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Bay Area Muslim leader warns about ‘polite Zionists’

(JTA) — A Muslim civil rights attorney who leads the San Francisco office of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is drawing sharp criticism, including accusations of antisemitism, from local and national Jewish organizations after a Nov. 27 speech. Zahra Billoo’s speech, which drew attention after excerpts were republished by the Israel-advocacy website Israellycool on Dec. 2, implored attendees gathered at a pro-Palestinian conference in Chicago to vigorously oppose not only extreme right-wing forces, but also “polite Zionists,” including the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Federations, Hillel and “Zionist synagogues.” “When we talk about Islamophobia, we think oftentimes about the vehement fascists,” Billoo said. “But I also want us to pay attention to the polite Zionists. The ones that say, ‘Let’s just break bread together. They are not your friends,” she said.

In the speech, delivered at an annual conference of American Muslims for Palestine, Billoo described a well-funded campaign to bolster Islamophobia around the world and an interconnected network of Zionist-supporting organizations working to harm Muslims. She also repeated an unsupported claim, one that circulates among some activist groups, that “police officers in the United States who kill unarmed black men, women and children are trained by the Israeli military.”

A number of Jewish organizations offered harsh criticisms of her comments, saying they echoed antisemitic tropes of Jewish power and control. The ADL’s national director Jonathan Greenblatt issued a searing rebuke on Twitter, calling them “textbook vile, antisemitic, conspiracy-laden garbage attacking the mainstream US Jewish community.”

The San Francisco-based office of the Jewish Community Relations Council also excoriated the speech in a statement, calling it “antisemitic and deplorable, seeking to divide and besmirch efforts at cooperation and coexistence.”

Billoo said during the speech she does not support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Allah has promised us victory,” said Billoo.

Billoo, a member of CAIR since 2009, was recently named a Pioneer in Justice fellow, a five-year program for social justice advocates, by the S.F.-based Levi Strauss Foundation.

This is not Billoo’s first time drawing scrutiny from Jewish and pro-Israel groups. In 2019 Billoo became one of a handful of Women’s March organizers who either left or were removed from organizing roles amid claims of anti-Israel animosity and antisemitism. Her removal came after criticism from the ADL and others stemming from a 2015 tweet in which she wrote: “I’m more afraid of racist Zionists who support Apartheid Israel than of the mentally ill young people the #FBI recruits to join ISIS.”

This story was originally published in J. The Jewish News of Northern California, and is republished with permission.

Main Photo: Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, speaks outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, April 2018. (Lorie Shaull/Flickr)

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