Emily Howe resigned from the Commonwealth Club's Inforum advisory board over an event featuring Bari Weiss and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Emily Howe resigned from the Commonwealth Club's Inforum advisory board over an event featuring Bari Weiss and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Commonwealth Club under fire over planned event, Jewish board member resigns

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UPDATED: Feb. 11, 3:45 p.m.

A virtual discussion planned for Thursday evening hosted by the Commonwealth Club has been condemned by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which claims that the two speakers hold “anti-Muslim” and “anti-Palestinian” views.

Not only is CAIR attempting to get the event canceled at the 11th hour, but the dust-up has resulted in the resignation of a Jewish member of the Commonwealth Club’s Inforum board, an advisory group that is co-hosting the discussion.

The event is scheduled to feature Somali-born, former Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who, in conversation with Jewish writer Bari Weiss, will be discussing “Islam, immigration and women’s rights,” according to the event’s title. That’s close to the subtitle of Hirsi Ali’s controversial new book “Prey,” which also is slated to be discussed.

In a message on its website, CAIR denounced both speakers, saying that the event will “stoke fear” and “hatred,” and that neither Hirsi Ali or Weiss are “qualified” to speak on the subjects advertised.

“This past week has provided a difficult reminder that the San Francisco Bay Area is not exempt from Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian sentiment,” CAIR wrote, urging individuals to contact the Commonwealth Club through a prewritten message. As of 2 p.m. Thursday, more than 1,500 people had contacted the nonprofit, according to CAIR’s website.

CAIR also reached out directly to the Commonwealth Club in a message addressed to its president and CEO.

The Commonwealth Club and CAIR did not respond to a J. request for comment.

Hirsi Ali is known as an outspoken critic of Islam. Her new book, subtitled “Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights,” attempts to link Muslim immigration to Europe with higher rates of sexual assault in the region, and a review in the New York Times says the book “argues that immigration from majority-Muslim countries imperils the hard-won rights of European women.”

In its condemnation of the event, CAIR shared a link to a 2007 article in the magazine Reason in which Hirsi Ali said “we are at war with Islam” and suggested closing Muslim schools in Western countries.

Weiss, an opinion writer who covers culture and politics, recently left the New York Times after claiming that her colleagues bullied her and that the newspaper’s leadership had constrained her abilities to write freely. In their criticisms of Weiss, CAIR shared an Intercept article which details cases in which Weiss tried to “vilify and ruin” the careers of Arab and Muslim professors.

Hirsi Ali and Weiss did not respond to a J. request for comment. In a tweet posted on Thursday afternoon, Weiss wrote “Can’t wait to speak with my friend @Ayaan tonight at @cwclub.”

A day before the event, a Jewish board member of Inforum, Emily Howe, who goes by Femily, resigned from the Commonwealth Club division in response to criticisms of the scheduled discussion. Howe serves as a gender equity adviser for Silicon Valley companies.

“Given your decision to host and go forward with the Feb. 11 event (even after receiving 300+ letters from the Muslim-American community) that features anti-Muslim, pro-violence-against-Muslims speaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I am resigning, effective immediately,” Howe wrote in an email to Gloria Duffy, the Commonwealth Club’s president and CEO since 1996, that was shared with J.

Howe also wrote: “As a religious minority myself (Jewish), as a fervent ally to the Muslim community, and as an anti-racist, being an ally to Muslim and other targeted communities is at the *heart* of what I’m literally doing on this planet and in this lifetime. Listening to marginalized communities is core to my work as an anti-oppression diversity consultant. I can no longer in good faith remain a part of the Commonwealth Club.”

In a reply that also was shared with J., Duffy wrote, “Thank you for your communication, which I respect.”

She continued: “I do think there may be a misunderstanding about what we are doing, and of course I would be happy to discuss that with you.”

Howe told J. she doesn’t plan on speaking with Duffy. Duffy did not respond to an email and voicemail requesting comment.

“I just can’t stay involved with an organization who refuses to listen to and act on the recommendations of marginalized communities it supposedly cares about,” Howe said, “that talks big about diversity, but when they have a chance to do it, they don’t.”

In a press release on Feb. 11, CAIR said it “welcomes” Howe’s resignation.

The Commonwealth Club was founded in 1903 and is headquartered in downtown San Francisco. It frequently hosts discussions with politicians and other public figures. Its events have been shifted online because of the pandemic.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.