIR has no official positions concerning the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
“Our agenda is primarily domestic,” Khwaja said, adding that people do tend to “chime in” on social media when issues abroad affect Muslims in the United States, including matters that incite racism.
“Politics is not our realm,” he said. “We don’t have opinions on politics.”
But positions and actions taken by CAIR’s national leaders have led some to conclude that the organization is nothing if not political.
Specifically listed on CAIR’s website as a chapter of the national body, CAIR-Pittsburgh is officially an independent chapter of CAIR Pennsylvania (CAIR-PA), a 501(c)(3) with another independent chapter in Philadelphia. Each chapter has its own board of directors, and a separate board of directors for CAIR-PA is comprised of members of each chapter’s own board.
“Each city concentrates on what they feel is most important and how it fits our mission statement,” said Jacob Bender, the executive director of CAIR’s Philadelphia chapter and the first Jewish person to hold a high-level job with CAIR. “They have a lot of autonomy.”
The national arm of CAIR, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C., was launched in 1994 by three former officers of the Islamic Association of Palestine: Omar Ahmad, Rafeeq Jaber and Nihad Awad, who currently serves as the organization’s executive director.
Awad has been vocal in his condemnation of Israel and rebuked the Jewish state during Operation Protective Edge, including at an Aug. 2 rally in Washington, D.C., dubbed “Stop the Massacre in Gaza!” and in many of his postings on Facebook and Twitter.
On Aug. 19, Awad tweeted that Israel is the “biggest threat to world peace and security,” charging that it targets civilians, possessed weapons of mass destruction and didn’t respect international laws.
Ten days earlier, referencing a pro-Palestinian march in London, he appeared in a tweet to equate Israel with “modern day Apartheid.” A tweet later that day urged followers to spread the message of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
At the rally in Washington, Awad accused Israel of having an “official policy to target civilian populations,” which, he averred, “is the definition of terrorism.”
“This is why some Latin countries have declared the State of Israel as a terrorist state,” he told the crowd, to rousing applause. “This brutal government has been slaying innocent populations knowing that it will be targeting innocent civilians, knowing that it will be hitting schools and hospitals, knowing that the biggest casualties would be among the civilians.”
Absent from his speech was any condemnation of Hamas, its rocket fire aimed at civilian population centers such as Sderot, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and its firing rockets from hospitals, schools and U.N.-run facilities.
Reached for comment, Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s national communications director, referred back to postings on the group’s website that it says dispels myths and false charges leveled at the organization; Awad was not available for comment.
A CAIR news release echoes some of Awad’s statements.
“It is shameful that our government seeks to re-arm a military machine accused of war crimes and engaged in a brutal and indiscriminate campaign of violence that has killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians, including women, children and the elderly,” reads a national CAIR news release posted on its website on July 31, 2014. “Giving more weapons to an aggressor in an already violent situation promotes war, not peace. Such a cynical action sends the message to the world community that our expressed sympathy for the massive suffering of Gaza’s civilian population is hypocritical at best, and at worst, a lie.”
Many Jewish organizations nationwide refuse to work with CAIR because of its policy statements and Awad’s rhetoric.
“When we say, ‘Israel has a right to defend itself,’ you don’t hear CAIR saying that,” said Gregg Roman, director of the Community Relations Council at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “This is more about what they don’t say than what they do say.”
Among organizations that caution Jews against engaging with CAIR is the Anti-Defamation League, which has accused the organization’s founders of being affiliated with Hamas and has called into question CAIR’s claim that it is committed to improving community relations.
“CAIR’s credibility as a community relations agency promoting ‘justice and mutual understanding’ … is tainted,” claims a July 15, 2010 posting on the ADL’s website. “Founded by leaders of the Islamic Association for Palestine, a Hamas-affiliated anti-Semitic propaganda organization, CAIR refused for many years to unequivocally condemn by name Hezbollah and Palestinian terror organizations, which the U.S. and international community have condemned and isolated.”
While the ADL recognized that on the fifth anniversary of the Madrid bombings in March 2009, CAIR condemned acts of terrorism by groups designated by the U.S. Department of State as foreign terrorist organizations — and acknowledged that Hamas is on that list — the ADL nevertheless asserted that acknowledgement “did not represent a genuine break from CAIR’s past because it did not address its own historical links to Hamas.”
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs similarly cautions against Jewish groups working with CAIR, according to Ethan Felson, the organization’s vice president and general counsel.
There is “a very solid consensus among the majority of Jewish organizations” that CAIR is not a group with which to engage, “and certainly not on any bilateral basis,” said Felson. “The sum total of their stances and their advocacy puts them outside the range of groups we feel we could ever work with. At the national level, they are about as hostile to our interests as the Presbyterian Church (USA).”
Hostility to Jewish interests is expressed both at the national level by members of CAIR, and also at some local levels, he added.
In their aversion to working with CAIR, the ADL and JCPA are in the company of the FBI, which according to FBI policy documents and reports, has restricted its relations with the organization for the last six years.
In 2008, the FBI issued policy documents limiting its non-investigative interactions with CAIR. That policy was based, in part, on evidence presented during the 2007 trial of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, according to a September 2013 report issued by the U.S. Department of Justice’s inspector general’s office.
“The evidence at trial linked CAIR leaders to Hamas, a specifically designated terrorist organization,” it stated. Although CAIR’s website says the FBI has not “severed relations with CAIR,” it does not address the FBI’s decision to restrict its relations with the group.
For its part, CAIR bills itself as a civil rights and advocacy organization exercising two strategies to “achieve equitable and nondiscriminatory participation of American Muslims in the American way of life,” according to CAIR-Philadelphia’s Bender: a legal strategy, in which CAIR challenges suspected discriminatory matters in court; and an advocacy and educational strategy in which the organization “tries to educate the American public about the nature of Islam and tries to offset the stereotypical views that appear on Fox [News].”
In Philadelphia, CAIR has “extensive relationships” with organizations representing other faiths, said Bender, including the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the Shalom Center — an organization founded by Rabbi Arthur Waskow that focuses on social change — and several local synagogues and rabbis.
He admitted, though, that not all Jewish organizations in Philadelphia are willing to work with his group.
“The Jewish Federation of Philadelphia refuses to work with us,” he said. “We have been given a sense that CAIR is treif. They think CAIR is a front for the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorists. It’s not true.”
Adam Kessler, director of the Philadelphia Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, said he had “no comment” when asked if his organization did in fact refuse to work with CAIR.
The ADL and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia “consider CAIR to be beyond the pale,” Bender remarked. “I’ve been led to conclude this, although I am constantly trying.”
While Bender conceded that CAIR has been vocal in its criticism of some Israeli policies, he added that “criticism of Israel policy does not equal support for Hamas or terrorism.”
However, around the time CAIR was launched, Awad was forthcoming regarding his support for Hamas.
In a March 22, 1994 panel discussion at Barry University in Florida, Awad said: “I used to support the PLO, and I used to be the president of the General Union of Palestine Students, which is part of the PLO here in the United States, but after I researched the situation inside Palestine and outside, I am in support of the Hamas movement more than the PLO.”
In 2006, he told an Associated Press reporter that “I don’t support Hamas today.”
In Pennsylvania, some Jewish lay leaders and professionals are unaware of Awad’s criticism of Israel and the FBI inspector general’s linkage of CAIR to Hamas. They are also unaware of CAIR-Pittsburgh’s letter-writing campaign this past summer urging the U.S. to cease its support of the Jewish state. Rather, what they know of CAIR is what CAIR professes to be: an organization committed to defending the rights of the oppressed.
Rabbi Doris Dyen, spiritual leader of the local independent Minyan Makom ha-Lev and a member of the Greater Pittsburgh Interfaith Coalition, a new group whose purpose is to foster interfaith dialogue, served this past July on a panel of religious leaders invited to be part of CAIR-Pittsburgh’s interfaith iftar celebration during Ramadan.
That program was “not political,” Dyen said. “We were asked to speak about times within each of our faith traditions when there is a heightened sense of spirituality.”
She said she was unaware that Awad had been so outspoken over the summer in his condemnation of Israel nor did she know about the local letter-writing campaign.
In Pittsburgh, the Jewish Federation has based its approach to outside organizations on such factors as the promotion of the BDS movement, which the Federation considers a red line.
“The Jewish community and the Jewish Federation have certain red lines that aren’t determined because there’s a process or decision-making element behind it, but because it just makes common sense,” said Roman. “We won’t work with organizations that don’t recognize the State of Israel.
“We won’t work with organizations that don’t believe in a two-state solution and that promote BDS,” he continued. “We won’t work with an organization that proselytizes to Jews; we won’t work with an organization that is anti-Semitic or that has made anti-Semitic statements in the past. Those are our general guiding principles.”
It would be “counter-productive,” according to Roman, to run a program in cooperation with an organization that has “carried out certain advocacy campaigns that are diametrically opposed to the Jewish Federation’s position.”
“That doesn’t mean we won’t dialogue with them,” he said. “But where’s the productivity when their position poses an existential threat to Jewish community interests?”
When it comes to CAIR, explained Roman, “their historical relationship with the Jewish community, nationally, has been fraught with tension,” he said. “This isn’t about the local chapter. But nationally, its board of directors has taken positions that are against Israel.”
“I’m not in the business of calling an organization something that it is not,” Roman said. “But there are questions about CAIR’s previous activities that would have to be answered before we work with them. That’s true of any organization.”
Roman stressed that the Pittsburgh Jewish community has a “vital interest” in working with the Muslim community, and they have many shared goals, including advocating for the religious freedom of minorities, condemning terrorists and advocating for the rights of the oppressed.
“But until we are able to have a fruitful dialogue between the national Jewish organizations and national CAIR,” he said, “we’ll be in a holding pattern as to this organization locally.”
CAIR-Pittsburgh has gone on the record specifically denouncing at least one terrorist group. In a Sept. 6, 2014 story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Khwaja rebuked the actions of the Islamic State in the wake of its recent crucifixions and beheadings.
He said he would also denounce some violent wings of Hamas, although he differentiated between its various divisions, noting that some perform public service work.
“If they do violence, that’s disgusting and it’s disallowed” in Islam, he said. “You don’t do things based on immoral conduct. The end does not justify the means.”
While Khwaja said he was unaware of Awad’s statements at the Washington rally characterizing Israel as a “terrorist state,” he emphasized that if such statements were made by Awad, he was “speaking on his own” and not on behalf of CAIR.
When asked if he believed Israel was a terrorist state, Khwaja responded, “I’m not to judge.”
But Khwaja said he personally believes that Israel is in a “very strong position to build a strong peace structure” and noted that Israel is a “regional super power, and a nuclear power.”
“Peace between people only comes when the stronger party wants peace,” he said.
Khwaja said he is in favor of a two-state solution, with one state being a Palestinian state and the other being an Israeli state “however it chooses to define itself as long as it is consistent with international laws.”
When asked about what Israel has called an existential threat in Hamas when referring to the group’s charter to destroy the Jewish state, Khwaja said that he did not have a copy of Hamas’ charter.
“But when you are a nuclear power,” he said, “you don’t have an existential threat.
“Israel should become a beacon of civilization rather than just steamroll over us,” he added, noting the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. “You can’t just think of hating, hating, hating the others. They need to build a lasting peace structure; they need to spend less on weapons, and instead improve the squalid life of these people under their control.”
Jews and Muslims, Khwaja said, have a storied past of peaceful coexistence that pre-dates the current conflict.
“There is 1,000 years of a story that negates 50 years of nonsense,” he said. “I see a lot of very positive possibilities. I think a lot of the animosity is not what our faiths teach at all. If we just happen to observe our own faiths in their honest sense, we would stop having this conflict.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.