The Conspiracy

Do We Need to “Defund Islamophobia”?

The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups deemed anti-Muslim by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Center for American Progress, alleges a new report from Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) Chicago. In a world where Muslims and Jews alike are threatened by rising hatred, there is no room for such actions from the Jewish community, and millennial Jews must make that clear to the Jewish establishment.

A Closer Look:

In addition to identifying potential hate groups that received funding from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, the report calls on the organization to immediately cease all financial support for Islamophobic groups, and seeks to mobilize millennial and progressive Jews towards this end. I received a copy of the report, which is based on public tax data, before its official release on Thursday by the Network Against Islamophobia, a JVP project.

The report “seeks to mobilize millennial and progressive Jews…” | By Fibonacci Blue [CC BY 2.0], via Creative Commons

In response to the report’s allegations, Aaron Cohen, vice president of marketing and communications for the Chicago branch of the Jewish Federation, also known as the Jewish United Fund (JUF), said, “I believe those organizations receive funding through donor advised funds (DAFs) of the Jewish Federation. These funds are not allocations from our annual community campaign. We administer these funds on behalf of the donors, making distributions to tax exempt qualified organizations under IRS rules in the U.S., and comply with applicable laws in other relevant jurisdictions.”

What are donor advised funds?

DAFs allow individual donors to make donations through the federation to their favorite charities. JVP, however, noted in their report that “According to JUF policy, donor-advised funds are strictly advisory, meaning that while individual donors can recommend organizations they wish to support, a JUF standing committee retains full discretion over the ultimate allocation of funds.” In its view, the status of the grants as DAFs doesn’t justify donations viewed as anti-Muslim. That said, it is very rare for an organization to deny donors’ choice about where to allocate donor-advised funds.

It also isn’t clear whether the JUF took these actions while aware of the extremist designation these groups have received. The numbers in question also represent less than 0.25 percent of the total grants given out by the JUF from 2011 to 2014.

As for whether the JUF intentionally or maliciously donated to these groups, Network Against Islamophobia member and report author Mark Tseng Putterman said, “Especially for the Middle East Forum and the Investigative Project on Terrorism, it’s hard not to know what their agenda is. It’s hard to look at any of their work and not see pretty blatant Islamophobia.”

However, “This is nothing more than speculation,” he noted.

For his part, JUF Vice President Cohen recalls that the grants were made through donor advised funds. He said, “Fulfilling donor intent and charitable goals – rather than political considerations – guides our work with these non-communally-comingled funds.”

The three recipients identified by the report, which received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding from the JUF between 2011 and 2014, were labeled Islamophobic groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists” and the Center for American Progress’ (CAP) 2011 report “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.”

Why Is This Report Important Right Now?

This report draws the JUF and JVP into an ongoing debate on the propriety of labelling self-styled anti-terror organizations as anti-Muslim, depending on the extremity of their statements and actions.

“The report comes as Jews and Muslims in the United States have begun a tenuous but long-awaited rapprochement.” | By U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv [CC BY 2.0], via Creative Commons

The report comes as Jews and Muslims in the United States have begun a tenuous but long-awaited rapprochement. In February, Jews in Victoria, Texas offered their Muslim neighbors the use of their synagogue after a fire burnt down the local mosque; later that month, Muslims raised funds and aided the restoration effort after a Jewish cemetery was desecrated in St. Louis.

Jewish and Muslim organizations have also teamed together, with the American Jewish Committee and the Islamic Society of North America launching the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council. A “MuJew” Antifascist group has also sprung up in the aftermath of President Trump’s inauguration.

Much of this cooperation may well be jeopardized by tactless or offensive moves from either community – and the revelations about the JUF are cause for concern.

I’ve written before about the need for millennial Jews to seize control of establishment organizations or build networks of solidarity and community outside of them, and this is a perfect example of why we should make our voices heard and push the JUF and other Jewish institutions to abandon these hateful groups.

Who Did JUF Fund?

Are these groups truly as bad as JVP claims? Let’s review the record.

By far the most well-known and controversial of recipients in question is Steven Emerson and his non-profit Investigative Project on Terrorism. Emerson is often described as an expert on terrorism, but the CAP and SPLC reports call that status into question.

“Emerson is often described as an expert on terrorism, but the CAP and SPLC reports call that status into question.” | By lukeisback.com [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

The Center for American Progress considers Emerson a “misinformation expert” crucial to the work performed by the “Islamophobia network” – which it defines as a “group of deeply intertwined individuals and organizations [that] manufacture and exaggerate threats of ‘creeping Sharia,’ Islamic domination of the West, and purported obligatory calls to violence against all non-Muslims by the Koran.” The SPLC, meanwhile, labeled Emerson an “anti-Muslim extremist.”

Emerson has testified before Congress on numerous occasions as a terrorism expert and appears regularly as a Fox News contributor, even though he has a protracted history of blunders and lies on live television.

For example, in the immediate aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, Emerson appeared on CBS and characterized the attack as having “a Middle Eastern trait” because it “was done with the intent to inflict as many casualties as possible.” Of course, the true perpetrator of the bombing was right-wing terrorist Timothy McVeigh.

Most recently, in January 2015 Emerson stated, again on Fox News, that in London, “Muslim religious police ‘beat’ anyone who doesn’t dress according to Muslim, religious Muslim attire,” later apologizing for his statement.

At the start of March, it was revealed that he was slated to be executive producer in Steve Bannon’s proposed anti-Muslim film “Destroying the Great Satan: The Rise of Islamic Fascism in America.”

The Investigative Project on Terrorism, which Emerson founded and heads, has occasionally served to add a veneer of legitimacy to his hate-mongering. It has been cited as an expert in a number of high-profile terrorism cases, and yet in 2010 the Tennessean reported that Emerson used the IPT to funnel millions of dollars to his for-profit SAE Productions.

There are others on the list almost as infamous as Emerson.

Although Emerson represents a storm of high-profile controversy, it is the more blatantly Islamophobic Daniel Pipes who received the bulk of the JUF’s grants. Pipes has also been identified by the SPLC and CAP as a misinformation expert and anti-Muslim extremist, but his comments are even more explicit than Emerson’s.

“Pipes has repeatedly accused former President Barack Obama of being Muslim.” | By lukeisback.com [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Like Emerson, Pipes also made the wrong call about the Oklahoma City Bombing, saying the day after the attack, “People need to understand that this is just the beginning. The [Muslim] fundamentalists are on the upsurge, and they make it clear that they are targeting us.”

The SPLC writes that “In 2004, Pipes endorsed the internment of ethnic Japanese in American prison camps in World War II as a model for dealing with Muslims today.”

Pipes said in 2010 that “Mr. Obama, in effect, enforced Islamic law, a precedent that could lead to other forms of compulsory Shariah compliance.”

In 1990, Pipes founded the Middle East Forum, where he continues to serve as president. The MEF has its own unsavory history of anti-Muslim hatred. It has two notorious online projects: Campus Watch, which has been accused of McCarthyism for publishing dossiers on professors deemed “hostile” to the U.S., and Islamist Watch, which divides Muslims into violent terrorists and “lawful Islamists” who seek to “impose Islamic law [in the United States]…”

The final group mentioned in the JVP report is the obscure DonorsTrust, which was identified in the 2011 CAP report as a “donor-advised fund” linked to Donors Capital Fund. Donors Capital Fund has given $21 million to Islamophobic groups like the Clarion Project between 2007 and 2009. The JUF also accepted $5.1 million from Donors Capital Fund in 2013, but these connections and meanings are more nebulous than those of the outspoken Emerson and Pipes.

How Much Did JUF Give, And Why Does It Matter?

The amounts in question vary from group to group and run from 2011 to 2014, the most recent year for which data is available.

The greatest recipient by far was Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum, which received more than half a million dollars in 2011 and tens of thousands over the subsequent years. The 2011 donation alone represented almost 12.5 percent of the MEF’s revenue that year. That same year, the MEF donated $512,500 to Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism, according to public 990 tax forms.

The IPT received far less from the JUF – about 4 percent of what the MEF received. This barely covers 1 percent of the IPT’s revenue that year. However, these donations also raise certain ethical questions, as the IPT states on its website that it “accepts no funding from outside the United States, or from any governmental agency or political or religious institutions.” It is unclear whether the JUF would be considered a religious institution.

DonorsTrust, meanwhile, received a total of $100,000 from the JUF, all in 2011.

While these look like large sums of money, the donations only make up a small percentage, 0.25 percent, of the $360,419,321 in donations made by the JUF from 2011 to 2014.

Furthermore, the number of donations Islamophobic groups received lessened in recent years. Putterman, the author of the report, said that because tax documents are only available for a narrow stretch of years, “It’s hard to get a longer-term sense of the trajectory.”

Nonetheless, the symbolism of these donations – the implied support for Islamophobia from the Jewish community – remains important.

Main Takeaway? Defund Islamophobia

JVP and the report have a simple request of the JUF, outlined in the report’s title: Defund Islamophobia. Although there may be some bickering about whether to include DonorsTrust, due to its ambiguity, or Steven Emerson, because of his professional veneer, it’s hard to disagree with the report’s ultimate call to action. The Jewish community should not be supporting anti-Muslim bigots, not with words, money, or prayer.

The report also seeks to link the Jewish Federation of Chicago’s right-leaning policies on Israel to its support for anti-Muslim institutions, who tend to hold similar right-wing positions on the Jewish state. At the same time, Putterman said, he expects the JUF to respond with an attempt to delegitimize the report by drawing attention to JVP’s own positions on Israel, which include an endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign.

The Israel debate, however, is secondary to the crucial lessons to draw from this report – the JUF and other Jewish establishment organizations must be made to know that support for anti-Muslim groups will not be tolerated by millennial and progressive Jews.

Last month, I wrote for New Voices about the uniquely Jewish character of the protests against Trump’s travel ban. “What we’re seeing today – religious and ethnic scapegoating, blatant disregard for the rule of law and balance of power, and a shocking political disengagement from the majority of the populace – is our past and should be no one’s future.”

Muslims are under attack in American society with funding from the institutions meant to represent us. It is imperative that Jews stand with them in solidarity and that we not only defund Islamophobes but also speak out against them at every turn.

Marc Daalder is a junior at Amherst College majoring in History. He is a Scribe contributor for the Jewish Daily Forward and has also been published in the Financial Times, the Chicago ReaderIn These Times, and the student publication AC Voice.

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