by Sarah Posner
Special To The NY Jewish Week
Officials of Aish HaTorah, one of Orthodox Judaism's most successful
outreach programs, have launched a controversial media campaign
depicting masses of Muslims worldwide — including mainstream American
Muslims — as an extremist threat, while Aish itself denies involvement
in the effort.
In moves suggesting a new, more partisan direction for Aish activists,
spin-offs of the popular educational group have produced or promoted
films depicting anti-Western Islamic extremists as heading a mass
movement enjoying the avid support of tens of millions of Muslims
worldwide who are keen to bring down Western civilization.
Charges of presidential politics have also entered the picture: Last
month, an Aish offshoot, the Clarion Fund, distributed millions of
DVDs of one of the films, "Obsession," to swing states in the
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And until it was removed recently, Clarion's Web site touted the
counter-terrorism policies of Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential
candidate, as superior to those of Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic
DVD copies of "Obsession" were also inserted into a book that went out
last March to about 20,000 members of the Republican Jewish Coalition,
a partisan political organization. The coalition distributed the book,
via a Virginian mailing house, at the request of Christians United for
Israel, an Evangelical group opposed to a two-state solution of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both CUFI and the RJC deny they were
responsible for the insertion.
Critics charge that Clarion, a tax-exempt charity, has inserted itself
into a partisan political race in violation of its charitable status.
But officials at Clarion Fund reject this. And Aish HaTorah, with a
yeshiva and branches in 35 cities around the world, adamantly denies
any involvement in the film.
"We have people involved in different things all around the world,"
said Aish spokesman Ronn Torossian. "Two employees were involved in
the film. We [also] have Aish employees in Brazil involved in green
campaigns and rabbis in New York who run the marathon."
In fact, at least six top Aish HaTorah officials are tied to
"Obsession" via Aish spin-offs, including Clarion's president and two
vice presidents. Clarion's address is also the same as that of Aish
HaTorah International, a fundraising arm of Aish HaTorah.
Now, the content of "Obsession" and its ties to Aish are leading some
rabbis to strongly criticize the production — and Aish HaTorah itself
—for, as they view it, using a broad brush-stroke to smear the entire
Muslim community. Some fear the central role of Aish HaTorah officials
in "Obsession" and two other films by the same producers puts Jews at
the center of those promoting a "clash of civilizations."
"Obsession," said Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation, a
Conservative synagogue in Alexandria, Va., is "the protocols of the
learned elders of Saudi Arabia."
Rabbi Moline, named by Newsweek this year as one of the country's top
25 pulpit rabbis, added, "The integrity of our own Jewish community
requires that people speak up critically" about the film.
Hadar Susskind, Washington director of the Jewish Council on Public
Affairs, American Jewry's official umbrella group for domestic issues,
termed the content of "Obsession" as "troubling."
"I don't think the film is a fair presentation of the issue, nor do I
think that was the filmmakers' goal," said Susskind, whose group is
composed in part of local Jewish community relations councils in
cities nationwide. The apparent role of Aish HaTorah in the production
has left many of those councils, which work with other local groups,
including Muslims, anxious that the film might be perceived as
"something being promoted by the Jewish community," he said.
Atlantic Monthly staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg, a longtime critic of
Islamist extremism, termed "Obsession" "the work of hysterics ...
designed to make naive Americans believe that B-52s filled with
radical jihadists are about to carpet-bomb their churches, and are
only awaiting Barack Obama's ascension to launch the attack.
"The tragedy of 'Obsession' is not that it is wrong," he wrote in his
Blog. "The tragedy is that it takes a serious issue, and a serious
threat — that of Islamism — and makes it into a cartoon."
But the films also have strong Jewish defenders. Daniel Pipes of the
Middle East Forum and Steve Emerson of The Investigative Project are
two prominent Jewish activists who appear in them and support their
thesis. Bernard Lewis, the highly respected — if also highly
controversial —doyen of Islamic studies, spoke at a Hebrew University
screening of "Obsession" last year. And Martin Gilbert, Winston
Churchill's official biographer, who also appears in "Obsession,"
compares efforts to warn the West about the threat of Islamism
worldwide to Churchill's long effort to awaken Europe to the threat of
In an interview, Pipes denied the films paint Islam with a broad brush.
"The very first thing in 'Obsession' is a disclaimer; these films are
very clear that they are not talking about Islam in general," he said.
"I have maintained for years that radical Islam is the problem and
moderate Islam is the solution. But that is almost always ignored."
"There is a disclaimer at the beginning of the film," acknowledged
Rabbi Steven Jacobs, a strong critic, "one sentence saying that the
majority of Muslims worldwide are not extremists. But it comes right
after an image of a terrorist with a rifle. And that is the only
disclaimer. The rest of the film simply overwhelms it."
Rabbi Jacobs, rabbi emeritus of Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodlands Hills,
Calif., is co-founder of the Coalition for Rnewing American Democracy,
a recently formed multifaith group established to counter the
This month, Clarion released a new documentary that purports to show
how "radical Islam plans to bring America to its knees" by fomenting
homegrown terrorism through the institution of Sharia law inside the
United States. "The Third Jihad: Radical Islam's Vision for America"
opened in a limited theatrical release in seven states.
Like "Obsession," "The Third Jihad" will also be sold on DVD through a
Web site operated by the Clarion Fund. Clarion plans to further
disseminate "tThe Third Jihad" through television licensing, the
Internet, free screenings, and free distribution of DVDs to targeted
audiences. The DVD became available for general purchase this week.
The Clarion Fund, established in 2006, has refused to disclose its
financing sources for either film or to make its producers available
for media interviews. Clarion's spokesperson, Gregory Ross — listed as
an Aish HaTorah international fundraiser on a June 2007 federal
election contribution form — denies any formal connection between its
activities and Aish.
Formal or informal, the ties between Aish HaTorah and the production
of the films appear to date back to the launch of the media watchdog
group Honest Reporting by the founder and former executive director of
the Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah, Irwin Katsof, in 2001.
Honest Reporting, also a tax-exempt organization, released "Obsession"
in 2005, as well as a previous film, "Relentless: The Struggle for
Peace in the Middle East," in 2003. The group now denies any
involvement in the production of "Obsession." But its Web site
promoted it as an Honest Reporting project in 2005, the year it was
first released. It listed "Obsession: The Movie" as an "affiliate" on
its Web site in 2006.
"We had nothing to do with it," said a person answering the
organization's New York telephone number.
Katsof, who founded the Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah in 1995 in Los
Angeles, claims on his Web site to have launched Honest Reporting in
2001. Honest Reporting, known initially as Middle East Media Watch,
stated on its Web site that it was started "at the initiative of the
Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah."
According to both organizations' tax returns, Katsof was the president
of the Jerusalem Fund and executive director of Middle East Media
Watch when the Jerusalem Fund lent Middle East Media Watch $158,000 in
2001. Honest Reporting's tax returns also show it received a $48,000
grant from Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem in 2002.
Reached by phone, Katsof would only describe himself as a "real estate
developer." A spokesperson later said that Katsof had not had worked
for Honest Reporting since 2001, and had not worked for the Jerusalem
Fund of Aish HaTorah since 2004. But Honest Reporting's 2004 tax
return lists Katsof as the organization's unpaid executive director.
Like the Clarion Fund, Honest Reporting currently shares an address
with Aish International, Inc., the fundraising arm of Aish HaTorah,
and the Aish HaTorah Jerusalem Fund in New York.
Raphael Shore, the producer of all three films, is also a full-time
employee of Aish HaTorah International, Aish spokesperson Torossian
confirmed to the AP. Shore's twin brother, Ephraim Shore, who heads
Aish's operations in Israel, is listed on Honest Reporting's 2006 tax
forms as the group's president.
Until contacted by The Jewish Week, Rabbi Moline had no personal
knowledge of any Aish HaTorah involvement beyond that of Raphael
Shore, the producer. But he said, "It is distressing to me that they
[Aish HaTorah] would continue to have someone who has promulgated such
awful, awful stuff sitting on their board or staff."
Rabbi Moline said "Obsession" was "horrendous" because "it draws broad
conclusions about a billion people without having a consultant with
credentials in that community."
The 2004 release, "Relentless," the first of the three films Raphael
Shore produced, focused narrowly on the Palestinian-Israel conflict,
asserting that the Palestinian people were being "groomed for more
war, not peace" and that Palestinian politics and culture were
promoting jihad against the Jews.
The more controversial "Obsession" expanded the premise of
"Relentless" to assert that "radical" or "political" Islam, which the
film ties to Nazism, is locked in a clash of civilizations with the
In "Obsession," images are juxtaposed to build a case that terrorists
can easily recruit millions to their cause. Footage from Palestinian
television, including young Palestinian girls hoping for martyrdom,
are followed by comments by Nonie Darwish, author of "Now they Call Me
Infidel; Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel and the War on
Terror." Darwish speaks about how she learned in her Egyptian school
that jihad required "conquer[ing] the world for Allah."
Itamar Marcus, the founder of Palestinian Media Watch, claims in the
film that "propaganda throughout the Arab world has a significant
effect on the Arab population." A former Hitler Youth Officer later
compares the Nazis' recruitment techniques to those of
"Islamofascists." And Walid Shoebat, a Muslim-born Palestinian convert
to Christianity who claims to have been a former PLO terrorist, states
that with 55 Muslim countries in the world, they "could have the
success rate of several Nazi Germanys."
In an expose last March, The Jerusalem Post documented crucial
contradictions in Shoebat's claim to have been a Palestinian
Another interviewee in "Obsession" is Brigitte Gabriel, who has
claimed that al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist
organizations support Barack Obama for president on the grounds that
he is Muslim — a falsehood she does not contradict.
Howard Gordon, executive producer of the hit television series "24,"
had once endorsed "Obsession" as "required viewing" but has since
withdrawn that endorsement. Gordon, who is slated to receive the
Stephen S. Wise Award from the American Jewish Congress early next
year for his contribution to helping the American public understand
the threat of terrorism, issued a statement this month declaring:
"While I remain committed to the film's essential message — that the
hate-mongering promoted by radical Islamism presents a real threat to
Western values of tolerance and pluralism — I also appreciate that the
goal of coexistence and tolerance is not being served by films like
Ross, the Clarion Fund spokesman, declined to say who provided the
funding for Clarion to distribute "Obsession" or produce "The Third
Jihad." But he said mass distribution of "Obsession" had cost
"millions of dollars." And Clarion's tax exempt application projected
the group would spend $900,000 producing "The Third Jihad." The IRS
application showed that Clarion spent approximately $800,000 in its
first two years of operation.
Ross reported that individual donations to his group "more than
doubled" in the first few weeks following the September mass
distribution of "Obsession."
The new film, "The Third Jihad," according to Ross and others familiar
with it, takes aim at Islamic civil rights organizations in the United
States, such as the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and
the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). The film charges they
seek to institute Sharia law here and that they are tied to terrorism,
citing their inclusion with many other groups as "unindicted
co-conspirators" in a federal prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation,
a group charged with funneling funds to Hamas.
In making its case, "The Third Jihad" shows human rights abuses from
abroad, including the desecration of churches and persecution of
Christians in Indonesia, Gaza, Nigeria, Baghdad and Bethlehem, along
with video of modesty police harassing women in Iran.
The film also raises the specter of Muslims importing to the United
States practices such as honor killings — the murder by their families
of girls who have sex outside marriage.
ISNA is an umbrella group of 300 Muslim organizations that has worked
with Jewish groups, including the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), and
the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, headed by New York Orthodox
Rabbi Marc Schneier. It has also worked with U.S. government agencies
on fostering interfaith dialogue and participated in the Democratic
National Convention's interfaith gathering in August.
Rabbi Schneier noted that for most Jewish leaders, including himself,
CAIR remains "beyond the pale" due to some of its officials' alleged
ties to or refusal to denounce Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group
that has taken responsibility for numerous terror attacks targeting
But Rabbi Schneier strongly rejected any similar tarring of ISNA. He
noted that at the behest of Jewish groups earlier this year, ISNA
president Sayeed Syeed had intervened with the King of Saudi Arabia to
convince him to disinvite a representative of the Jewish anti-Zionist
group Neturei Karta to a high-profile international convocation of
religious leaders the monarch was sponsoring.
"This was unprecedented," he said. "This is the kind of relationship
we have been working for."
URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie said ISNA met all of the URJ's
requirements for interfaith dialogue, including unequivocal
condemnations of terrorism and terrorism directed at Jews and
Israelis, and unequivocal acceptance of a two-state solution.
ISNA and CAIR deny involvement in terrorist activity or funding. And
civil liberties groups have excoriated the government's public naming
of unindicted co-conspirators in the Holy Land Foundation case,
pointing out none have a chance to defend themselves against the
charge in court.
Rabbi Yoffie issued a statement of support for ISNA declaring, "This
charge includes no accusation of wrongdoing by ISNA, yet it
nonetheless has a clear connotation of guilt which could greatly hurt
the organization in its work to advance the cause of justice in our
Paul Barrett, an editor at Business Week and author of the book
"American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion" (Farrar,
Strauss, 2006), told The Jewish Week, "Saying that organizations like
CAIR and ISNA aim to institute Islamic religious law in the United
States is similar to saying that Jewish or Catholic religious
organizations aim to institute rabbinic or church law in the U.S. The
notion that they are threat to the republic, a fifth column, is both
laughable and very pernicious."
But Ross, the Clarion spokesperson, asserted that "radical Islam here
in America" is engaged in "subversive activities to squash liberties
Ross said his organization hopes to "push the message" of "The Third
Jihad" to the "forefront of social discussion." He said that Clarion
would look to other organizations, as it did with "Obsession," to help
promote the film.
Additional reporting and writing by editor at large Larry Cohler-Esses
and Washington correspondent James D. Besser.