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CAIR’s shoot first, ask questions never defamation defense

The organization admits its attacks on a Jewish teacher were “rhetorical hyperbole.”

Sign at the building entrance to CAIR headquarters. Credit: DCStockPhotography/Shutterstock.
Sign at the building entrance to CAIR headquarters. Credit: DCStockPhotography/Shutterstock.
Steven Emerson, founder and executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism. Credit: Courtesy.
Steven Emerson
Steven Emerson is founder and executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

They called her a bigot and demanded her termination, all based on the account of a 7-year-old.

Now, attorneys argue that the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was merely engaging in “rhetorical hyperbole used to express” its “deeply held opinions” about an incident involving a New Jersey elementary school teacher and a Muslim student.

The teacher, Tamar Herman, has been kept out of the classroom for 16 months based on that “hyperbole.” She has filed lawsuits in state and federal court saying that she is being punished by “a malicious and antisemitic campaign.”

Herman is Jewish and a 30-year teaching veteran with no disciplinary history.

In Oct. 2021, she asked a seven-year-old student to pull back her hooded sweatshirt so Herman could see the child’s eyes. When the girl didn’t respond, Herman says she brushed the hood back. The girl normally wore a hijab, and Herman mistakenly assumed the head covering was underneath the hood.

It wasn’t. Herman says she immediately moved the hood back to cover the girl’s hair, apologized and continued teaching. The hood never left the girl’s head, Herman’s lawsuit asserts.

But the next day, Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who attended the same Maplewood, N.J. elementary school, spun a different, more harrowing narrative. She claimed Herman “forcibly removed the hijab of a second-grade student. The young student resisted by trying to hold onto her hijab, but the teacher pulled the hijab off, exposing her hair to the class. … This is abuse. Schools should be a haven for all of our kids to feel safe, welcome and protected—no matter their faith.”

It is unclear how Muhammad heard about the encounter.

That’s when CAIR jumped into the fray. Muhammad’s post “tagged” CAIR, calling the post to the organization’s attention. CAIR didn’t wait for an investigation. It didn’t seek out the teacher’s account of what happened. It went in for the kill.

“Our children must be protected from anti-Muslim bigotry and abuse at school,” CAIR’s national office wrote. “The teacher who pulled a second grader’s hijab off in class must be fired immediately.”

“Anything less,” CAIR’s New Jersey chapter added, “is an insult to the students and parents.”

Muhammad and CAIR’s statements thrust the case into the national spotlight. Muhammad has not filed any similar motions to dismiss. CAIR is now trying to minimize any damage by describing its statements as “rhetorical hyperbole” that is not subject to legal challenge.

But too many people in the news media and in the South Orange Maplewood School District treated CAIR’s statements as definitive accounts. The organization’s defense is yet another reminder that it is not a reliable source of accurate information.

‘She’s Jewish!’

According to Herman’s lawsuit, the girl’s mother, Cassandra Wyatt, initially told the principal that she understood the incident was a misunderstanding. The mother repeated this statement several months later when she went to Herman’s home. Her daughter “blows things out of proportion,” she said, and “loves Herman and that the interaction was all a ‘misunderstanding,’” according to Herman’s lawsuits.

Despite these assertions that its description of the incident was a gross misrepresentation, CAIR is apparently quite comfortable taking the family at its word even after Wyatt launched an antisemitic tirade on social media.

“I JUST FOUND OUT THE TEACHER IS JEWISHHHHHHHHHH … that’s why I believe she did it now I’m furious,” Wyatt stated.

Herman’s lawsuit argues that the post shows “that it was her discovery that Herman was Jewish that changed her understanding of what happened.”

In a separate post, Wyatt wrote, “A JEWISH TEACHER THAT TAUGHT AT A JEWISH SCHOOL & A PUBLIC SCHOOL FOR 30 YEARS PULLED MY MUSLIM 7 YEAR OLD DAUGHTER HIJAB OFF HER HEAD CLAIMING IT WAS A HOODIES. SHES JEWISH!”

A criminal investigation ended with no charges.

According to Herman’s state lawsuit, nobody at CAIR or its New Jersey chapter “ever attempted to contact Herman to learn what actually happened.” CAIR has not taken down its accusatory statements even though Herman has challenged their accuracy and validity.

In its motion to dismiss Herman’s defamation suit, CAIR argued that Herman admits making contact with the child. That acknowledgement supposedly means that CAIR’s statements “were substantially true. There can be no dispute from the Complaint that Herman did in fact pull back the hijab of a second-grade student in front of a classroom of boys and girls without consent.”

Whether that was an innocent mistake, as Herman says, or a malicious, humiliating and Islamophobic attack, as CAIR says, is “legally immaterial” and not a matter for the court, the motion claims.

“Context is key here,” CAIR’s attorneys write without intended irony. When CAIR issues news releases with allegations of “Islamophobic” abuse, they admit, it is not making an assertion of fact. Rather, CAIR’s “role as a staunch advocate for Muslim-Americans signals to readers that these underlined statements are not an assertion of objective fact, but … expressions of subjective belief and opinion from an advocate’s point of view. … In that regard, [CAIR] and its community members are concerned about not only full-blown bigotry, but also microaggressions against Muslims that may often be ignored or downplayed as ‘unintentional,’ but humiliate and degrade nonetheless.”

The organization is not, apparently, interested in the harm done to an individual like Herman, who faced threats of violence and saw an otherwise exemplary public service career decimated.

In their motion to dismiss Herman’s lawsuit, CAIR attorneys argue that, as a school teacher, Herman is a public figure who must meet the “actual malice” standard to win a defamation case. That means “that the [defendant] ‘knew and/or reasonably should have known that the statement … was false,’ with no other factual reference to lend support to the contention.”

Perhaps CAIR did not immediately know that Herman said the accusations were false or that Wyatt only reacted strongly after learning Herman is Jewish. But it does know now. Yet CAIR’s statements calling Herman an anti-Muslim bigot who intentionally and forcibly ripped a hijab off a child remain online.

All about the Benjamins?

The legal issues of this case will be decided in court. What the entire episode and CAIR’s defense show, however, is that this Hamas front group that has anointed itself a “civil-rights organization” is quick to throw out unsubstantiated accusations of “Islamophobia”—a dangerously loose term designed to conflate criticism of radical Islam with criticism of Islam in general. CAIR’s repeated use of that accusation shows that its leaders are deliberately indifferent to the harm it may cause.

At the same time, CAIR leaders have amassed a disturbing record of antisemitic statements, which they try to deflect by lashing out at critics as “Islamophobes” allegedly waging smear campaigns.

In an effort to deceive those who would be horrified at CAIR’s inherent antisemitism, the organization has mounted a very selective propaganda campaign intended to show that it opposes antisemitism. But as this case shows, it aggressively stands by someone who openly made antisemitic statements.

Herman’s lawsuit accurately describes the defendants in this case as “all famous, powerful and well-financed individuals and/or entities with major public platforms both online and elsewhere—and motivated by a combination of greed and a fierce desire to burnish their brands as fighters against Islamophobia.”

The Wyatts filed their own lawsuits but told the court in a letter dated Sunday that they are ready to settle the case against Herman and the South Orange Maplewood School District. They will receive an undisclosed amount of money from the school district’s insurer in exchange for dropping the case.

The draft of the settlement makes clear that neither Herman nor the school district admitted to any wrongdoing. “The payment hereunder is made solely to avoid the inconvenience and cost of litigation and to resolve completely all of Plaintiffs’ claims,” it said.

Steven Emerson is executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, the author of eight books on national security and terrorism, the producer of two documentaries and the author of hundreds of articles in national and international publications.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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