NEW YORK – Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer and the conservative group, the Zionist Organization of America, doubled down Wednesday on American organizations they say provide refuge for anti-Israel sentiment or label conservatives as anti-Muslim.

Accepting an award from a conservative think tank earlier this week, Dermer attacked the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group that has called several controversial right-wing activists “anti-Muslim extremists.”

On Tuesday, Dermer accepted the Freedom Flame Award from the Center for Security Policy, whose president, Frank Gaffney, appears on SPLC’s anti-Muslim extremist list. SPLC had urged Dermer to decline the award, suggesting his acceptance “not only further legitimizes this organization, but could be read as an endorsement of anti-Muslim hate by the Israeli government.”

The left-wing Jewish organization J Street also called on Dermer to decline the prize and said it was “deeply disturbed” by his intention to accept it. J street added that Gaffney’s organization, the Center for Security Policy, has had “a significant role in fueling the fire of the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant politics that have come to the forefront in the 2016 election cycle.

“That is unacceptable. J Street believes strongly in public dialogue and debate with those with whom we strongly disagree. But engaging in dialogue is not the same as proudly accepting an award from a hate group while pretending to be unaware of their guiding ideology, and while ignoring their heinous slanders against millions of Americans, members of Congress and the president of the United States,” they wrote.

In his acceptance speech, Dermer fired back at the critics and lambasted the Southern Poverty Law Center at length.

While the envoy said he used to respect the group, he criticized it for branding Gaffney and other activist critics of Islam as extremists.

“The SPLC and others who asked me not to come here tonight claim to support free and open debate,” he told the audience. “But in reality, they seem to want to stifle debate. They preach tolerance for those who look different. But they are in effect practicing intolerance to those who think different.”

SPLC’s file on Gaffney criticizes him for warning of “creeping Sharia” taking over the United States, for suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood organization has infiltrated the US government, and for calling for a ban on Muslim immigration to the country. The Anti-Defamation League also has a file on Gaffney and accuses him of promoting anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.

Much of Dermer’s speech on Tuesday was devoted to what he called “defeating militant Islam,” which he described as an ideology distinct from Islam itself.

“I recognize that there are those who believe that by naming the enemy ‘militant Islam’ people will mistakenly believe that the enemy is Islam itself, rather than a virulent ideology now ascendant in the Muslim world,” he said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center responded that by attacking them, Dermer is “trying to deflect” from the fact that he accepted the award.

On Thursday morning, Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein issued a harsh statement slamming the American Jewish Committee for establishing its new Muslim- Jewish Advisory Council (MJAC), which he said could “legitimize radical islamists.”

AJC had announced the establishment of the council last month and said its goal was to “bring together recognized business, political, and religious leaders in the Jewish and Muslim American communities to jointly advocate on issues of common concern.”

Among the council’s initial action items, it will “highlight the contributions of Muslims and Jews to American society, and aim to celebrate their contributions in the best traditions of American democracy, develop a coordinated strategy to address anti-Muslim bigotry and antisemitism in the US, and work to protect and expand the rights of religious minorities in the US.”

Klein wrote that, “A Muslim- Jewish organization could be a wonderful idea – if it had the right goals and the right partners – namely, Zionist Jews and Reformist Muslims dedicated to ending BDS; ending rampant harassment and attacks on Jewish students by organized radical Islamist groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine; ending fear-mongering exaggerated ‘Islamophobia’ claims; ending radical Islamist terrorism against Israel, Jews, Christians, fellow Muslims and the West; and promoting Arab and Muslim recognition of and peaceful co-existence with the Jewish State.”

According to him, the organization that AJC partnered with for the initiative, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), is a “radical Islamist” group which “promotes antisemitism and hatred of Israel and Jews” and accuses it of having links to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. He also claimed that the Muslim members of the new advisory council include radical Islamists, citing a report by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and an Arutz Sheva op-eds.

“Jews are the targets and victims of radical Islamists,” Klein added. “Muslims are not the target of Jewish groups.”

Since it was announced in mid-November and before Klein’s statement, the Muslim- Jewish partnership has been criticized in several op-eds and even on twitter by figures like Muslim reformist Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, who wrote: “This is very concerning. The AJC, long we thought an ally of anti-Islamist reformists, appears to have now joined the mainstreaming of established American Islamists and their organizations and ilk.”

Klein commented that, “We have already started to see what happens when a liberal Jewish group such as AJC foolishly tries to get into bed with a radical Hamas funder such as ISNA,” Klein said. “The [Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council] collaboration has already apparently become a one-way street – to address Muslim complaints without addressing the virulent radical Islamist antisemitic and anti-Israel hatred that is a leading cause and excuse for antisemitism in America.”

The council had drawn some internal disagreement as well after AJC announced its launch, and ISNA distanced itself from the initiative.

“The American Jewish Committee (AJC) approached the ISNA Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances (OICA) to explore such a venture, in line with that department’s focus to promote interfaith dialogue,” the organization wrote in a statement. “ISNA appreciates the outreach and support we have received from all our interfaith partners, especially the Jewish American community.”

While they said they would “honor the agreement reached with AJC and the MJAC members to promote Muslim-Jewish dialogue and understanding,” following the public announcement of the formation of MJAC, they said, “an internal inquiry revealed that standard reporting and approval mechanisms were not followed to secure formal approval of ISNA leadership to elevate involvement of ISNA to the level of ‘co-convener’ of MJAC.

“We were thus surprised to receive the announcement about ISNA’s collaboration with AJC on the formation of the MJAC,” the Muslim organization added, while reiterating that “even as ISNA is represented on the MJAC, [its] principled commitment to domestic and international causes of concern to Muslims will remain strong.”

Those concerns, ZOA’s president said, “include promoting hatred of the Jewish state, promoting the Islamist conquest and the destruction of all of Israel, and opposing anti-BDS laws. This underscores that Jewish groups should collaborate with reformist Muslims – and not with radical Islamists – on the real issues we face,” he added.

AJC’s head of Muslim-Jewish relations, Robert Silverman, had told The Jerusalem Post that the initiative was not a reaction to the election of Donald Trump, since it was already on AJC’s agenda and being prepared before the election.

“It’s a canard,” Silverman told the Post in response to the ZOA accusations. “Jews should be particularly careful about not being purveyors of fear-mongering conspiracy theories that are not based on facts, because we’ve been the target of those over the years, so we ought to have our sensors and monitors being able to catch crazy things. This is one of those.”

Silverman made clear that ISNA, which is the main but not the only Muslim organization in the alliance, is “neither radical nor Islamist.”

“People throw terms around without being precise, so let me try to be precise: There is a big difference between people who are traditional and religious and who sometime will believe – and that could be Muslims, Christians or Jews – that their religion is the right way,” he said. And on the other hand, an Islamist is someone who has a political agenda, like a supremacist agenda of making their religion, in this case their version of Islam, the law of the land and are imposing that on other people.”

“ISNA is not that, they have no such intention, they have no such program to do it,” he continued. “Absolutely not.”

Silverman also pointed out, in response to Klein’s statement, that the MJAC does include some Muslim reformists as well.

Silverman explained that last week, the AJC-ISNA alliance took heat from left-wing groups such as the American Muslims for Palestine as well, who described the initiative as “faith-washing” and accused the AJC of Islamophobia.

“Now we are being attacked by the ZOA for creating this alliance by saying we are legitimizing radical islamists,” he said. “Neither is true. Neither is our intention. Our intention is to form an alliance over US domestic policy with this other community.”

“The American Muslims for Palestine and the ZOA, who are attacking us from these two extremes, are marginal voices,” he added. “We are very careful about forming our alliances. AJC does not do these things precipitously and we are very comfortable with this alliance.”

Silverman told the Post the AJC is “shrugging off these attacks” and “moving forward” with its initiative, which he said may even expand in the near future.

JTA contributed to this report.

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