JANUARY 25, 2018 – An interfaith gathering hosted last summer by a Reform synagogue in Lexington that featured Muslim religious and civic leaders from Greater Boston, has been the subject of a fierce and relentless debate by some Jews in the Greater Boston area. Six months after the event, a public clash of words over the program continues to roil through the local Jewish community.
At issue, is a July 25 program that was held at Lexington’s Temple Isaiah, where, critics say, at least two of the three invited Muslim speakers solicited the audience for donations to Islamic charities. The program, “Out of Many, One: Teach-In and Solidarity with the Boston Muslim Community,” was hosted in partnership with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, a nonprofit group of clergy, religious communities and civic groups that work together on issues ranging from health care to housing.
The two-hour program was moderated by Temple Isaiah’s Senior Rabbi Howard Jaffe and Associate Rabbi Jill Perlman, and included a conversational-style interview with Samer Naseredden, director of youth programming of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, New England’s largest mosque. The event also featured a panel discussion with Nadeem Mazen, a twice-elected Cambridge City councilor, who is the highest-ranking Muslim office holder in the state, and helped form the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR.
Stephanie Marzouk, an attorney and co-founder of the Muslim Justice League – an advocacy group that challenges what it sees as discrimination from national security programs – also spoke.
During the panel discussion, that included conversation about the Trump administration’s travel ban and other subjects, Marzouk and CAIR’s Mazen pitched the audience with ways they could donate to Islamic causes. “To all the people who say they’d join a Muslim registry, go out and donate to any Muslim organization, the ISBCC, CAIR, Jetpack, the Muslim Justice League. It can be as little as a dollar,” Marzouk suggested, in response to a question from Rabbi Perlman about a proposed federal law that would have authorized collection of donor lists from Muslim organizations creating a de facto Muslim registry.
When Rabbi Perlman asked Mazen and Marzouk what Jews could do to stand in solidarity with the Muslim community, against discrimination, and against Islamophobia, Mazen suggested that they could donate to his current project, Jetpack. Said Mazen, “The most consequential thing you can do, and you hear this when there’s a fire or a disaster abroad, don’t send clothes, send money. And I’m not afraid to say it anymore. I was afraid for a long time. My project this year is that I have to raise a million dollars,” he said, referring to Jetpack, a community organization he founded that educates Muslims and minorities about politics.
News of the event soon reached Charles Jacobs, who leads Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a Boston-based nonprofit that challenges what it considers radical ideologies. Jacobs, a public speaker, activist and a staunch supporter of Israel, has been a vocal critic of individuals and groups whose work he believes is tied to Islamic extremism and terrorism.
CAIR has made headlines over the years for its anti-Israel views and for some employees who have been tied to terrorist activities. One of the most prominent former CAIR leaders is Ghassan Elashi, who founded CAIR’s Texas chapter. Elashi was convicted for knowingly conducting business with Mousa Abu Marzook, a senior Hamas leader. He was also sentenced to 65 years in a US federal prison for funneling millions of dollars to Hamas, which the US declared to be a terrorist group in 1995.
After the July 25 event, Jacobs published several columns and produced a video that chastised Temple Isaiah’s Rabbi Howard Jaffe, and his congregation for inviting Muslim leaders whom he asserted, represent extremist organizations.
Rabbi Jaffe “misrepresented the speakers as friends of the Jewish community when they are leaders of three radical groups,” Jacobs said.
When asked about the event, Jaffe said that the purpose of the evening was not to raise funds for Islamic groups. “The notion that we raised funds for CAIR or Hamas, or for any organization that evening is just absurd,” Rabbi Jaffe told the Journal.
Last month, the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, an organization of clergy from all strands of Judaism, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, weighed in with a harshly-worded condemnation of Jacobs and his organization for the attack on Rabbi Jaffe, describing it as “an ongoing campaign of misinformation and innuendo meant to spread discord and fear.”
CAIR-Massachusetts, the state chapter of the national organization founded in 1994, defines its mission “to enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims and build coalitions that promote social justice and mutual understanding.”
According to the Anti-Defamation League’s website, CAIR positions itself as a civil rights organization that represents Muslim Americans – “responding to the proliferation of anti-Muslim incidents and sentiment around the country.” At the same time, the ADL asserts that CAIR supports an anti-Israel agenda that dates back to its founding which it said had ties at that time to groups affiliated with Hamas. The FBI has also distanced itself over the years from CAIR “as an appropriate liaison partner,” a position most recently affirmed in 2013 by the US Department of Justice, according to the ADL.
Mazen, a mechanical engineer who grew up in Andover, denied that the main intention of the event was to fundraise.
“We didn’t do a fund-raising-a-thon. And if we had, we would have been well within the interfaith get together,” he said.
John Robbins, executive director of CAIR-Massachusetts, vehemently denies any such ties or affiliations with Hamas. “It’s unbelievably untrue,” he said. With 33 chapters across the country, he compared the organization to the NAACP, the influential and respected civil rights organization for Black Americans.
Charles Koplik, a past president of Temple Isaiah, and a member of GBIO’s strategy team, told the Journal that Mazen was not invited as a representative of CAIR that evening. “We invited Nadeem Mazen because he’s the highest elected Muslim in Massachusetts and for his role with respect to that,” he said.
But for Jacobs, Mazen’s position on CAIR’s board of directors is at the core of his campaign against Temple Isaiah. In his critiques and in an interview with the Journal, Jacobs continually referred to Mazen’s affiliation with CAIR.
Jacobs cited the FBI and the ADL as the source of objection to CAIR, and is opposed to the idea that a temple would allow a fundraising appeal by the speakers for Muslim organizations that he says have been linked to terrorism.
“That was the most egregious,” Jacobs told the Journal. In his various posts, Jacobs and APT quoted from statements made by Mazen and Marzouk.
Jacobs paints a picture of Rabbi Jaffe and others he described on the liberal spectrum as well intentioned but foolish.
“I don’t think he is evil. I do think he is hoodwinked,” Jacobs said. Jacobs believes Jaffe should apologize to his congregants. Jacobs is also critical of liberals for being unwilling to ask challenging questions of Muslims such as about what is being taught to young people at mosques, including the Islamic Society of Boston.
On the North Shore, Jacobs has strong advocates who have supported his work over many years.
“Charles Jacobs is an American Jewish hero,” said North Shore philanthropist Robert Lappin. Lappin said he admires Jacobs’ Israel advocacy, and praised APT’s campaign that challenges curriculum that it considers anti Semitic. “Whatever can be done to refute and expose this kind of activity is good for the Jewish people,” Lappin said.
Carol Denbo, of Swampscott, is a long time supporter of Jacobs’ work. She viewed the statement from the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the JCRC as a way to cut Jacobs’ free speech. ‘He’s trying to wake up the community,” she told the Journal.