How the Anti-Defamation League Fuels Islamophobia
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Attacks on the school and Almontaser intensified after a New York Post reporter asked Almontaser “about the origin of the word ‘intifada.’” Almontaser responded that “the Arabic root word from which the word intifada originates means ‘shake off’ and that it has evolved over time to have different meanings for different people, but certainly for many, given its association with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict during which thousands have died, it is associated with violence.” The New York Post mischaracterized and sensationalized her comment in a headline that read: “City Principal Is ‘Revolting.’”
At this point, some Jewish groups, including the ADL, which had been supportive of Almontaser in the face of early opposition to the school, changed their position, despite knowing full well that virulent Islamophobes and tabloid journalists were distorting her views. Though Abraham Foxman, ADL's national director, for instance, believed that Almontaser could “ absolutely” continue work with the ADL, because “she continues to be an important person in interfaith relations,” he blamed her for the dispute and viewed her removal as principal as appropriate. “She gave herself a body blow,” Foxman said, “making her unacceptable as principal of Khalil Gibran.” Foxman thereby threw the weight of the ADL behind the New York City political powers who forced her resignation—Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein—and did not challenge the blatant Islamophobic attacks on Almontaser that Frank Gaffney, Daniel Pipes, and other anti-Muslim ideologues spearheaded.
In March 2010, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission completely vindicated Almontaser. The EEOC concluded that the New York City Department of Education (DOE) "succumbed to the very bias that creation of the school was intended to dispel and a small segment of the public succeeded in imposing its prejudices on DOE as an employer.” The EEOC found that DOE had discriminated against Almontaser on the basis of her “race, religion and national origin.” The ADL remained silent.
Although the ADL played a relatively small role in the Khalil Gibran controversy, it caused a great stir within the Jewish community when, in 2010, Foxman criticized the proposal for Park51 on the grounds that it would be in the vicinity of Ground Zero. Foxman argued that, though the planners had the right to locate a mosque and community center there, it was insensitive for them to do so. He perpetuated the Islamophobic assumption that, because a small number of Muslims attacked the World Trade Center, all Muslims were responsible--a type of collective guilt never assumed about other religions. Commenting on this premise, Jon Moscow of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice noted, “We don’t hear anyone saying that there should be a ‘church-free’ area around the Oklahoma City Federal Building because Timothy McVeigh claimed to be acting as a Christian.”
Jews who were opposed to the ADL position offered multiple critiques of it. Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak of JewsOnFirst.com, a First Amendment group, and a board member of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, pointed out the irony of Jewish leaders supporting the concept of an “Islam-free zone.” In a statement put out by Jews Against Islamophobia, Rebecca Vilkomerson, director of Jewish Voice for Peace, said, “As Islamophobia rises in the U.S. and becomes the racism that dares to speak its name, it is terribly disappointing to see that organizations that were supposedly founded to promote tolerance and civil rights are failing to stand up for the rights of Muslim Americans."
But, despite such critiques, the ADL position had a broad impact. Within the mainstream Jewish community, this position, along with the anti-Muslim statements of some other Jewish groups, had a chilling effect on those wanting to express public support for Park51. At the December 2010 Rabbis for Human Rights conference, Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Manhattan, alluded to the ADL and referred more generally to having heard “ comments of ‘fear, ignorance, xenophobia’ from members of the Jewish community when her support for the Cordoba House [Park51] was publicized.” “Jewish leaders,” Rabbi Levitt said, “made this a more complicated issue than it needed to be. [They] made it very difficult for the rest of the community’—less-prominent individuals who support the Islamic center—‘to speak out.”