Arab speaker, cancellation of Jewish film raise synagogues ire

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An invitation to an Arab speaker representing a controversial organization and the subsequent cancellation of the screening of a film about Islamic anti-Semitism has bestirred a Davis synagogue.

Several years of internal debates about how to best support Israel came to a head at Congregation Bet Haverim, with a speaking engagement by Basim Elkarra, the regional director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Elkarra is well known to many at the synagogue for his interfaith work, but it was his affiliation with CAIR that raised eyebrows. Sen. Barbara Boxer recently rescinded a community service award to Elkarra because of “concerns” about CAIR.

The organization, which purports to be a civil rights watchdog, was founded in 1994 by the Islamic Association for Palestine, which has been characterized by the U.S. government as a wing of Hamas’ propaganda apparatus.

While CAIR criticized the recent Iranian Holocaust denial conference and has condemned terrorism in general terms, according to the Anti-Defamation League the organization has never unambiguously condemned Hamas or Hezbollah, and participated in a number of rallies “in which support for terrorist groups was undeniable.” That includes a 2002 demonstration in which CAIR’s then-director addressed a Washington, D.C., crowd while standing next to a Hezbollah flag.

The subject of Elkarra’s December speech, a history of Islam, was innocuous. But that’s not what had some synagogue members upset.

“I asked, ‘As an American Jew and a Zionist, I am scared [to death] about Islamic extremists around the world, so how do you equate that with what is in the Koran?'” said Al Sokolow, a retired U.C. Davis professor and head of the synagogue’s Israel Matters committee. “And the moderator ruled you could only ask questions that were directly pertinent to the speaker’s presentation.

“That’s censorship and it was the first time we ever had a program where you couldn’t ask questions. [Elkarra] was given a no-brainer, noncontroversial topic. It would be the equivalent of having a representative of AIPAC or the ADL go to a mosque and talk about basic Judaism. This is a political advocacy group. [The speech] was just intended to give them some credibility … Now CAIR can say ‘We’ve been invited to speak at a Jewish congregation, we’re mainstream.'”

Elkarra’s audience was tense and somewhat raucous — one man was asked to leave the synagogue, and did — which led Bet Haverim’s executive board to call for a “hiatus” from all potentially controversial programming. That included an upcoming showing of the film “Ever Again,” a documentary exploring extremist Islam and anti-Semitism.

Ernie Biberstein, a member of the synagogue’s Israel Peace Alternatives group — which invited Elkarra to speak — said the hiatus hasn’t made anyone happy.

“Whenever you make blanket policies, something’s going to happen that doesn’t look very wise,” said Biberstein, also a retired U.C. Davis professor. “I would have no objection to the film.”

Richard Zeiger, the synagogue’s treasurer and member of the executive board, said the audience’s behavior at the Elkarra speech was uncivil enough that Bet Haverim needed to take steps on how to present controversial materials. That process will take at least until the end of spring, and perhaps the film, which Zeiger summed up as “on the propagandistic side,” will show at the synagogue after that.

Biberstein, incidentally, said he’d invite Elkarra again. Holding CAIR’s actions against the speaker, he said, would be like disinviting an AIPAC speaker because several of the pro-Israel lobby’s higher-ups are accused of espionage and treason.

“I grew up in Nazi Germany and I’m vaccinated against that kind of attitude,” he added.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.