Shortly after it was announced that Pamela Geller, an outspoken critic of radical Islam, would be appearing at Great Neck Synagogue April 14 to discuss the “Imposition of Sharia in America,” an e-mail and phone campaign sought to get the talk canceled.
In response, a counter protest was launched to support her appearance and that of Greg Buckley, Sr., whose 21-year-old son, Lance Cpl. Greg Buckley of Oceanside, L.I., was killed last August by a policeman in Afghanistan.
The event, according to one e-mail, was planned to enable Buckley to tell of his son’s murder and “to shine the spotlight on the plight of our brave young soldiers and military families and their demand for respect and justice from our government, which has so far been denied.”
But those questioning the event have focused on Geller’s appearance.
“She is very much anti-Syrian and anti-Muslim and has said she would use our holy book, the Koran, as a door stopper,” said Habeeb Ahmed, who is one of 14 Nassau County Human Rights Commissioners and the first vice president of the Islamic Center of Long Island.
He said that when he learned of her scheduled appearance, he called the synagogue and “left a message with the rabbi’s office saying it was not appropriate for a house of worship to invite Ms. Geller, whom the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center have said is a hate monger. … She will be dividing the community. We have worked hard to bring Jews and Muslims together in general and in Great Neck in particular, where for more than 20 years we have had programs and a dialogue between American Muslims and Jews.”
An e-mail in support of Geller was critical of Ahmed for “mobilizing a lynch mob of local liberal activists and community organizations to harass Rabbi [Dale] Polakoff from Great Neck Synagogue with 100’s of phone calls, demanding he cancel the event or protests will ensue. … It is an absolute disgrace that a man of public office should roll out a campaign of intimidation and censorship because he objects to the viewpoint of one of the speakers.”
As a result of Ahmed’s e-mails in which he identified himself as a county Human Rights Commissioner, the Nassau County Attorney’s office launched an investigation last week to determine whether Ahmed “misused his title,” according to Brian Nevin, a senior policy adviser to Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano.
“They are looking to see if any rules in the county charter were broken,” Nevin said. “It may be that there is no policy – and he has apologized.”
Nevin cited a statement issued by the county in which Ahmed wrote that his “thoughts and opinions regarding the visit of Pamela Geller to Nassau County reflect my personal opinion – not that of Nassau County or the Human Rights Commission and not that of the Islamic Center of L.I. The use of my designations in my e-mails is for identification purposes ONLY. I regret if it was taken in any other way.”
“I am aware of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and I respect it,” Ahmed added. “The hate mail that my interfaith colleagues and I have been receiving is proof of that.”
Also voicing his concern about Geller’s appearance is the Rev. Thomas Goodhue, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches, and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
“I never intended to organize a massive protest [against her appearance], but a lot of people are concerned,” Goodhue said. “A number of rabbis I spoke to are concerned, and I believe she presents a very bad image of Judaism.”
Rabbi Jacobs is one of them.
"Synagogues should be places for positive speech and reasoned dialogue, not venues for hate speech from people like Geller, who demonizes Islam and ignores the positive contributions that our Muslim friends, neighbors, and colleagues make to our country every day. We believe strongly in the right to free speech. However, Geller crosses the line from political to hate speech," she wrote in a statement.
Goodhue said that when he first heard of her planned appearance he called the synagogue and spoke with one of the rabbis to verify it.
“My call was meant to be in the form of a heads up – that there could be problems,” Rev. Goodhue said. “She has the right to speak -- and I am certainly not going to go -- but I have to question whether it is appropriate for a house of worship to give her the microphone. … I tried to convey to the rabbi that I would be deeply offended if a church invited a hate monger to come.”
Geller said in an e-mail interview that when she has spoken in the past there was “pressure from leftists and Islamic supremacists to get me canceled … but the pressure has seldom been this intense.”
One reason, she suggested, is that “in general, leftists and Islamic supremacists are growing increasingly desperate: they know that they are perpetrating a Goebbels-like Big Lie, and so even though they have immense influence in the media and in government, they are avid to silence anyone who speaks the truth, because they fear how the truth, even when spoken in a small venue, exposes them.”
Asked if she ever said that she uses the Koran as a doorstop, Geller replied: “The Hamas-tied Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) gives out huge coffee-table size Korans to inquirers about Islam. The commentary accompanying the text in this huge book is often deceptive, downplaying and whitewashing the Koran's texts exhorting to violence, Jew-hatred, misogyny, etc. So when I was given one of these by a Muslim whom I had debated, I went through it and wrote an article about how even this whitewashed Koran's text still contained numerous hateful passages and ones inciting to violence … [I] said that with its great size [it] was worthless for info about Islam but useful as a doorstop. It was a joke, a rhetorical flourish.
“The idea that we cannot make quips of this kind about the Koran, when people on mainstream television mock Judaism and Christianity on a routine basis, already betrays an acceptance of Sharia blasphemy laws forbidding criticism of Islam. I refuse to accept limitations on my freedom of speech or anyone else's.”
In response to the countless phone calls and e-mails Great Neck Synagogue received from both supporters and critics of the event, it issued the following statement:
“Great Neck Synagogue rejects the categorizing of any religious majority based on the actions of a minority. It does though believe that it is absolutely appropriate and with independence of free speech to speak about the actions of such a minority and to evaluate their impact on the perception of the majority of their co-religionists, and on the community in general. It is within such a framework that the Men’s Club has invited Pamela Geller to speak. She will be joined by Greg Buckley, Sr. father of Marine Corporal Gregory Buckley Jr., who was murdered by Jihadists.”
Both sides in this issue are claiming that the other is using devious tactics to galvanize support for their message. And just as Rev. Goodhue said his organization is not calling for the event to be cancelled, so too did the ADL deny rumors that it too wanted to see it called off.
Etzion Neuer, director of community service and policy for the ADL’s New York region, said his organization’s only role was to call the synagogue to make sure it was aware of Geller’s views.
“We don’t tell a synagogue whether to host a speaker or not, and we’re not telling audiences whether they should attend or not,” he said. “We want them to make an informed decision, and the call to the synagogue was because it was not clear whether the synagogue or the audiences would really know what they are getting when they invite Pamela Geller.”
Neuer said Geller is “seen as a pro-Israel advocate or part of a movement to counter extremism. But when you scratch the surface, what you get is less about making a legitimate case for Israel and more that is anti-Islamic bigotry. Part of what makes her problematic is that there are real legitimate concerns about radical interpretations of Islam, which the ADL has spoken about forcefully. But Geller, under the guise of fighting radical Islam, absolutely demonizes an entire religion. In directing her rhetoric at the entire Islamic faith, she fuels anti-Islamic bigotry.”
“It’s deeply problematic for us,” he continued. “Geller doesn’t do us any favors. She muddies the waters because she hands the platform to the extremists in our midst. Instead of thoughtful, fact-based dialogue on the issues, we get incendiary rhetoric and xenophobia.”
Asked about the ADL’s assessment, Geller wrote: “It is a shame that the ADL long ago abandoned its mission of defending Jews and now devotes its time to attacking Jews who deviate from its leftist and self-defeating political line. I have consistently invited peaceful Muslims who sincerely reject the Koran's exhortations to violence and hatred to join in my efforts, and am doing them out of love for Muslims and a desire that all people be freed from oppression.
“The claim that I have demonized an entire religion is based on nothing more than an attempt to demonize me for calling attention to a problem that the ADL has been criminally delinquent in speaking out about. Where have I demonized the entire religion? Funny how none of these smear merchants ever speak of the work we do helping to safety American Muslims who want to lead more Western lives but fear their devout families. My fight is for individual rights, equality for all before the law and freedom.”
An e-mail urging attendance at the event said supporters hoped to “gather in force” at the synagogue April 14 before the 10 a.m. program.
“We need to assemble a big crowd inside as well as outside with flags and signs: `We will not be silent against jihad,’ `Commissioner Ahmed must resign!’ `We will not be censored!’ `Support Israel, Defeat Jihad,’ and `Justice for LCpl Buckley.’’