In a fiery speech in Edison attended by about 70 supporters, controversial anti-jihadist blogger and author Pamela Geller warned Americans and Jews about a war being waged against Western ideals by Islamist radicals.
Geller had accepted an invitation three days earlier from Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg to speak April 14 at Congregation Beth-El, after a Long Island synagogue cited security concerns in canceling her appearance there.
Geller, who runs the blog “Atlas Shrugged,” has angered Muslim and Jewish groups alike with her media campaigns, including a series of subway advertisements that called Israel’s Muslim opponents “savages.”
Rosenberg, the son of Holocaust survivors, said while he did not necessarily agree with all of Geller’s statements, he believed they needed to be heard.
“I would never force anyone to hear Ms. Geller, but neither will I stand by while thugs threaten violence merely because they do not like the message being delivered,” said Rosenberg. He contrasted his approach to that of “those good-for-nothing lazy rabbis who are afraid to speak and get off their behinds.”
In her talk, Geller denounced her critics and the “the left-wing liberal media.”
“They call me an anti-Islam and an anti-Muslim bigot because to think I’m right is unthinkable,” she said.
Citing passages from the Koran, she said the “jihadi doctrine is in Islam.” It is such ideology — including calls for the killing of Jews and other nonbelievers and the doctrine of spreading Islam to other cultures — that sets Islam apart from other religions.
“What you don’t see are Christians running around strapping bombs to their bodies and shouting, ‘Jesus akbar’ or Jewish people shouting, ‘Hashem akbar,’” she said. “I do not promote hate; I expose hate.”
Geller has been criticized as a hatemonger by the Southern Poverty Law Center and some Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League.
“Essentially, the ADL rejects her organization’s message of intolerance, although we defend her right to speak,” NJ region director Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin told NJJN. “The ADL believes it is possible to support Israel without engaging in bigoted anti-Muslim and anti-Arab stereotypes.”
According to the ADL, Geller has linked Islam to bestiality and pederasty, compared Muslims to Nazis, and asserted that Islam inspired Hitler.
“I wonder how American Jews think healing will happen when we consistently engage in blatant stereotypes and hate speech?” said Salkin, who was not at the Beth-El talk. “When did being anti-Muslim become the pro-Israel badge? When we do that we forget what it means to be a slave in Egypt.”
By contrast, Rosenberg praised Geller to the Edison audience. “I need her here. We need her here. America needs her here,” he said, drawing rousing applause.
Although four Edison patrol cars and six police officers were stationed outside, Geller’s talk did not draw protesters. Inside, no audience members voiced objections during her talk.
However, Edison police are investigating a report that more than 40 pellets were shot into the garage door at Rosenberg’s home. Rosenberg also complained that a comment that he perceived as a “death threat” was posted on the JTA Jewish news service website in response to a story about Geller’s canceled talk.
Both Edison Police Chief Thomas Bryan and Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office spokesperson Jim O’Neill told NJJN that an investigation is ongoing. The county becomes involved when an incident is a possible bias crime, but neither would confirm that both the shooting incident and the website threat are under investigation as bias crimes. O’Neill said it would be “inappropriate to comment further at this time.”
Rosenberg had announced Geller’s appearance at his synagogue on the JTA site. A commenter responded, ambiguously, “Victory for humanity and decency. However, why do I have the feeling this synagogue will be ‘attacked’ with firebombs and painted with swastika graffiti in the coming weeks.”
In 2009, swastikas were spray-painted on the Conservative synagogue hours after Yom Kippur.
In her talk, Geller said that Islamic religious ideology spawned the jihadist movement. She encouraged those present “not to burn the Koran; read the Koran.”
“I do the work I do because I love life,” said Geller, who said she was driven to action by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. “I am dealing with an ideology that hates life.”
She held aloft a placard from her subway campaign, reading, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Defeat Jihad. Support Israel.” Geller’s organization, the New American Freedom Defense Initiative, placed the ads in subways and buses in New York last year following a successful lawsuit, sparking response ads from Muslim and civil liberties groups.
Geller drew applause when she referred to perpetrators of terrorist attacks in New York, Tel Aviv, and Mumbai as “savages.”
Joining Geller was Greg Buckley of Oceanside, NY, whose 21-year-son, Marine Lance Cpl. Greg Buckley Jr., was killed with several other American soldiers in August by an Afghan they were helping to train.
Also speaking was Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch, who warned that many Muslim groups in the United States were aligned with the radical Muslim Brotherhood. If they had peaceful aims, he said, they would denounce jihadists.
“But they’re not because they’re not on our side,” said Spencer, who called Geller “a lightning rod because she sounded the alarm on jihad.”
Rabbi Robert Wolkoff of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick was introduced in the audience by Rosenberg as “a supporter.”
Later, Wolkoff told NJJN that Geller was “not totally wrong.”
“Her instincts were very good” about radical Islamists, he said, although he did not believe the label should be applied to all Muslims. He said he spoke in support of Geller’s ad campaign in his Yom Kippur sermon, touching off some controversy in the congregation.
Issues raised by Geller, Wolkoff said, needed to be addressed honestly by the Muslim community.
“When was the last time you heard a Muslim clergyman speak about the persecution of Jews, or a Muslim conference to talk about this particular topic?” he asked. “Yet, how many conferences have been held where Jews talk about the treatment of the Palestinians — and I’m not saying we shouldn’t. I’m not critical of that, but we’re ignoring the reality, which is sort of obvious.
“I applaud Rabbi Rosenberg for bringing her here.”
The Great Neck Synagogue in suburban New York cited security concerns in canceling a planned appearance by Geller. Its executive board wrote that it would be “irresponsible” to hold the talk given the “legal liability and potential security exposure.”