Pamela Geller, a harsh critic of Islam, spoke under tight security Sunday at Chabad of Great Neck after her original venue, the Great Neck Synagogue, cancelled her appearance following protest by interfaith leaders and media coverage of the controversy.
Addressing a packed sanctuary, with over 100 Chabad regulars, supporters and conservative activists listening to piped-in audio while seated in rows of chairs outside the building, Geller called the petitions to cancel her talk part of a “war on free speech” waged by her opponents.
“I am accused of being a hater and being a bigot because that is the war that we are in,” Geller said.
Geller, whose fiery attacks on both radical Islam and the faith in general have drawn denunciations and allegations of bigotry from groups including the Anti-Defamation League, speaks regularly on what she describes as “creeping Sharia” in the United States and appeared with the father of a Marine who was killed in Afghanistan by Afghan policemen.
Terrorists, liberals and the media were targets of attack in Geller’s speech, as she described a network of radical Muslims who she said were working to both kill Americans abroad and undermine laws domestically.
And though Geller said at the beginning of her speech that her warnings were targeted at radicals, not all Muslims, she also criticized the religion as a whole, saying that “you are not allowed to question” in Islam.
Dozens of supporters, from Great Neck and from conservative groups throughout Nassau, held signs warning of domestic Jihad and Sharia law.
Kings Point police, assisted by Nassau County officers, manned the entrance to the synagogue in anticipation of a counter-protest that never materialized, according to Nassau County police spokesman Kenneth Lack.
“We are here assisting [Kings Point police] with some anticipated issues,” said Lack. “We were expecting some opposing group. That hasn’t happened.”
Security was tight at the event, with volunteers from Chabad searching bags and taking photographs of the ids of attendees.
Joan Lawlor, who attended the event with the Brightwaters-based tea party group Conservative Society for Action, said Muslim “sleeper cells” were trying to undermine the constitution and impose religious law.
“Their religion is not tolerant. They believe that our country is the great Satan, and that Israel is the little Satan,” Lawlor said.
In Lawlor’s estimation, 75 percent of Muslims in the United States are trying to force Sharia on non-Muslims.
Fran Ginter, of the Massapequa Tea Party, said freedom of speech was the issue and criticized Islamic Center of Long Island and Nassau Human Rights commissioner Habeeb Ahmed for his role in petitioning Great Neck Synagogue to cancel the original event.
“We were very upset that they’re not allowing us to speak freely and that the Islamic extremists are on the Nassau board of human rights,” Ginter said.
Following the speech, Geller and supporters rallied outside the county government building in Mineola in protest of Ahmed’s activism against Geller’s appearance. The county has launched an investigation into whether Ahmed misused his title as a county human rights commissioner by including that information in his e-mail signature when petitioning the temple, according to Brian Nevin, a spokesman for Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano. That investigation is still ongoing.
Reached ahead of the speech, Chabad Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky said his organization supports freedom of speech.
“We believe that everyone should have the option to speak, as long as they do not speak hatred,” said Geisinsky.
The event was originally scheduled to take place at Great Neck Synagogue, but the temple cancelled the speech after public criticism and petitions from interfaith advocates.
“As the notoriety and media exposure of the planned program this Sunday have increased, so has the legal liability and potential security exposure of our institution and it’s [sic] member families,” wrote the synagogue’s executive board in a statement. “In an era of heightened security concerns it is irresponsible to jeopardize the safety of those who call Great Neck Synagogue home, especially our children, even at the risk of diverting attention from a potentially important voice in the ongoing debate. Accordingly, the Great Neck Synagogue Men’s Club will no longer be sponsoring the appearance of Pamela Geller this coming Sunday, and no event will be taking place in our facility.”
A chain of e-mails among interfaith activists, including Ahmed, advocated the petitioning of the temple to cancel the event at Great Neck Synagogue. Geller obtained the e-mails and published them to her blog, sparking coverage by the mainstream and Jewish press as well as right-wing and left-wing blogs.
“Due to relentless intimidation, bullying and threats, the Great Neck Synagogue is cancelling my talk at the Great Neck Synagogue on Sunday. Ironically, the subject of my talk was the war on free speech, and this incident shows how urgently this topic needs to be discussed. Leftist thugs, pushed and prodded by Islamic supremacist Habeeb Ahmed and his co-conspirators, threatened a march on the shul (among other things),” wrote Geller in a statement on her blog. “It is a very sad day for freedom-loving peoples when fascist tactics trump free speech. This reinforces a terrible precedent: that Islamic supremacists and leftists can get whatever they want, and silence their opponents, by keeping up pressure on decent people until they cave in. In America, they don’t assassinate their foes, but they assassinate their character.”
Interfaith Alliance of Long Island board member Bob Nuxoll, who participated in the initial petitions against the speech to the synagogue, said his group had no plans to physically protest - and that the real threat to the temple’s security came from right-wing groups who had adopted the event as a cause celebre and were organizing support rallies online.
“Some individuals did [plan to protest], but very quickly the leadership of various congregations said we don’t want to do that,” Nuxoll said. “They all saw the wisdom of not giving her any more publicity.”
Nuxoll also disputed Geller’s claims that her freedom of speech had been violated.
“No legal pressure was placed whatsoever. This was a decision, as it should be, within the congregation there, who have the right to invite - we never denied that, you’ve got the right to do it - or deny an invitation to anybody to speak in a house of worship,” Nuxoll said.
And, according to Nuxoll, Geller’s characterizations of Ahmed and others protesting the event as “leftist thugs” are inaccurate.
“These are good people,” Nuxoll said. “Perhaps they didn’t do their homework and they don’t realize, but I don’t think they bother doing their homework. If someone speaks out against what they are saying, it is instant character assassination. Instant. Whether they are right or wrong, and in this case they are very, very wrong.”
Prior to its cancellation the speech had spurred controversy, with interfaith advocates voicing disapproval of the speech and Geller accusing critics of attempting to suppress her message.
After initial media exposure, the synagogue issued a statement defending the decision of its men’s club to invite Geller to speak.
“Great Neck Synagogue rejects the categorizing of any religious majority based on the actions of a minority. It does though believe that it is absolutely appropriate to speak about the actions of such a minority and to evaluate their impact on the perception of the majority of their co-religionists, and on the community in general,” said Rabbi Dale Polokoff in a statement. “It is within such a framework that the men’s club has invited Pamela Geller to speak.”
The synagogue did not return requests for additional comment.
Geller, whose organization Stop Islamization of America has been described as “anti-Muslim bigots” by the Anti Defamation League, has lashed out against critics in recent weeks.
She published on her website e-mails attributed to Ahmed urging other interfaith clergy and activists to petition to temple to drop the appearance.
“The Muslims and leftists are trying here to get Jews to come out against me - a strategy that has succeeded well in the past,” Geller wrote on her blog.
Ahmed is currently under investigation by the county regarding whether he abused his office by including his title as a county human right commissioner in emails sent to Great Neck Synagogue. Ahmed has said in a statement that the e-mails represented his personal views and not county policy.
“My thoughts and opinions regarding the visit of Pamela Geller to Nassau County reflect my personal opinion - not that of Nassau County or the Human Rights Commission and not that of the Islamic Center of LI. The use of my designations in my e-mails is for identification purposes only. I regret if it was taken in any other way,” wrote Ahmed. “I am aware of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and I respect it. The hate mail that my interfaith colleagues and I have been receiving is proof of that.”
Nuxoll responded to the e-mail chain, writing that he had contacted the synagogue and compared the invitation of Geller to a church in the 1930s inviting a representative of the Nazi party to speak.
“I suggest that, regardless of whatever else we do, each of us calls the synagogue to protest their inviting a noted hate-monger to a house of worship,” wrote Nuxoll.
Reached by phone on Monday, Nuxoll said that he stood by his comments, but also that he and members of the Interfaith Alliance never violated Geller’s freedom of speech.
“We’ve been rather upset because it has been misrepresented,” Nuxoll said. “We have been told that we are enemies of free speech that anybody has a right to ask her to speak any place. And we have agreed with that.”
“Our only complaint is with the morality of it. To ask a person to speak hatefully in a house of worship,” he continued.
Nuxoll said that Interfaith Alliance members have received insulting, but non-threatening, hate mail since they began petitioning the temple, and that his group did not plan to attend or physically protest the speech.
Geller’s comments on Islam, which range from condemnations of terrorist attacks to statements describing Islam as “the most anti-Semitic, genocidal ideology in the world,” have drawn strong responses from critics and supporters.
“Geller’s self-righteous campaign to show the world the “true face” of Islam is abhorrent and morally repugnant,” wrote Anti Defamation League National chair Robert Sugarman in a March 23 letter to New York Jewish Week. “Geller, in views she outlines in her blog, has linked Islam to bestiality and rape of minors, compared Muslims to Nazis and asserted that Islam inspired Hitler. The Anti-Defamation League has closely followed her anti-Muslim scapegoating and that of Stop Islamization of America, the organization she leads, and has posted additional examples of her comments on its Web site.
“Terrorism inspired by fundamentalist Islam is indeed a true threat to America, Israel and democracies around the world,” Sugarman continued. “But in directing her rhetoric at the entire Islamic faith - indeed, in supporting campaigns to suggest that Muslims should abandon their faith entirely - Geller fuels and fosters anti-Muslim bigotry in society.”
Jeff Wiesenfeld, a CUNY trustee, Great Neck resident and vocal advocate for Israel, said that critics were being hypocritical in protesting Geller while not sufficiently condemning anti-Israel statements by Muslim leaders and the policies of Islamic states.
“They’re basically all misogynist, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic self-slaughtering countries,” Wiesenfeld said. “Dialogue must be a two-way street. Dialogue that is based on a one-way conversation, with no one speaking against evil, is false.”
“There are many, many, many decent individual Muslims,” Wiesenfeld continued. “There is a dangerous minority - we have a right to know about the effect of that dangerous minority.”
Geller has compared Jewish opponents of her positions to “quislings” - Nazi collaborators during World War II.
“Jewish history is plagued with these quislings, who are willing tools serving as the public face for supremacists and annihilationists,” Geller wrote in an e-mail to the Jewish Daily Forward. “The left uses these Jews to defame and destroy a Jew who is truly standing up for Israel and for the principles of freedom and human rights that the Jewish State represents. It’s inexcusable.”