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Is the ACLU Still Committed to Free Speech?

The organization’s National Political Director, Faiz Shakir, has a long history of anti-Israel advocacy. Is he turning the respected organization into a partisan attack group?

Liel Leibovitz
August 07, 2017
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*Updated, with comment from the ACLU*

At the heart of the recent controversy surrounding a bipartisan effort to prevent anti-Israeli discrimination is a letter written by the American Civil Liberties Union that argues that the legislation—introduced in the Senate earlier this year—constitutes a violation of the First Amendment. Coming from an organization so many, including many Jews, consider a staunch defender of free speech, the argument was potent enough to persuade Sen. Kristin Gillibrand, an early champion of the bill, to remove her support. And while she does not agree with the ACLU’s interpretation, the senator told a town hall meeting in Queens last week that she believed the civil rights group arrived at its interpretation honestly, which was reason enough to reconsider the bill in its current form.

It’s hard to tell how the ACLU arrived at its conclusions. It’s harder still, reading the bill, to imagine how anyone might interpret its strict commercial confines to a restriction of an individual’s right to free speech. But anyone seeking clues as to what might be guiding the ACLU in its recent venture would do well to inquire after the letter’s signatory, the organization’s national political director, Faiz Shakir.

A former senior aide to both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, Shakir was also a longtime vice president of the Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive think tank with deep ties to both Barack Obama’s administration and Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign. Throughout his career, Shakir was frequently criticized for taking or defending positions that many considered troublingly anti-Israeli and, at times, anti-Semitic.

As a member of the Harvard Islamic Society, for example, Shakir co-chaired the annual Islamic Awareness Week in 2000, an effort that culminated with a fundraiser for the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a major supporter of Hamas that was designated as a terrorist organization by the federal government the following year. Shakir’s student group remained unmoved even after the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups urged them to drop their support to the foundation.

The controversy did little to dim Shakir’s star in Democratic circles, and he soon found himself in a senior position at CAP, considered President Obama’s “ideas factory.” As the site’s editor-in-chief, Shakir came under fire again in 2011, when a few of his writers, but particularly Zaid Jilani, vigorously promoted allegations that Jews opposing Obama’s Middle East policy efforts were “Israel Firsters” who weren’t truly loyal American citizens and who used their wealth to peddle influence. These allegations, closely replicating classical anti-Semitic canards, drew a host of Jewish organizations, including the ADL, the American Jewish Committee, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, to denounced CAP’s writings as “anti-Israel,” “hateful,” and “toxic anti-Jewish.” In this case, too, Shakir said little to dispel the allegations that his organization was involved in vicious slandering of the Jewish state.

And anyone expecting the ACLU to remain committed to its tradition and its fundamental tenets might’ve been disabused of that notion earlier this year, when Shakir, sounding every bit like the seasoned partisan hatchet man he is, delivered a boisterous denunciation not of President Trump’s policies but of the president himself, saying, “I hope Trump enjoys losing” and drawing criticism even from some of the ACLU’s staunchest supporters.

Reached for comments, the ACLU said it was their attorneys, not Shakir, who oversaw the letter. “These unjustified allegations are meant to distract from the merit of the ACLU’s well-founded legal analysis of the legislation,” said Ben Wizner, Director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “The ACLU has actively defended the constitutionality of boycott activity for many decades. While Faiz signed our recent letter as the director of our legislative office, the legal analysis of the congressional bill has been led by our New York-based free speech attorneys, whom I oversee. Any suggestion that Faiz influenced our longstanding legal position on these questions, or on this specific bill, is absurd. Any suggestion that he is anti-Semitic is deeply offensive and wrong.”

Still, these facts are worth considering when thinking about the ACLU’s current role in American political life. Those of us who care about free speech, and who’ve come to expect principled impartiality of the ACLU—think defending the neo-Nazis marching in Skokie—would be well advised to ask why the organization is singling out Israel for a campaign of exclusion, demonization, and bare-knuckle political pressure. American Jews deserve better than seeing an organization they themselves helped support abandon its historical mission and turn instead into a sectarian goon squad whose first order of business is attacking an effort to fight BDS, an effort a majority of American Jews support. All this is worth thinking about next time you receive the ACLU’s solicitation in the mail.

Related: A follow-up Conversation with Faiz Shakir about BDS and Anti-Semitism.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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