During my years as the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Pittsburgh, I worked hard to build partnerships and to promote harmony within and beyond Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. But as a representative of a long-targeted minority, I knew I had to be careful when picking my allies.
There are always some fair-weather friends lurking among the Jewish community’s supposed partners against hate. These are groups that support us Jews when it’s easy—by condemning vandalism against synagogues, for instance—but that look the other way when Islamist anti-Semitism, often manifested as vitriol against the Jewish state, rears its ugly head.
As a JCRC alum and the current director of the Philadelphia-based think-tank the Middle East Forum, I was doubly dismayed when I found that Nashville’s Jewish Federation Community Relations Committee is scheduled to host a representative of one such occasional ally: the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). On May 23, Joseph Levin Jr., the SPLC’s co-founder, will deliver a CRC-hosted talk on hate speech.
Once a champion of the civil-rights movement, the SPLC made a name for itself in the 1970s and ’80s by tracking, exposing and suing American neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The group, led by famed attorney Morris Dees, succeeded in bankrupting several such entities and has exposed dozens more for their brazen acts of hate. Yet recently, the SPLC has lost a good deal of its credibility; its notable critics include Somali-born scholar and human-rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who accused the SPLC of having “lost its way” in a 2017 New York Times op-ed.
Unfortunately, Hirsi Ali is right. While the SPLC claims to document and fight ideological hatred—those groups or individuals who “vilif[y] or demoniz[e] groups of people on the basis of their immutable characteristics, such as race or ethnicity”—it is no longer such a reliable voice on the topic of hate speech, given that it has managed to almost completely ignore a vast ideological hate network: American Islamists.
These organizations and figures are those with demonstrable ties to overseas Islamist terrorism and also exhibit some of the worst bigotry known to Jews, LGBTers and even other Muslims in the United States today. Many Islamist groups have been active in the United States since at least the 1980s, but the SPLC has barely published a word about them.
Instead, the SPLC embraces them. So why should a Jewish Federation embrace the SPLC?
On its FAQ page, the SPLC contends that “organizations operating in the mainstream” can be hate groups, and that “it’s even more important to call out groups that demonize others while having a foothold in the mainstream. It’s easy to recognize the hater in a white sheet for what he or she is. It’s the wolf in sheep’s clothing that’s harder to identify.” MEF agrees, which is why we work so hard to recognize and expose Islamist groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which, partly thanks to SPLC’s persistent habit of legitimizing it, enjoys a comfortable spot in the American mainstream.
MEF wrote a letter to the Foundation’s executive director Mark Freedman and president Lisa Perlen, noting that the SPLC has effectively given a free pass to Islamists who express the same sentiments for which others are hate-listed. But Mr. Freedman and Ms. Perlen are adamant that the Federation will, nevertheless, move forward with the planned event.
Instead, the Federation should consider what the SPLC will not: the blatant anti-Semitism of CAIR staff and speakers. It should consider people like CAIR San Francisco director Zahra Billoo, who calls all Zionists supporters of “baby killers,” labels Israel a “terrorist” state, yearns for the return of the deadly stretches of violence against Jews in Israel known as intifadas and declares, “I’m more afraid of racist Zionists who support apartheid Israel than of the mentally ill young people the FBI recruits to join ISIS”; CAIR national director, Nihad Awad, who while working for the (now defunct) organization Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP), allowed the distribution of a pamphlet called “America’s Greatest Enemy: The Jew! And an Unholy Alliance!” stamped with IAP’s logo, calls Israel the “biggest threat to world peace and security,” and refuses to condemn the anti-Semitic, genocidal terrorist group Hamas; CAIR Chicago director, Ahmed Rehab, who once published an essay defending notorious Holocaust-denier David Irving, decried American media for condemning books that “disagree with the established opinions of the able Jewish historians regarding the details of the holocaust [sic]” and even asserted that long-time talk-show host Charlie Rose “confirmed the Jewish control over the media” by criticizing David Irving on television.
With nary a peep from the SPLC on such bigotry, it seems as if it is only concerned with one type of anti-Semitism—that dying breed of Jew-hate exhibited by the ever-shrinking population of American racist skinheads and neo-Nazis. Instead of dealing with the growing threat of American Islamist anti-Semitism, SPLC “exaggerates the threat posed by the moribund [Ku Klux] Klan.”
And since the SPLC can’t be bothered to address the Islamist variant of abject hatred, others have taken up the mantle. Maajid Nawaz, for instance, is a Muslim reformer and a past Islamist extremist himself. As someone who built radical Islamist networks all over Europe before he experienced change of heart while in Egyptian prison, Maajid is well-placed to understand the differences between ordinary Western Muslims and extreme Western Islamists. A practicing Muslim (and cherished ally of many Jewish groups), he exposes and critiques extremists, not mainstream Muslims. But, instead of standing with him, the SPLC compounded the problem of Islamist extremism in America by naming Maajid—who fights against it—as an “extremist” himself.
As we pointed out to the Federation, the SPLC has systematically refused to distinguish principled opposition to the totalitarian ideology of Islamism from crude bigotry against ordinary Muslims.
Once an admirable and formidable force in dismantling hate networks in the United States, the SPLC has, as a Politico piece recently argued, “overplay[ed] its hand.” Seemingly incapable of identifying today’s most prevalent and threatening form of anti-Semitism, the SPLC has allied with the very wolves in sheep’s clothing it should be warning against—and in doing so, exacerbates the problem.
As a pillar of Jewish community leadership, the Jewish Federation of Nashville must thus lead by example: It should cancel its SPLC event until the SPLC is willing to follow its own mantra and apply “equal justice.”
Gregg Roman is director of the Middle East Forum, a nonprofit organization that promotes American interests and Western values in the Middle East.