Zahra Billoo criticizes ‘polite Zionists,’ the ADL responds

If Jonathan Greenblatt’s tweets signal a change in how major American Jewish organizations are thinking about the hazard of anti-Semitism, then that would be welcome news.

Zahra Billoo, executive director of CAIR in the San Francisco Bay Area. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Zahra Billoo, executive director of CAIR in the San Francisco Bay Area. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein
Melissa Langsam Braunstein
Melissa Langsam Braunstein is an independent writer in metro Washington, D.C.

ADL national director and CEO Jonathan Greenblatt deserves credit. On Dec. 7, he posted two tweets. He urged CAIR to condemn their San Francisco Bay area executive director Zahra Billoo for her “textbook vile, #antisemitic, conspiracy-laden garbage attacking the mainstream US Jewish community” and sounding like a white supremacist. Unsurprisingly, CAIR stood by Billoo. They condemned Greenblatt instead.

Days later on Dec. 12, Greenblatt expanded, tweeting about Billoo’s “classic conspiratorial anti-Semitism,” noting that Billoo’s speech “was part of a long campaign to push American Jews out of social-justice and civil-rights spaces. To be clear, Billoo’s speech—and CAIR’s support for it—are both blatant acts of anti-Semitism.” This second response better matched the moment.

But let’s rewind since most Americans won’t know what prompted this pixelated brawl.

On Nov. 27, Zahra Billoo addressed American Muslims for Palestine’s 14th annual Palestine Conference in Chicago. American media ignored it. The Israel-based executive director of Israellycool Israel Advocacy broke the story, which merits more attention.

Billoo linked Islamophobia and Zionism. She accused Zionist organizations of wanting to ban Muslims and Israel’s military of teaching police brutality stateside. Billoo also urged her audience to “oppose the vehement fascists, but oppose the polite Zionists, too.” Defining the latter as the ADL, campus Hillels, the Jewish Federation and Zionist synagogues, Billoo told listeners: “They are not your friends.”

After labeling nearly all of American Jewry “enemies,” Billoo elaborated: “There are organizations and infrastructures out there who are working to harm you. Make no mistake of it; they would sell you down the line if they could, and they very often do behind your back.”

Isabella Tabarovsky, senior associate with the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center and research fellow with ISGAP, observed that “what’s especially striking about Billoo’s comments is that she has taken a step that ‘anti-Zionists’ today typically avoid making: She names synagogues among the dot[s] that her listeners are supposed to connect. … Having painted Zionists as evil, Billoo opens the door for Jew-haters to” target Jews attending synagogue.

Such rhetoric justifies anti-Jewish violence, increasing its likelihood. Recall back in May, when Jews were attacked while eating at restaurants and walking to a pro-Israel rally while for 11 days, Hamas in Gaza was firing rocket after rocket at Israeli population centers. Anti-Semitic incidents “more than doubled” in that month alone.

Greenblatt’s tweeting about Billoo’s speech matters. However, after years of rising danger and organizations like CAIR redefining “real anti-Semitism” to exclude themselves, the ability to ensure American Jews’ safety will require more.

As Wasiq Wasiq, the founding trustee for Muslims Against Antisemitism (MAAS), which stood with British Jews when they were battling the anti-Semitism former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn infused into the party and the country, messaged: “Now is the time to recognize the risk [Jewish communities] face both in overt and disguised language. How this manifests practically must be of the highest consideration for them, policy-makers and the U.S. government.”

Billoo’s overt hostility lands within a charged context. The deadly attacks that started in Pittsburgh in October 2018 and continued in Poway, Calif.; Jersey City, N.J.; and Monsey, N.Y. in 2019 became more regular, nationwide violence in May. That trend-line should reshape Americans’ understanding of the threat facing American Jews.

Yasmine Mohammed, the author of Unveiled and president of Free Hearts Free Minds, encouraged everyone to react “the same way you’d react to any other hateful anti-Semite … with zero tolerance.” In other words, Jew-hate is never acceptable, regardless of the source.

Hussein Aboubakr Mansour, director of EMET’s program for Emerging Democratic Voices from the Middle East, advises American Jewish organizations “to come together and speak loudly, openly, and honestly about this and … make their position clear that they will choose the safety and the rights of their community over any political loyalty. … They should be clear that Jews will not pay the bill for the rising progressive appetite. They also need to come up with a real plan. … This requires more than words, it requires a real vision of how American Jews can get through this.”

The landscape has changed, and strategies must as well. “Billoo’s comments should serve as a wake-up call … to leaders of the American Jewish community,” said Tabarovsky. “They need to be mounting a defense against this kind of rhetoric. They need to be educating American Jews and the broader American society about its history and implications. Time is running out.”

If Greenblatt’s tweets signal a change in how major American Jewish organizations are thinking about the hazard of anti-Semitism, then that would be welcome news. Because if there’s anything American Jewry could use right now, it’s communal unity like British Jews mustered to battle Corbynism and a sense of urgency. 2021 isn’t a dress rehearsal.

Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a former U.S. State Department speechwriter, is now an independent writer in metro Washington.

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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