The hiring of a Jewish filmmaker and civil-rights activist to head a chapter of the nation’s largest Muslim advocacy organization is being greeted with caution by pro-Israel advocates.
Documentary filmmaker Jacob Bender was named last week to serve as executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Philadelphia office, making him the first Jewish chapter leader in the organization’s history.
“My being a non-Muslim and American Jew is obviously of interest, but the real purpose of the position is to protect and defend the rights of American Muslims and change the negative stereotyping of Islam,” said Mr. Bender.
Reaction to his appointment has been “about 95 percent positive and 5 percent negative, the latter from a small, bigoted minority who mistakenly believe that Muslims and Jews are eternal enemies and have always lived in a continuous clash of civilizations,” Mr. Bender said.
Not yet ready to sing “Kumbaya” are advocates for Israel who see the move as a publicity stunt. A headline Thursday in FrontPage Mag, a publication of the David Horowitz Freedom Center in Los Angeles, called Mr. Bender “CAIR’s Court Jew.”
“Jacob Bender, for his part, has spent a good portion of his life denouncing the Jewish state. He blames all problems regarding Palestinians on Israel,” said Joe Kaufman, a Republican who’s running to challenge Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Florida Democrat.
More diplomatic was Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who said in a statement that he’s taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Time will tell. The fact that he is Jewish does not indicate, necessarily, a change of attitude and activity at CAIR,” said Mr. Foxman. “Unfortunately, there are Jews who are anti-Jewish and anti-Israel. Bender’s views that are already on the record are not encouraging. But we will wait and see.”
Mr. Bender’s 2010 documentary “Out of Cordoba,” focused on a medieval society in Spain where, he claims, “Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in peace.” Mr. Kaufman referred to the film as an “anti-Israel ‘documentary’” and noted that the funding came from pro-Muslim groups like the Alwaleed bin Talal Foundation.
Mr. Bender said he’s hopeful that his appointment will help bridge tensions between religious groups. He noted that the ADL on Tuesday released its list of the top 10 anti-Israel groups in the United States, and that CAIR was not among them, although it’s been listed in the past.
“I think it’s getting better, but there’s also a very, very strong Islamophobic narrative in the United States,” Mr. Bender said.
Debate continues to rage over CAIR’s ties to Muslim terrorism. Founded in 1994, the group was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the terrorism-financing case against the Holy Land Foundation, whose founders were found guilty in 2008 of funneling $12 million to Hamas.
CAIR officials object to the unindicted co-conspirator label, calling it an example of “tactical pre-trial maneuvering and not an indicator of guilt.” The group’s website also includes a statement saying that it has “consistently and persistently condemned terrorism and the killing of innocent civilians.”
Still, tensions persist between CAIR and Jewish advocacy groups.