U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-District 7) is facing heavy criticism from some members of the Jewish community for his decision to speak at an event organized by a well-known Muslim advocacy group that critics claim has offered fierce rebukes of Israel and, at least in principle, supports Islamic extremism.
CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, has 32 offices around the country and bills itself as America's foremost civil-rights organization for Muslims. But it has many detractors, including U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who, according to published reports, alleged in a 2003 Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing that prominent members of CAIR "have intimate links with Hamas."
Critics like the Middle East Forum's Daniel Pipes charge that while the organization presents itself as mainstream, in actuality its leadership has ties with radicals, and has refused to condemn Hamas and Hezbollah -- both declared terrorist groups by the United States -- by name.
"Perhaps the most obvious problem with CAIR is the fact that at least five of its employees and board members have been arrested, convicted, deported, or otherwise linked to terrorism-related charges and activities," Pipes wrote in the spring 2006 issue of the Middle East Quarterly.
On the other hand, according to a report in Newsweek, an FBI assistant director served as the speaker late last year for a CAIR banquet in Arlington, Va., and the group has conducted "sensitivity training" for FBI and Homeland Security personnel.
Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR's national spokesperson, said of the backlash against Sestak: "Anti-Muslim extremists are working extremely hard to marginalize and disenfranchise the American Muslim community -- and this is one of those instances."
'Send a Stronger Message'
According to Rabbi Lisa Malik, religious leader of Suburban Jewish Community Center-B'nai Aaron in Havertown, the synagogue very nearly canceled Sestak's March 11 appearance after it learned of his plans to address an April 7 CAIR event at the Hilton hotel on City Avenue. Malik added that the congregation only decided to hold its forum at the urging of the event's co-sponsor, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Sestak had to spend a good part of his two-hour appearance at the Havertown synagogue fielding questions, including one from Malik, about his decision to go through with the CAIR event.
"I honestly believe that when I speak there and and state what I believe -- that Israel is America's staunchest ally -- I honestly believe that by speaking candidly to them that it will send a stronger message" than canceling, Sestak told the roughly 100 people who had gathered in the sanctuary.
He pledged to post his CAIR speech on his congressional Web site.
"I believe that if the evidence was so strong that this group was involved in terrorism, then the government would have closed this group down," added Sestak.
He also argued that being a congressman mandates that he talk to various constituent groups. He said that he wouldn't actually be helping CAIR raise money; the congressman's talk is now taking place two hours before the April 7 fundraiser at the Hilton City Avenue, a distinction that placated few at B'nai Aaron, including Malik.
"I thought we could talk him into changing his mind," said Malik, who added that by addressing a group that opposes the existence of the State of Israel, Sestak was clearly sending the wrong signal to the Jewish community. "I'm disappointed, and I didn't buy it."
She wasn't the only one.
"What makes you insult the Jewish community by going and speaking to a group that wants to kill Jews?" asked Lori Lowenthal Marcus, a congregant and president of the Greater Philadelphia District of the Zionist Organization of America, during the question-and-answer period after the March 11 talk at the synagogue.
He calmly rephrased his earlier defense.
But Bruce Yasgur, a Sestak supporter who helped organize the B'nai Aaron event, said the congressman handled himself well.
"He's making an effort to promote dialogue," said Yasgur.
It's not the first time that Sestak's been attacked for appearing with controversial groups or individuals. During the campaign, then U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon criticized Sestak for appearing at a Sept. 16 fundraiser with Rev. Robert Edgar, a former Democratic congressman who's been critical of Israel.
The Sestak flap comes several months after U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) made headlines by rescinding an award issued to a Sacramento activist after learning that he worked for CAIR.