PA Governor Ed Rendell appears at CAIR fundraiser in Philly -aids Congressman Sestak to legitimise Hamas front group
April 8, 2007
Sensitive political test for Sestak
The new member of the U.S. House spoke to a Muslim group. He offered praise as well as some admonishment.
By Tom Infield
Inquirer Staff WriterLAURENCE KESTERSON / Inquirer Staff Photographer U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.) speaks to the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "It is perilous not to speak, even to others who you may not agree with," he said in an earlier interview. » More photos Inside the posh Hilton Philadelphia last night, a dinner crowd of several hundred Muslims was full of praise for the political courage it said U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak had shown merely by showing up to speak. Outside the City Avenue hotel, amid Passover week snow flurries, about a dozen Jewish protesters held up signs blasting Sestak for what they said was his nerve in showing up. One sign read, "Say it ain't so, Joe." Sestak, a Democrat from Philadelphia's western suburbs, was facing the first real test of his first term in office - how to navigate the conflicting passions that had sprung up with his acceptance of an invitation to address the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The group, known as CAIR, is one of the largest Muslim organizations in the country, and its banquet drew a sold-out crowd of about 500. Small but vocal Jewish groups have accused CAIR of being an apologist for terrorism at best, a front for terrorism at worst. "I think it's a disgrace for an American congressman to come to an organization that has so many ties to terrorists," said one of the protesters, Rabbi Lisa Malik of Suburban Jewish Community Center, a Havertown synagogue. CAIR is not on any U.S. list of terrorism sponsors. Since its founding in 1994, it has had good relationships with the U.S. government. It has worked with the FBI in training agents in cultural sensitivity. Gov. Rendell, though not a scheduled speaker, showed up late at the event last night. CAIR, which promotes civil rights for Muslims, has consistently denounced acts of terrorism. But it has refused to condemn the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which the United States does recognize as terrorist organizations. That, more than anything else, has raised its critics' ire. "We try to avoid condemning individuals, organizations or countries, because that prevents the ability for us to create opportunity for bridge-building," said Iftekhar Hussain, chairman of CAIR's Philadelphia chapter, in an interview Friday. Parvez Ahmed, the group's national chairman, told the dinner crowd that Sestak was being "demonized and vilified by the right-wing media and pro-Israel extremists" for agreeing to speak. He said Sestak should be applauded for "standing up to these folks." Sestak, who has said his Seventh District includes at least 20,000 Jewish voters, delivered a 20-minute speech in which he started with praise for peaceful tenets of Islam and the advances of American Muslims. Near the end of the speech, amid clanking silverware and the burble of table conversations, the former Navy admiral said it was not sufficient for any group just to condemn terrorist acts. He said it was CAIR's duty to condemn individuals or groups that commit terrorism, and he specifically mentioned Hamas and Hezbollah. "It's the same as those who did not speak out against the perpetrators of Jim Crow laws . . . or the Holocaust," he said. The remark drew no reaction from the audience. At the end of his speech, he was applauded. Sestak, in an interview Friday, said he had agreed to attend because he had been told that 250 of his constituents would be at the event. "I honestly believe it is the right thing to do," he said in the interview. "It is perilous not to speak, even to others who you may not agree with." The controversy over his speech sprouted March 11 when he addressed a community forum at the Suburban Jewish Community Center. The event was cosponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Sestak was hit with a barrage of criticism from the synagogue audience, which had learned of his plans to speak to CAIR. Sestak's critics pointed out that one of his aides, Adeeba Al-Zaman, is the former communications director for the CAIR chapter in Philadelphia. She had helped him organize support in the Muslim community when he ran for election last year. She had then joined his congressional staff. Sestak said Al-Zaman, without checking with him, had accepted the speaking invitation. "Lots of people wanted me to fire her," he said. But he did not. While declining to say Al-Zaman had made a mistake, he said in the interview that he wished that she had talked to him first. He said he wouldn't have accepted the invitation if he had known that the $50-per-person banquet was partly to raise money for CAIR. He said he told CAIR that he would still attend, but only if it separated the fund-raising portion of the program from the portion at which he would speak. He said CAIR had done that. Midway through the banquet, after Sestak's speech, CAIR officials abruptly announced that the fund-raising portion of the evening would begin. Lori Lowenthal Marcus, president of the Philadelphia-area chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, said separating the program was just a fig leaf to cover up Sestak's help for CAIR in raising money. "After they received heat, they changed it to look as if if were two different events," Marcus, a lawyer, said in an interview Friday. "It's at the same place, one right after another, which is ridiculous." She said Sestak had "a right to speak to anyone he wants," but she added: "You don't go to a fund-raiser for a group that has a connection to terrorism."