State Sen. Anthony Williams spent the bulk of his acceptance speech at the Zionist Organization of America’s annual gala and awards dinner last week blasting those who had implored him not to attend.
“When people challenge me on the integrity of my friends, then I can only resort to one thing — you are not a friend,” Williams said during his Oct. 9 speech to roughly 300 ZOA supporters at the Philadelphia Hilton City Avenue.
The African-American lawmaker received the Friend of Zion award from ZOA’s local chapter. The group also honored Rabbi Eric Yanoff of Adath Israel in Merion Station, local pro-Israel activists Ruth and Morton C. Gleit, and Nonie Darwish, an Egyptian-born author, critic of Islam and founder of Arabs for Israel.
Over the past year, Williams — perhaps best known for pushing education reform — introduced a bill mandating Holocaust education. He also keynoted Philadelphia’s annual Holocaust memorial event and organized a trip to Israel for black and Jewish leaders.
On Sept. 30, Williams received a letter signed by more than 100 individuals and groups, all fierce critics of Israel, including a number of supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Among the groups that signed were: Philadelphia Jews for a Just Peace, Jewish Voice for Peace Philadelphia, The Mid-
dle East Working Group of the Episcopal Diocese and the Philadelphia Coalition of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Against Israel.
“Knowing you as a defender of equality, non-discrimination, fairness and justice, we ask that you decline this award from an organization with a disturbing history of words and deeds hostile to Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians,” the letter stated.
The letter labeled ZOA a “hate group” because it has supported or provided a platform to critics of Islam such as Darwish, Dutch Parliamentarian Geert Wilders and blogger Pamela Geller.
ZOA is considered on the political right when it comes to Israel issues. It has long argued that a peace deal with the Palestinians would be a mistake because the Palestinians aren’t ready for peace and incite hatred against Israel.
“Accepting this award may have been an oversight, committed in the mistaken belief that the ZOA is an organization worthy of attention, representative of the Philadelphia Jewish community, and wholesome in its endeavors,” the letter said. “It is not.”
ZOA National President Morton Klein said Wilders has never spoken at a ZOA event and he described Darwish as a brave woman who exposes the truth about hatred of Jews in the Muslim world. He declined to comment on Geller, who has spoken at several ZOA events.
“We tell the truth about the Muslims’ sorry record about human rights and hatred of Jews. Their letter is simply name calling and rubbish,” said Klein. “They are the hate mongers. They are the ones promoting lies and hatred against an organization that tells the truth.”
According to Williams, the letter was hand-delivered to his office in Harrisburg. A representative of the group said that if Williams did not cancel his appearance, the letter would be forwarded to the media.
On Oct. 4, Williams wrote the group, saying that he had spoken to several rabbis, as well as representatives of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and he was determined to go forward.
All were in accord, he wrote: “While we may not like or agree with every policy advanced by the ZOA, we recognize that building bridges is essential to building the understanding and tolerance needed to create a safer, more inclusive world,” he wrote.
At the ZOA program itself, Williams sounded incensed by the incident.
“Don’t ever show up in my office again,” he said, referring to the signers of the letter. “What works with me is sitting at a table and having an honest dialogue about our differences.”
Williams told the audience that his interest in Israel comes from a respect for human dignity and justice that he learned from his father, Hardy Williams, a former state senator who died in 2010.
“There is a State of Israel,” he said, “not just because Jews wanted it, but because the world demanded it.”