The Council on American-Islamic Relations hired a Jewish filmmaker and interfaith activist as executive director of the advocacy group’s Philadelphia office.
Jacob Bender is the highest ranking non-Muslim in the Washington-based organization, and the first to lead one of its chapters, Religion News Service reported Thursday.
“Many Muslims face daily suspicion, not unlike other immigrant groups throughout history,” said Bender, explaining that he felt people had a responsibility to confront bigotry. “When one group of Americans is attacked, it lessens the quality of democracy for all of us.
“As part of a community that has historically faced persecution in Europe and the United States as well, I hope that I would bring a certain amount of sensitivity,” he told RNS.
Iftekhar Hussein, chairman of CAIR-Philadelphia’s board of directors, told the Jewish Daily Forward that Bender brought a minority’s sensibility to the job.
“The needs of the Muslim community are really the needs of any minority community in the United States,” he said. “Jacob, being Jewish, understands that from his own background.”
At CAIR, Bender said his work would focus on fighting civil rights violations, discrimination, and hate speech, and promoting relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.
But several Jewish Americans greeted the move with caution, citing positions adopted by CAIR which they found unacceptable.
“The fact that he is Jewish does not indicate, necessarily, a change of attitude and activity at CAIR,” said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, in a statement. “Unfortunately, there are Jews who are anti-Jewish and anti-Israel. But we will wait and see.”
In a 2006 report, the ADL accused CAIR of associating with people who have supported terrorism, and of having extremist views on Israel.
Bender, who started Oct. 1 but whose appointment was announced on Oct. 15, the day Muslims celebrated Eid al-Adha, dismissed charges of extremism.
“Those attacks on CAIR are totally unfounded,” said Bender. “Many people equate extremism with any criticism of Israel.”