Anti-Defamation CEO Jonathan Greenblatt (left) and Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. (Photos/File)
Anti-Defamation CEO Jonathan Greenblatt (left) and Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. (Photos/File)

ADL spars with CAIR over local Muslim leader’s remarks on ‘polite Zionists’

A controversy ignited by remarks made on Nov. 27 by Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, continues to expand on social media after CAIR defended her speech.

A Dec. 12 response by the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, drew ire on social media from the national CAIR office, which defended Billoo and accused Greenblatt of lying.

Billoo’s speech at a pro-Palestine conference in Chicago asked attendees to oppose not only extreme right-wing forces but also “polite Zionists.”

“When we talk about Islamophobia, we think oftentimes about the vehement fascists,” she said. “But I also want us to pay attention to the polite Zionists. The ones that say, ‘Let’s just break bread together.’ They are not your friends,” she said.

As examples, she cited the ADL, Jewish Federations, Hillels and “Zionist synagogues.”

Jewish organizations condemned the speech, and Greenblatt responded on Twitter.

“Throughout her speech Ms. Billoo blamed America’s Jewish institutions — from civil rights orgs to respected campus orgs to charitable orgs to virtually every synagogue in the US — for a variety of America’s illls, including Islamophobia. Classic conspiratorial #antisemitism,” he said.

“Yeah, that’s not what she said or what we believe,” CAIR responded. “But go ahead, keep lying.”

CAIR’s tweet went on to excoriate the Israel-based English-language newspaper Jerusalem Post, which covered the issue.

“We expect nothing less from The @Jerusalem_Post (fun fact: originally named The Palestine Post), a far-right website that acts as a mouthpiece for Israeli apartheid,” CAIR wrote.

The Jerusalem Post was founded in 1932 as the Palestine Post at a time when the area was called Mandatory Palestine and was under British rule.

A 3½-minute video of portions of the speech, delivered at an annual conference of American Muslims for Palestine, have been posted online, though the entire speech has not. The excerpts include Billoo describing a well-funded campaign to bolster Islamophobia around the world, and an interconnected network of Zionist-supporting organizations working to harm Muslims. She also repeated an unsupported claim, one that circulates among some activist groups, that “police officers in the United States who kill unarmed black men, women and children are trained by the Israeli military.”


Billoo, a member of CAIR since 2009, is highly regarded in activist circles — a celebrated civil rights attorney with a law degree from UC Hastings who appears frequently in television news interviews and newspapers. She has also partnered with left-leaning Jewish groups, including in the Bay Area. The local branch of the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace tweeted its support: “Those of us in the Bay Area Jewish community who work with Zahra know what she stands for: unity between Jews and Muslims against Islamophobia & Antisemitism and Palestinian human rights.”

However, unity seems far from apparent, at least on social media.

“To so brazenly refer to the vast majority of American Jews as enemies solely because of their connection to the Jewish homeland, to repeatedly blame Jews for Islamophobia, and to unapologetically promote tropes used against Jews for millennia, is grotesque,” the ADL’s Greenblatt said on Twitter.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.