A Jewish voice for Muslims

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Jacob Bender, director of the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is a child of secular Jews who taught him Yiddish. Here he leads a group to lobby Pennsylvania lawmakers. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

HARRISBURG - Climbing stairs outside the state Capitol, Jacob Bender led about 50 men and women, some in kufis, some in hijabs, many chatting away in Arabic.

In his pocket was the string of yellow worry beads he bought years ago in Jerusalem, when he lived in Israel and made slide shows for the country's Holocaust memorial.

In his shoulder bag was the agenda he wrote for "Muslim Capitol Day" last month, Pennsylvania's first lobbying visit designed to show that Muslim Americans are a growing and worthy bloc in the political process.

"Let's stay together," Bender told the group, a directive as much philosophical as logistical, given his background.

At age 64, with a gray goatee and straight hair that flips at his collar, Bender is a walking anomaly: He's a California-raised child of secular Jews who taught him Yiddish as his first language.

For two years, he has been the director of the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, leading Muslim immigrants and African American Muslims on a drive to raise awareness about Islamophobia.

"There is all this ignorant talk about Islam being directly contradicted by democracy [and] crazy guys who want [Quranic law] here, all of which is from the far-out, grassy-knoll side of American politics," he said, waiting to pass through Capitol security.

A social-justice activist with a filmmaking degree who commutes from New York City, Bender was among the least-likely persons to lead Philadelphia-area Muslims.. When he got the job at CAIR, a 30-chapter group that calls itself America's "largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization," the announcement made international headlines and was a magnet for critics, some who knew Bender's work in the 1970s and '80s with left-wing Jewish groups.

A "Jew for jihad," a "useful idiot," and "CAIR's court Jew" were among the slurs some pro-Israel groups hurled his way.

In the years since, he is generally credited with introducing a proactive approach to an organization whose main focus has always been to react to day-to-day civil rights issues - police profiling, a woman discriminated against for wearing a head scarf, a mosque vandalized.

CAIR-Philadelphia, which covers Delaware and Southeastern Pennsylvania to Harrisburg, estimates that 200,000 foreign-born and African American Muslims live in that slice of the region.

Osama al Qasem, of Southampton, Bucks County, a marketing manager and chairman of CAIR-Philadelphia's executive board, was on the committee that hired Bender. "Initially, we were not thinking of him" among the more than 50 applicants, al Qasem said.

But from a qualifications standpoint, "he was most suitable," al Qasem said, citing Bender's "calm" and "articulate" demeanor, management experience, social skills, and background in comparative religion.

"Then the second step: He is Jewish," said al Qasem. "What do we do with that? How will our constituents deal with that?"

Without going into detail, al Qasem said he sought input from CAIR's wealthiest donors.

"They said, 'First of all, the Prophet worked with Jews, so from a Muslim perspective he is most welcome, and if he is qualified, go ahead and hire him. It sends a message to the community that we do not discriminate against Jews,' " al Qasem said. "And when he goes out to do our interfaith work, he is able to speak properly and historically because of his knowledge."

Bender said he strives to be "more than a publicity hire." One of his goals is to bring foreign-born and African American Muslims closer.

In June, during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Bender stepped up CAIR's profile with its first Interfaith Iftar Dinner at the Friends Center in Center City, with a rabbi, a Methodist minister, and an imam as speakers.

Last Saturday at the Kimmel Center, he joined a multifaith panel of the United Nations Association of Greater Philadelphia to speak about religious tolerance. On Tuesday, he will be on a Swarthmore College panel, discussing combating hatred with a rabbi, a Muslim student adviser, and a Washington expert on religion and diplomacy.

In Harrisburg last month, Bender briefed his companions on the tactics of political persuasion, then dispatched them to talk to legislators about anti-Muslim stereotypes and such issues as the controversy over whether the First Amendment should protect ads attacking Islam on SEPTA buses. Coaching from the sidelines, he told the amateur lobbyists to remind the officials that they vote, and ask to continue the conversation in their district offices.

Salima Suswell, 36, an African American woman from Overbrook Park whose father is the imam at Masjid Mujahideen, 60th Street and Osage Avenue, said CAIR had "made strides" in innovative public relations under Bender's leadership, even if "the jury is still out" on efforts to make CAIR more responsive to its African American members.

As CAIR's local point man, Bender said he receives hate mail and phone threats, some disturbing enough that he seeks law enforcement attention. "It seems to be directed to whenever I am visible in the news," he said, without elaborating.

Pro-Israel critics have tended to focus on his long-stated opposition to Israel's West Bank settlements and its occupation of Arab territory captured in the 1967 Six Day War. A Zionist website added his name to its "Self-Hating and/or Israel-Threatening" list, commonly cited by its acronym (just not in a family newspaper).

Others have pilloried CAIR more generally for having been named an unindicted coconspirator in a 2007 federal prosecution of the Muslim charity Holy Land Foundation for funneling money to Hamas, a Palestinian group on the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization.

Bender maintains the link was overstated. "It's a misnomer. If there was evidence to indict, they would have indicted," he said in an interview.

Al Qasem said the attacks on Bender and CAIR seem to emanate "from the right wing of the Jewish community."

Rabbi Linda Holtzman, who was ordained at Philadelphia's Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, said Bender had the background to bring to his job a Jewish person's sensitized awareness of the consequences of religious bigotry. She described herself as "one with him, in that I am also often called a self-hating Jew because I believe that Israel's occupying land is unethical."

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of the three-decade-old Shalom Center, a Philadelphia nonprofit that describes its mission as equipping activists to create a just world, said Bender had been "warm and responsive to Jewish concerns, at least to the Jewish concerns that are not anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian."

With degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles, and New York University's Graduate School of Film, Bender exudes a scholarly air.

For years he committed himself to interfaith advocacy. The Sept. 11 attacks and his concern about what some have called the inevitable clash of civilizations refocused him on film. He spent the next several years writing, directing, and producing Out of Cordoba, a documentary that examined relationships among Muslims, Christians, and Jews in eighth-century Spain, which Bender came to see as a model for religious coexistence.

"When you look at the history of Jews and Muslims together," he said, "the phenomenon of a Jew being part of a Muslim community is in fact more the norm than the exception. For at least five centuries, from the eighth to the 12th or 13th century, 90 percent of the world's Jews" lived among Muslims.

Bender rents a room in Mount Airy and spends the working week in Philadelphia and weekends in New York, where his wife, Katharina Feil, works for September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.

Commuting by Bolt bus for "the best job I've ever had," said Bender, he barely notices the schlep.

"I have worked with him on many programs. He is excellent," said Kashmir-born lawyer Ejaz Sabir, of Upper Darby. "I don't think his religion matters one way or another."

Holtzman sees Bender's background as a plus. His leadership shows a "creative, thoughtful spirit," she said, "which I like to think grows out of his Judaism."

mmatza@phillynews.com 215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1