Until recently, Dilawar Syed was known only to fellow Silicon Valley businesspeople. Yet upon examination, his life is, like that of so many others, a testament to the truth of American exceptionalism and the idea that with enough talent, effort and luck, any American can get rich and rise in society. His journey began as an immigrant from Pakistan and led to success as an entrepreneur running companies that dealt in, among other things, software, health-care technology and artificial intelligence. His support of Democratic candidates and his expertise in his field has led to the culmination of the process of acceptance with his being nominated by President Joe Biden as deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration.
It’s one of 4,000 federal patronage jobs that are political appointees—of which about 1,200 require Senate confirmation—and among the least significant of them. Six months into the Biden administration, the White House is getting closer to naming its appointees and the Senate is, in its lumbering and dysfunctional fashion, starting to act on them.
Along the way, Syed has become something more than just another holder of a patronage job. If you listen to some national Jewish groups, he’s the new poster child for victims of religious intolerance.
That’s the way he’s being portrayed by the Union of Reform Judaism, the American Jewish Committee and what’s left of the once important American Jewish Congress. Indeed, according to Rabbi Jack Moline, a veteran Jewish apologist for anything connected to the Democratic Party, the debate about Syed is evidence that Republicans and their supporters are attempting to impose “a religious test for office that he describes as “unconstitutional bigotry.”
They argue that those trying to derail Syed’s nomination with last-minute objections based on his presence on the board of a Muslim activist group called Emgage Action isn’t about questionable stands that it took or his connection to anti-Israel invective. They say it’s nothing less than trying to stop a Muslim from achieving federal office merely on the grounds of his faith and origins.
Syed’s opponents disagree. With the support of groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Zionist Organization of America and the Endowment for Middle East Truth, some Senate Republicans are trying to block it. For this, they are being denounced by liberals as purveyors of the sort of religious intolerance against which Jews have always fought.
Let’s specify first that the stakes here are mighty small, especially when compared to others that have recently been fought over more important positions or judgeships.
Syed’s defenders point out that in his initial Senate hearing, he specifically disavowed the BDS movement, saying he opposed it and “supported engagement with Israel,” and has personally done business with Israeli companies. There’s also the fact that he has been personally engaged with leading Jewish groups like the AJCommittee and even visited Israel, as well as been involved in Jewish-Muslim dialogue efforts. As such, he does not come across as an example of a bitter opponent of Jews or Israel, or a typical supporter of left-wing anti-Semitism. Indeed, when compared to other Muslim Americans who are prominent in public life, such as Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who are open anti-Semites, his seeming moderation is commendable.
Still, Syed’s critics say that putting someone connected to a group like Emgage that is anti-Israel could hinder cooperation between the Jewish state and the United States, particularly when it comes to the ties between small companies that deal in fields in which Israel excels, such as cyber security, artificial intelligence and medicine. And given that Emgage is directly supportive of people like Omar, Tlaib and the anti-Semitic BDS movement, they aren’t wrong to say that simply sweeping this under the carpet is unacceptable.
Are they right? It’s hard to say. The only thing we do know about this is that if it were a Republican appointment and the nominee were linked to a radical right-wing group rather than a Muslim activist group, all the testimonials from his friends and allies or examples of his good works would not be enough to wash away the stain in the eyes of liberals. As such, his fate will inevitably be decided by partisanship, not principles about religious tolerance.
No one should lose much sleep over the identity of the deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration. Yet what’s important here is the notion being promulgated by Syed’s friends that somehow any mention of a Muslim American’s ties to the radical politics that have become normative in that community is an act of prejudice or an attempt to establish a religious test for high office.
While one can make an argument that Syed is no threat to the Jews or the U.S.-Israel alliance, the idea that merely raising his presence on the Emgage board is disingenuous cannot be sustained. Just as it would be wrong to attack a nominee because of his or her religion, it’s also wrong to claim that being affiliated with a particular faith or religious group is enough to give you a pass for every questionable association with radicals.
What is truly offensive about this debate is not that some Republicans and Jews think Syed’s failure to disavow or otherwise explain his ties to Emgage is a good reason to block his confirmation. It’s that the same people who are posing as defenders of religious liberty have been conspicuous by their absence in the fight to defend First Amendment rights when their political opponents are being targeted.
In recent years, the primary focus of religious intolerance in this country has not been Muslims, but conservative Christians as well as Orthodox Jews, whose faith put them at odds with the majority on issues such as gay marriage. They have not only been assailed for what their opponents consider their erroneous beliefs but targeted by authorities who essentially sought to criminalize the practice of their faith in the public square. Religious bakers and florists who have refused to take part in ceremonies they oppose were hounded out of business by states who believe their First Amendment rights were not as important as other ideas that are now embraced by the majority of Americans.
Recently, the case of Fulton v. Philadelphia pitted the rights of a city to discriminate against a Catholic adoption services agency with a long and exemplary record because of its stand on gay rights. But instead of defending the rights of Catholics or, as in other cases, those of evangelicals, those same Jewish groups that were grandstanding on behalf of Syed were actually submitting briefs in favor of the curtailment of religious freedom. When members of the U.S. Senate showed open anti-Catholic prejudice when Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination was being confirmed, they were on the side of those doubting the ability of a faithful Catholic to be a judge rather than standing up for her.
Nor have they shown any interest in condemning the recent spate of arson attacks against churches in Canada, which are supposedly rationalized by injustices of the 19th century, that has left members of that community cowering in fear.
So while there may be no reason to be particularly worked up about the prospect of Syed’s confirmation, his supporters not only have no credibility on the issue of religious liberty, they have proved over and again that they are opponents of our “first freedom” so long as their political opponents are the ones in the cross-hairs. That makes their defense of him not merely an act of hypocrisy, but a disgrace.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.