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Nihad Awad, executive director and co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), speaks outside the White House on Aug. 25, 2021, as President Joe Biden welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to WashingtonAP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades
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The Biden Administration’s Antisemitism Statement Gets Worse

The Jewish communal strategy of looking to the Democratic establishment for protection faces another challenge, as the party embraces CAIR as its partner in fighting Jew-hatred

Armin Rosen
June 27, 2023
AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades
Nihad Awad, executive director and co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), speaks outside the White House on Aug. 25, 2021, as President Joe Biden welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to WashingtonAP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades

In formulating America’s first ever national antisemitism strategy, the Biden administration had to synthesize  the diverse fears and expectations of an increasingly nervous American Jewish community. The U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism was released in a virtual launch event on May 25. The results of what looked like a careful, monthslong process of consulting hundreds of experts and communal leaders didn’t satisfy everyone, but the strategy showed the White House was thinking big, dedicating the “whole of government” to the protection of the country’s Jewish citizens.

This image of carefulness vanished in a single paragraph. A document titled “FACT SHEET: Biden-⁠Harris Administration Releases First-Ever U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism,” also published on May 25, announced that in response to the administration’s “whole-of-society call to action,” a number of nonprofit and activist groups had made their own “commitments to counter antisemitism and build cross-community solidarity.” Among them is a group whose “cross-community solidarity” is something much of the American Jewish community, among others, might not want:

The Council on American-Islamic Relations will launch a tour to educate religious communities about steps they can take to protect their houses of worship from hate incidents, such as instituting appropriate security measures, developing strong relationships with other faith communities, and maintaining open lines of communication with local law enforcement.

It is not just the predictable cadre of right-wingers or conservative partisans who are suspicious of CAIR’s agenda, leadership, and overall culture. NPR reported on rampant sexual harassment within the organization in 2021, including by top leadership. That same year, CAIR sued a former executive and board member for defamation in response to her allegations of sexual and institutional misconduct against the organization’s senior staff. The lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice and produced a wealth of information about CAIR’s inner workings, which an anonymous group of Muslim American activists have helpfully organized online. In 2021, a Muslim American lawyer and expert on Islamic charitable practices accused the group of appealing for zakat, or religiously motivated charitable donations, and then using the money for purposes that were not permitted for zakat donations under Islamic law.

To put it nicely, CAIR’s record on Jewish matters has been a source of controversy and tension. Zahra Billoo remained head of CAIR’s Bay Area chapter after a widely condemned speech last year in which she described Zionist Jewish groups as an “enemy” and urged suspicion and hostility not just toward out-and-out fascists, but “polite Zionists” as well. More recently, CAIR has come to the defense of a City University of New York Law School graduate who used her commencement speech as a chance to rip the university for its entirely imaginary training of Israeli soldiers and to connect her legal education to “the fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism and Zionism around the world.” CAIR’s top leadership, including co-founder and longtime Executive Director Nihad Awad, have a decadeslong history of statements in support of Hamas and religious warfare against Israel. The group opposed the U.S.’s deportation of Rasmea Odeh, who omitted her past conviction for a deadly terrorist attack in Israel from her U.S. immigration application. The Anti-Defamation League has maintained a constantly updated web page about CAIR’s various antisemitism-related uproars since 2015.

In a message circulated to Jewish groups in the week after the plan’s release, the White House stressed that “It’s factually incorrect to suggest [CAIR] are part of the strategy. They are not part of the strategy—there are zero mentions.” The group was merely “listed in a supplemental document as one of the many independent organizations making commitments to help counter antisemitism.”

When reached for comment, State Department Antisemitism Envoy Deborah Lipstadt repeatedly stressed that “CAIR had nothing to do with the preparation of the plan.” I suggested that even the ancillary mention of a group with CAIR’s history threatened to detract from the strategy’s potential strengths. “If you’re asking if it’s detracting, this conversation should be about the plan and the things it’s going to try to do,” she replied.

ADL spokesperson Todd Gutnick told Tablet that the organization was not consulted ahead of time about CAIR’s mention in the fact sheet or warned about CAIR’s appearance in any of the materials related to the antisemitism strategy. “We were unpleasantly surprised at their inclusion,” Gutnick wrote by email.

The persistence of CAIR’s mainstream credibility hints at how coalition politics now work within the Democratic Party.

In its messaging, the administration has stressed that there is no deeper importance to CAIR’s getting an entire paragraph in a White House document related to antisemitism. This is a stance that American Jewish organizations were eager to accept. “Is it possible this was some sort of concerted effort to dilute the plan by adding in the arch-anti-semite, CAIR?,” a Jewish communal leader who was consulted during the development of the antisemitism strategy told Tablet. “Maybe somebody along the way threw it in there as a way of sticking their finger in the nose of the Jewish community. I think more likely it was just incompetence.”

But if the White House believed it made a mistake, it could have removed CAIR from the strategy fact sheet, instead of putting someone like Lipstadt, perhaps the country’s top antisemitism official, in the unfortunate position of having to either downplay or rationalize the group’s inclusion in the document in the first place. CAIR’s appearance anywhere in connection to the strategy is a reflection of the fact that the organization, for all its divisiveness, remains a member of the political nonprofit complex in good standing, the accepted establishment vertical for America’s highly diverse Muslim community, and a group which apparently gets asked for its view on major Jewish-related matters.

CAIR made it into the fact sheet as the result of a general call for input into the antisemitism strategy issued by the White House’s Office of Public Engagement, which former Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Stephen Benjamin has led since February. Maintaining contacts between Washington and the activist sector is no minor job, especially under recent Democratic administrations: Valerie Jarett, perhaps the most powerful White House adviser of the 21st century, headed the Office of Public Engagement throughout the entirety of the Barack Obama presidency.

CAIR is one of hundreds of organizations within the office’s remit, part of a broader constellation of groups that the White House consults on major initiatives. There are benefits to being in this club: CAIR’s head of government relations appeared at a recent White House meeting on Islamophobia that Benjamin attended, as did second gentleman Doug Emhoff and White House domestic policy director Susan Rice, whose office was in charge of formulating the antisemitism strategy. The strategy was one byproduct of the revealingly named Interagency Group to Counter Antisemitism, Islamophobia, and Related Forms of Discrimination and Bias, which Emhoff and Rice helped lead.

CAIR isn’t always a team player from the center-left’s perspective—the organization recently came to the defense of Muslim parents who oppose LGBT-related materials being taught to their children in public schools without their consent. The persistence of CAIR’s mainstream credibility hints at how coalition politics now work within the Democratic Party: A single nonprofit or activist group will often be treated as the sole major representative of a certain demographic category, based on either an appearance of authenticity or the organization’s demonstrated usefulness to those in charge. The nonprofit sector often operates as a kind of junior-level government, receiving federal grants to promote and implement public policy, exerting activist and legal pressure on the business community and the rest of the private sector in support of coalition objectives, and providing status, income, and professional development for past and future public officials. In turn, these groups maintain message discipline within the coalition—anyone who opposes CAIR risks being criticized as an Islamophobe, or as a general impediment to progress.

This ecosystem is seamless enough in its current form that it is nearly impossible for an organization to become so discredited that it is dropped from the roster, at least as long as there isn’t an obvious candidate to replace it. At the moment, there is no group of CAIR’s size or profile claiming to speak on behalf of American Muslims. There is also little need among nationally prominent politicians or strategists to boost such an alternative. The ADL and CAIR might not get along, but they are protected by the same dynamic: They both provide a nearly identical service to the same larger coalition, which returns the favor by keeping both groups at a level of prominence that crowds out any potential rivals.

There are conditions under which a new advocacy group can rapidly supplant an old one for a significant portion of the political spectrum, as recent Jewish American history reveals. J Street has largely replaced AIPAC as the accepted Jewish communal validator on the center left, and there are now several notable Democratic lawmakers who align themselves exclusively with the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” camp. One key reason that shift happened was because the Obama administration was in need of a Jewish organization that could whip support for policies that AIPAC was liable to actively oppose, like an Israeli settlement freeze or a nuclear deal that allowed Iran to keep its enrichment infrastructure and ballistic missile program intact.

There is no Muslim equivalent of J Street because the political mainstream is perfectly content with what the existing political organ claiming to speak for the Muslim American community can still do for it, in spite of the group’s well-documented problems—whether with fantastical anti-Zionism or plain old sexual misconduct. Jewish concerns, much like CAIR’s attempts to sue its past employees into silence, are hardly enough to get CAIR shunned by a Democratic White House. And if Jews want to remain a comfortable part of the larger center-left coalition, they apparently have to accept CAIR as a partner in the “fight against antisemitism.”

Since publication of this article, CAIR has reached out to Tablet to assert that Mr. Awad and CAIR’s leadership have publicly renounced Hamas and do not condone violence or suicide attacks on religious grounds.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.