Despite the Anti-Defamation League's objections, an Islamic group that the ADL says condones terrorism was invited to testify at a San Jose hearing on hate crimes last week.
"That's like the Ku Klux Klan testifying on diversity," said Jonathan Bernstein, Central Pacific regional director of the ADL.
Sponsored by State Assembly member Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) and the Santa Clara County Human Relations Commission's Hate Free Community, the Dec. 6 hearing addressed the impact of hate crimes on minority groups since Sept. 11.
Jon Friedenberg, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose, represented the South Bay Jewish community. The Council on American-Islamic Relations represented the Arab-American community.
According to Bernstein, the presence of CAIR was contrary to the hearing's goals. CAIR, he said, has not only refused to recognize Hamas and Islamic Jihad as terrorist organizations, but also it "has routinely defended and apologized for their extremist activity."
He said CAIR has also encouraged its members to raise funds for the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a controversial Islamic charity under FBI investigation for its alleged ties to Hamas. The State Department froze the Holy Land Foundation's assets last week.
"We're very comfortable supporting the Arab and Muslim communities in a time when they're being targeted with a hate crime," said Bernstein. "The problem is [the Human Relations Commission] picked the wrong group to speak out against it.
"Most-Arab Americans can call terrorism by its real name and don't support Hamas and Islamic Jihad. By putting CAIR out on the panel, they have elevated the stature of a group that makes inflammatory, anti-Semitic remarks and supports international terrorism — the most extreme of hate crimes."
Helal Omeira, executive director for the Northern California chapter of CAIR, said ADL is confusing national and international issues.
He said his organization has never made anti-Semitic comments, since "Arabs are Semites too." Any anti-Israel remark made by his organization was "an absolutely different story" because Israel is a country with "an independent government," not just a nation of Jews.
Furthermore, he accused the ADL of taking part in "a national smear campaign by pro-Israel groups."
It is "unfortunate that these pro-Israel powers are trying to piggyback on the current climate of the country for their own benefit," said Omeira, who represented CAIR at the hearing. "This type of cloak-and-dagger stuff does a disservice to our community."
Bernstein dismissed Omeira's accusations. "The ADL never participates in smear campaigns," he said. "But it's our job to look into groups and individuals, who we think are furthering hatred and intolerance, and share that with the public."
Besides, in this case, said Bernstein, there is no distinguishing factor between domestic and international issues. Most in the Jewish community consider an attack against Israel an attack against Jews, he added.
Referring to the recent bus bombing in Haifa, which killed 15 Jews, he said: "My mother is living in Haifa right now, so this hits home for me. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack. CAIR donates money to the Holy Land Foundation, which donates money to Hamas. All of this comes full circle."
Omeira, however, called the Holy Land Foundation "a legitimate entity," which has repeatedly been cleared in "all audits by the State Department," though he denied any link between CAIR and the foundation.
Bernstein countered that as recently as four weeks ago CAIR provided access for contributions to the Holy Land Foundation through its Web site.
Upon learning that CAIR would be involved in the Dec. 6 hearing of the state's Assembly Select Committee on Hate Crimes, the ADL asked Assembly member Chu to invite a more appropriate Arab-American organization.
But Chu refused, as she did before a Nov. 5 hate-crime hearing in the Los Angeles area. At that time, Chu said she was sympathetic with the ADL's concerns, but in a letter to its Pacific Southwest region wrote, "I believe the committee's narrow focus on hate crime justifies CAIR's representation of the Arab-American community."
For last week's hearing Chu's office passed the coordinating responsibility onto the Santa Clara County Human Relations Commission; it decided to retain CAIR.
"When we found out about CAIR's involvement…we were immediately like, 'uh oh,'" said Bill Wong, Chu's chief of staff. "But the commission was pretty insistent that CAIR was appropriate in the narrow focus of California hate crimes."
Wong did admit, however, that the hearing scheduling was changed at the last minute, placing Friedenberg immediately after Omeira, "so he could respond if something did come up inadvertently."
Jim McEntee, director of human relations for Santa Clara County, defended CAIR's involvement.
"We weren't dealing with the international issue here; we're dealing with the Santa Clara County community," he said. "The fact of the matter is that CAIR has been handling a lot of the concerns here with the Muslim community."
Bernstein called this "a cop-out" and "an irresponsible position." That CAIR did not stray from the hearing's narrow focus on local hate crime is "missing the bigger picture."
"They have given legitimacy to a group that is counter to the objectives of hate-crime legislation and the human relations commission and the ADL's mission of fighting hatred. Their presence was just incompatible with the whole spirit of the hearing."