The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles barred anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller from delivering a previously scheduled speech at its Wilshire Boulevard headquarters on June 24.
Geller, who is Jewish, had been set to address the Western Region of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) with a speech titled “Islamic Jew Hatred: The Root Cause of the Failure to Achieve Peace.” The Sunday morning event, announced in early June, was abruptly canceled just hours before it was to take place.
The event was later moved to another location, the Mark in Pico-Robertson, but not before the 30 would-be attendees stood in protest on the sidewalk in front of Federation headquarters holding signs reading, “Jews! Don’t Silence Other Jews! Shame on the Jewish Federation.”
“I’m a proud, fierce Zionist,” Geller told the crowd, decrying the decision to cancel her event. “And the take-away from this is that Zionists are not welcome at L.A. Jewish Federation.”
According to ZOA National Vice Chairman Steven Goldberg, who said he spoke with Los Angeles’ Federation President Jay Sanderson early on the morning of June 24, the reason for the cancellation was fear that local Muslim groups might protest outside the building.
“They need spinal implants,” Goldberg said of Federation leaders, noting the absence of protesters.
A statement from a coalition of Muslim, Christian and Jewish groups condemning Federation for hosting the event had circulated via e-mail on the afternoon of June 23. A second statement, commending Federation for the cancellation of the event, was circulated by the same group the next morning.
Explaining the move, Federation Chairman of the Board Richard Sandler said on June 26 that the decision to bar the event was based entirely on safety concerns. “Unfortunately, due to the processes regarding non-Federation events in the building that we had in place at the time, we only became aware of the possibility of protests and counter-protests at the building late Saturday,” Sandler said in an interview. “Due solely to the fact that the Zimmer Children’s Museum has its greatest amount of traffic on Sunday, we made a decision, to protect the safety of children, to request ZOA to move the event.
“ZOA did nothing against our processes,” Sandler said. “As a result of this, we are now reviewing our processes to avoid such a situation in the future.”
ZOA has been a tenant at Federation headquarters for less than a year, and ZOA’s local executive director, Orit Arfa, said she had filed an official request to use a board room in the building about a month in advance of the Geller event. ZOA also requested the event be listed on the Jewish Federation’s own Web site. Both requests, Arfa said, were approved.
Geller, who blogs at AtlasShrugs.com, is known for her strident criticism of all things Muslim. She first gained national prominence in 2010 when she led opposition to a proposed Islamic cultural center in New York’s Lower Manhattan, and she has since supported efforts in other cities to oppose mosque construction. She told The New York Times in 2010 that she does not believe in the existence of a “moderate” Islam, and that “a moderate Muslim is a secular Muslim.”
The resulting publicity has made Geller perhaps the best-known anti-Muslim activist in the United States, and she has drawn the criticism of organizations that track hate groups and hate speech.
Stop the Islamization of America (SOIA), a group co-founded by Geller in 2010, has been branded a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Center on Extremism, said in an interview on June 22 that while his group and others have concerns about radical Muslim individuals and groups, Geller goes further, to the point of xenophobia.
“The difference between [Geller and] legitimate criticism about the very serious threat of radical Islam,” Segal said, “is that she vilifies the entire Islamic faith by making assertions that there are conspiracies against American values inherent in Islam.”
Geller hinted at the threats she perceives in her remarks at another local event she organized on June 23, the day before the Federation barred her from entering through its doors.
“You are at war, and you are the soldier,” Geller told a crowd of about 200 people who had come to a hotel in Manhattan Beach to hear from a panel of former Muslims. The event was designed as a protest to an event being held simultaneously less than three miles away by the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA).
“We have an Islamophilic president,” Geller said, and described the upcoming U.S. presidential election as a crucial moment. “Afterward, I think we’re going to have to go underground. I’m not overstating it. We live in a very, very dangerous time.”
Meanwhile, at the nearby Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, about 500 Muslim men, women and children could be found in the parking lot outside, eating ice cream, Indian food or Fuddrucker’s cheeseburgers made with halal meat.
The program for CAIR-LA’s “A Summer Night for Civil Rights” included a pair of comedians and a few musical acts, separated by a short intermission, when the entire crowd filed out of the auditorium and into an adjacent courtyard for the prayer that takes place at sunset. Men and women, standing separately, removed their shoes and stood at the edges of long strips of butcher paper taped to the concrete. The prayers, conducted in Arabic, took about 10 minutes.
“The people behind Islamophobia are being exposed,” CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush told the crowd, noting that groups like his are pushing back against those who target Muslims. “Muslims are becoming, I guess, assertive, proud, courageous and standing up for their rights and standing up for their identity.”
In an interview on June 25, Ayloush said that he hadn’t known Geller was Jewish until last week, and that his group had initially intended to say nothing about her June 23 counter-protest.
“When we found out that she was actually speaking at The Jewish Federation, which is a mainstream organization, we couldn’t ignore that anymore,” Ayloush said.
Indeed, Geller, who on June 23 referred to the CAIR-LA event as “A Sumer Night for Islamic Supremacy,” has not been CAIR’s only critic. ADL’s Web site includes a full description of CAIR’s refusal “to unequivocally condemn by name Hezbollah and Palestinian terror organizations,” as well as citations of statements by Ayloush calling for an end to Zionism, likening it to the apartheid regime in South Africa and declaring it to be “a political ideology whose tentacles are rooted in racism.”
But, said the ADL’s Segal, CAIR’s background does not justify the kinds of verbal and written attacks Geller has launched against Islam as a whole and the way she has painted all religious American Muslims as extremists.
“The fact that Pamela Geller also notes the fact that CAIR has these issues, that doesn’t mean that the other things she says about Muslims as a whole are legitimate,” Segal said.
Ayloush, for his part, said that CAIR-LA’s primary aim is to secure the civil rights of American Muslims, and that he stands by his criticism of Zionism, which, he said, “certainly helped deal with the plight of the Jewish people in Europe after the Holocaust and World War II, but, unfortunately, it came at the expense of creating a new plight for the Palestinian people.”
Ayloush, who praised the ADL for taking a strong stance against Geller, called the criticisms of his group by the ADL “ironic,” and cited the opposition of the group’s longtime national director, Abe Foxman, to the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan in 2010.
“While CAIR has been at the forefront of defending the rights of Muslims, Jews and all other religious minorities in America, ADL was at the forefront of opposing the right of Muslims to build a mosque in New York.”
It was CAIR-LA that circulated the statement on June 23 from an interfaith coalition that included five other Muslim groups, one progressive Christian group and two leftist Jewish groups — the Los Angeles chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace and LA Jews for Peace — condemning Federation’s decision to give a platform to Geller. The group also circulated a second statement the next day commending the Federation’s decision to prevent the event from taking place.
Salam Al-Maryati is president in Los Angeles of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which took part in the interfaith coalition. He said on June 25 that while he is happy to engage with Jewish groups, even groups like the ZOA, he appreciated Federation’s cancellation of the event, which he saw as taking a stand against Geller.
“Let’s start to make distinctions between those who are passionate, and maybe even emotional at times, from extremists who are promoting ideological violence between our communities,” Al-Maryati said.
Asked whether the ZOA endorses Geller’s views on Islam, Goldberg, the national vice chair, demurred and said Geller should have been free to speak at Los Angeles’ Jewish Federation headquarters.
“Even if you disagree, let her speak here,” Goldberg said. “What’s the harm? What’s the harm of freedom of speech?”
Geller has addressed at least one other ZOA chapter in the past, a speech to the Philadelphia chapter in March 2012, which, according to her blog, took place without incident at the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.