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Megaphone: Jacob Bender, a Jew Among American Muslims

Mitchell Abidor
January 21, 2014
Interviewed by Mitchell Abidor From the Winter 2013-2014 issue of Jewish Currents Jacob_Bender_WHEN JACOB BENDER WAS NAMED the director of the Philadelphia office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in September, he became the first American Jew ever to lead an American Muslim organization. The reaction was enthusiastic in the Muslim community, with Al Jazeera running a feature on Bender, but in the mainstream Jewish community, there was a lot less enthusiasm. “CAIR is far off the radar screen of the Jewish community,” Ethan Felson of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, told the Forward. “The Jewish community looked at their record and said, ‘We won’t work with this group.’” Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League stated: “The fact that [Bender] is Jewish does not indicate, necessarily, a change of attitude and activity at CAIR. Unfortunately, there are Jews who are anti-Jewish and anti-Israel. But we will wait and see.” Jacob Bender has spent more than thirty years as a documentary filmmaker, video producer, photographer, graphic designer, and interfaith consultant. During the many years he lived in Israel, he worked as an audiovisual producer at Yad Vashem, as well as for the Israel Ministry of Education, and met and worked with most of the important figures on the Israeli left. In 1984, after Jesse Jackson’s unfortunate reference to New York as “Hymietown,” Bender contacted the candidate, who enlisted him to write his apology. Bender has also served as executive director of American Friends of Meretz, the left-wing, pro-peace Israeli political party, and was a media producer for the Reform synagogue movement and the Workmen’s Circle. His political affiliations have included New Jewish Agenda and the anti-nuclear movement. After the attack of September 11th, horrified not just by the killings and the hijacking of Islam by the killers but also by the notion that there was a necessary clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, Jacob embarked on making the film Out of Cordoba. Released in 2010, it tells the story of Muslim Spain and the coexistence there of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, through the stories of two great medieval contemporaries from Cordoba, Maimonides and the Muslim physician and philosopher Averroës. The film took Bender around the world to meet with Jews and Muslims who are working to put to rest the falsehood that Jews and Muslims are eternal enemies. Out of Cordoba has been shown around the world, at the United Nations, at the German ministry of foreign affairs, and to more than 150 university and religious groups throughout the U.S. and Canada. Sadly but significantly, few of his invitations to screen the film have come from Jewish groups. Also following September 11th, Bender helped to initiate interfaith dialogue with the American Muslim community. He has spoken dozens of times at mosques and at large gatherings of Muslims in the United States, as well as at the annual Doha Conferences on Religious Dialogue, organized by the Foreign Ministry of Qatar each year from 2006 to 2009. Bender has firm roots in the Jewish secular community: His father Herschel was a member of the famous Yiddish ARTEF theater company, and his mother Sabell is a noted historian and lecturer on the Yiddish theater. A consistent voice in the American Jewish community for a just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, in 1995 he led delegations of American peace activists that met with Chairman Yassir Arafat in Gaza and King Hussein in Amman. Our conversation with him was conducted by Jewish Currents contributing writer Mitchell Abidor, who worked on Out of Cordoba as an historical consultant and translator. Jewish Currents: What is CAIR and what does it do? Jacob Bender: The Council on American-Islamic Relations is the pre-eminent Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization in the U.S., with thirty-five chapters around the country. Its two main missions are providing legal representation for Muslims facing discrimination, and challenging misrepresentations of Islam in public discourse through advocacy and education. As the executive director of the Philadelphia chapter, I am the public face of the organization. It is my responsibility to help organize the Muslim community so they can better defend themselves, as well as represent CAIR in Philadelphia’s many interfaith coalitions. JC: What led you to apply for the job? JB: I immediately recognized that it would be a natural extension of everything I’d done in my life until then. I had spent the last decade producing, distributing, and screening my documentary film, Out of Cordoba, an exploration of Jewish-Muslim relations in medieval Muslim Spain and that amazing era’s legacy and importance for contemporary interfaith relations. Making the film brought me into contact with the Muslim community around the world, and I realized that my whole life was a dress rehearsal for this post. Tears happyJC: What’s the size and makeup of the community you work with? JB: There are about 50,000 Muslims in Philadelphia — a third South Asian, a third from the Arab world, and a third native to America, mainly black. I’ve been welcomed with open arms and warmly received everywhere I go. Among the thousands of posts by Muslim voices on the Internet about my appointment, only a few have been negative. JC: Did you have any trepidation at all about taking this job? JB: None at all. There’s a long history of Jews filling administrative positions in the Muslim world, a phenomenon totally unthinkable in places like the Pale of Settlement, though common in Western Europe. Even today, a Moroccan Jew, Andre Azoulay, is a senior advisor to the King of Morocco. JC: So in a sense you’re a court Jew? JB: Yes, but that means something very different in the Muslim world than in the Christian world. Jews filled many posts in the East. Maimonides, for example, was the court physician in Egypt — if not a court Jew, then a Jew of the court. His position as ras al yahud, the prince of the Jews, was then filled by his son and his grandson. But even in the Christian world, the idea of the court Jew was more complex than is commonly thought. In fact, all of Jewish history is more complex than most American Jews are taught. If your frame of reference is Fiddler on the Roof and the Sisterhood gift shop at your local Reform Temple, you may not understand the complexity of Jewish-Muslim relations, or the fact that for hundreds of years, Arabic was the mother-tongue of the vast majority of the world’s Jews. JC: You have a long history, and a long family history, of Jewish activism. What does being a Jew bring to your work at CAIR? JB: Being cognizant of the history of Jewish suffering, I can bring a certain sensitivity to the situation of Muslims in America and explain their predicament in America and to Americans. The canards of the Islamophobes are nothing but a recycling of the slurs against Jews and even Catholics over a hundred years ago. We’ve forgotten that many Americans thought that Judaism and Catholicism were once incompatible with being an American. JC: Does the job pose any special problems to you as a progressive Jew? After all, most of the material from CAIR includes quotes from the Qu’ran... JB: None whatsoever. The key role in organizing is to speak to the community in a language they understand. Saul Alinsky wouldn’t have done any differently. JC: How religious is the membership, though? Is there much of a fundamentalist presence? JB: CAIR is like any broad-based organization: There’s a wide range of levels of observance. I mean, we represent a community that comes from dozens of nations, from Malaysia to Morocco, so there’s plenty of diversity right there. JC: Does any of this make you uncomfortable? JB: Not in the least. Like thousands and thousands of Jews throughout history who have either lived with Muslims or studied Islam, I’ve found something compelling about Islamic civilization — not only in the similarities to Jewish culture, but in the fact that so much of Western civilization was built on an Islamic and Arab foundation. I’m proud to work with them. JC: When you sat with the people from CAIR for the interview, what do you think they wanted you to bring to the organization? JB: I think the interviewers of the local chapter saw me, above all, as an expert in communications, and they were less concerned with my ethnic background. That said, they also saw me as someone who’s dedicated himself to interfaith work, and more particularly, to Muslim-Jewish relations, and they felt I could serve as a bridge to other communities. JC: And how’s that going? JB: Great! The articles generated by my being named as director have spread all over the internet, and shortly after I assumed the post, the ADL, notwithstanding Abraham Foxman’s hesitation about CAIR, removed the organization from its list of the ten most anti-Israel groups in America. Perceptions of organizations can change. Immediately after the September 11th attacks, another Muslim group, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), was placed on a terrorist watch list and ignored by all the established Jewish organizations. Today, many mainstream Jewish organizations view ISNA as a legitimate interlocutor. For CAIR, there’s an additional history of working with Jewish groups. In Chicago, there’s a relationship that’s gone on for seven years between the local chapter of CAIR and the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, one that works to their mutual benefit. So if I can help change the Jewish community’s unfair perception of CAIR, I’ll consider it all worth it. JC: How do you respond to those who talk about CAIR’s support for Hamas? JB: The general critique is that CAIR supports terrorism and that ideologically we’re close to Hamas. In the first place, CAIR is an organization dedicated to domestic issues and doesn’t have a detailed position on the Middle East beyond support for Palestinian rights. But the accusations need to be addressed. CAIR has issued countless statements condemning violence committed by extremists claiming Islam as their justification. But are there people within CAIR who sympathize with Hamas? Yes. Most people, Jews among them, have forgotten or are unaware that Hamas was midwifed by Israel’s Shin Bet to draw support away from Fatah during the first Intifada. People also don’t realize that Hamas was elected in a generally-recognized fair election because it provided services that were not otherwise provided by the Israeli Occupation authorities. Anyway, American Jews support a range of forces within Israel, from peace groups to those that are virtually fascist and openly racist, so if American Jews have the right to support all varieties of groups, then so should Muslims. JC: Do you have a role in shaping policy, or do you just administer the group’s existing ones? JB: I’m the executive director, so of course I have a role in shaping policy — but I’ve just arrived, and in any case, what CAIR is doing is great and what I mainly want to do is just build on what they’ve done. JC: What issues have you had to deal with in your first weeks on the job? JB: There was a recent attack on a mosque in Newark, Delaware, and we arranged a press conference to bring it to people’s attention, and then we held a vigil which a senator, a lieutenant governor, and, among other area clerics, two rabbis attended. In fact, two hundred people showed up, representing fifteen places of worship in the area. JC: Are there issues you plan to work on with Jewish groups in the near future? JB: A couple of anti-sharia laws like the one passed in Oklahoma are percolating in the Pennsylvania state legislature, and we intend to enlist the support of the Jewish community in fighting this. JC: Can you give us an insider’s view of how security measures and racial profiling have affected the community you represent? JB: I was recently at a meeting of American Muslims and the speaker asked how many in the audience had ever been hassled at the airport or at the border. About 98 percent raised their hands. Almost every day, the Arab community lives the events outlined in the case that was filed by your son with the ACLU against the Department of Homeland Security, Abidor v. Napolitano. [See Mitchell Abidor’s “My Son the Homeland Security Threat.” —Editor] CAIR is filing lawsuits against this kind of profiling, speaking to government officials, and, perhaps most importantly, informing people of their constitutional rights and providing legal counsel, when needed. JC: Are there any rabbis working with you already? JB: Of course, there’s Arthur Waskow, and CAIR contributed to and attended the 80th birthday celebration for him and Gloria Steinem in November. [See the interview with Rabbi Waskow in the Summer, 2013 edition of this “Megaphone” column. —Editor] The leadership of the Reconstructionist movement also has a long-standing relationship with CAIR, which I hope to expand to other sectors of the Jewish community. JC: What does your mother think of all this? JB: It’s given her much nakhes. JC: Now that you’re in Philadelphia, do you have a favorite place for cheesesteak? JB: As a third-generation Jewish left vegetarian, I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that it might make my long-dead bobe rise from the grave and come after me.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.