Dilawar Syed (right) with then-candidate Joe Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign. (Photo/Courtesy Biden campaign)
Dilawar Syed (right) with then-candidate Joe Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign. (Photo/Courtesy Biden campaign)

Jewish groups come to defense of local Muslim nominated by Biden

The American Jewish Committee and two figures in the Bay Area Jewish community have come out in defense of a nominee for a federal position who has been accused by GOP lawmakers of holding anti-Israel sentiments.

Dilawar Syed was nominated March 3 by President Joe Biden to be deputy administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration. If confirmed, he would become the highest-ranking Muslim American in the Biden administration.

Syed is a Pakistani American businessman from Redwood City who is the president and CEO of Lumiata, a health care analytics company based in San Mateo. He also is the founding chairman of the 2-year-old California Entrepreneurship Task Force, and from 2010 to 2014, he advised President Barack Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He attended the University of Texas at Austin for undergraduate studies and then went on to receive his MBA from the Wharton School. He moved from Pakistan when he was a freshman.

In late June, 17 weeks after he was nominated, eight Republican senators wrote a letter to Sen. Ben Cardin, chair of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, expressing “serious concern” because of Syed’s ties to Emgage Action, a Muslim American advocacy group that has been critical of Israel.

The senators accused the group of making “inflammatory statements” about the Jewish state and holding “deep-seated prejudice that is of serious concern to the small business community.”

Pushing back on those claims, the AJC said in a statement this week that while it does “not normally” weigh in on nominees requiring Senate confirmation, the accusations levied against Syed “are so base and unamerican that AJC is compelled to speak out.” The AJC’s stance is significant particularly because of its moderate to conservative positions on issues related to Israel.

The AJC wrote that Syed has been an “active partner” with San Francisco’s Jewish community, traveled to Israel with the S.F.-based JCRC and has opposed boycotts against Israel.

AJC pointed to a statement Syed made during his nomination hearing, when he said he was “unequivocally against BDS,” responding to a question about the boycott movement from Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

“Throughout my career,” Syed said during the April hearing, “I have supported engagement with Israeli business. I have personally conducted business with Israeli companies and have mentored entrepreneurs based in Israel.”

In regard to Syed’s ties to Emgage Action — he has been a board member since 2017 — the AJC said its own organization “has made common cause [with Emgage] on a number of shared policy issues.

“While AJC often disagrees with Emgage on matters related to Israel, [Emgage’s] advocacy is done in the great American tradition of respectful public debate,” the July 7 statement continued. “AJC rejects the charge that simply an affiliation with Emgage would reflect negatively on an individual, organization or agency.” (On its website, Emgage states that it supports BDS.)

He is clearly being attacked because he is a Muslim; this is an outrage.

In expressing support for Syed’s nomination during the April hearing, Cardin, a senator from Maryland, said he was “confident” in Syed’s ability to “lead SBA in this pivotal moment.”

The SBA oversaw the $953 billion Paycheck Protection Program, part of a pandemic-induced stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in April 2020.

Two other members of the Bay Area’s Jewish community have come to Syed’s defense.

On July 2, Rabbi Doug Kahn, who spent 34 years with JCRC, including 27 as its executive director, penned a letter to Cardin and Sen. Rand Paul, a ranking member on Cardin’s committee.

In the letter, a copy of which was made available to J., Kahn spoke about a 2013 JCRC trip to Israel that included Syed.

“He was fully engaged, a keen observer taking in the wide range of experiences during our 10-day intensive trip to Israel,” Kahn, the trip’s leader, wrote. “He knew that he was traveling with an organization that was an advocate for a strong Israel-American relationship as well as a two-state solution that ensured the security of the State of Israel side by side a Palestinian state. He was an outstanding and thoughtful questioner as a result of his desire to fully understand Israel and the region. In short, his participation was greatly valued by our delegation of community leaders and enhanced the overall experience for all.”

Kahn wrote that while he disagreed with some of the language Emgage Action has used in the past surrounding Israel, “the organization’s positions are not necessarily a reflection of Mr. Syed’s personal views and my experience with him showed him to be an open, sincere individual with great integrity and respect for the Jewish community and Israel.”

Syed, Kahn wrote, “is a friend, not an enemy of our community.”

Jerilyn Gelt has also come to Syed’s defense. She is a board member for multiple regional Jewish organizations, including Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco and Shalom Bayit, a Bay Area center for domestic violence prevention, response and support within the Jewish community.

In a July 1 Facebook post, Gelt pointed out that “Republican claims” of anti-Israel bias against Syed are “totally unfounded.”

“It is shameful to see antisemitism and Israel weaponized for partisan gain to slow down the nomination of a fully qualified public servant who already enjoys support from Senators of both parties,” Gelt wrote. “He is clearly being attacked because he is a Muslim; this is an outrage.”

Others outside of the Bay Area have come out in support of Syed, including Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Interfaith Alliance, in a blog post in the Times of Israel.

Gabriel Greschler

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