Several days ago, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, attacked New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Like other friends and supporters of the senator, Klein’s charges stunned me.
Sen. Booker, like fellow members of Congress Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Bonnie Coleman Watson (D-NJ), made a point of inviting a Muslim as his guest to President Obama’s Jan. 13 State of the Union address. Klein called Booker's invitation to Ahmed Shedeed “appalling.” He told a Jersey Journal reporter, “It is nothing short of a disgrace. A frightening disgrace for Booker to have done something like this.” He cited Shedeed's involvement in a 2013 New York City rally to support deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party.
Booker spokesperson Tom Pietrykoski noted that the senator asked faith leaders and local officials whom to invite to the State of the Union, “as a response to the recent toxicity of our political discourse.” One after another pointed to Ahmed Shedeed, praising him for working with law enforcement and people of all faiths — including the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities — to bring people together and build bridges of tolerance and mutual understanding.
Exactly the kind of person I would expect Cory Booker to invite. So why Mr. Klein’s outrage? I was confused, and decided to find out for myself. A few days ago, I drove from Livingston to Jersey City and spent a couple of hours visiting with Mr. Shedeed.
Ahmed Shedeed is a man in late middle age, with thick grey hair and a well-trimmed beard (think Theodore Bikel). He was born and raised in Egypt, in the Nile Delta region, where he attended the same high school as Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.
After graduating from college with a degree in agriculture and fulfilling his military obligation, he came to New Jersey, where he began the familiar journey of the new arrival. In a pattern not so different from the classic Jewish immigrant, he worked in restaurants and low-level jobs, saved money, and eventually opened his own travel agency.
The Islamic Center of Jersey City occupies a large, shabby brick building built as a Shriner’s Temple. A sign on the front door says “Islam is a religion of peace, not violence.” I climbed to the third floor, past two floors of the shouts and laughter of boys and girls playing together in the religious school. I met Shedeed in the top-floor mosque. We took off our shoes and sat down in an adjacent office.
Shedeed, as president of the Islamic Center, sounded a lot like leaders of my own synagogue. A West Point pennant hung on the wall. Shedeed explained he’d helped develop a partnership among the Islamic Center and several other houses of worship (including a synagogue) that annually brings cadets to Jersey City for a three-day immersion into the faiths, peoples, and cultures of this diverse immigrant community. Many of the cadets who make the trip are from small Midwestern and southern towns. This is new stuff for them.
Shedeed knows military life. His late wife was born in Quantico, Va., where her father was stationed. (Shedeed’s wife, in fact, who eventually converted to Islam, had a Jewish grandmother.) His brother-in-law is a retired lieutenant general in the Marines. Shedeed is a member of an FBI committee that focuses on the bureau’s relationship with the community, the state Attorney General’s Muslim Outreach Committee, and the Interfaith Advisory Committee of the Department of Homeland Security. A Republican, he is close to many Republican leaders, including former Jersey City Mayor and state Commissioner of Education, Bret Schundler.
Not exactly the profile of an Islamist radical.
I asked Shedeed about the 2013 rally. He explained that the rally was less to endorse the Muslim Brotherhood and more to protest the military coup that ousted the democratically elected Morsi government, and that resulted in the Rabaa massacre in which over 800 civilians died. Yes, Egypt’s military government is friendlier to Israel and the United States, but Shedeed’s point is hard to dispute.
I asked him about his feelings toward Israel in general. He clearly stated that Israel has a right both to exist and to defend itself, and hoped that Israelis and Palestinians could find a two-state solution. In his world view, Israel is a given.
He came across as a moderate, and later in our conversation he used that word to describe himself. He is a religious man whose beliefs guide his thinking, for example, in his disapproval of gay marriage. Unlike militants of his own and other faiths, however, he unhesitatingly accepts and supports what emerges from the democratic process.
Shedeed deserved the invitation. He’s what we hope for from the immigrant Islamic community: civic engagement, communal responsibility, and a commitment to American values. Klein’s reaction to the invitation was perhaps an opportunity to fire up ZOA’s donor base. But it was baseless, and a terrible thing to do.
Ahmed Shedeed is precisely the kind of Muslim we Jews should be praising, reaching out to, and involving ourselves with. Senator Booker was right to put him front and center.