Politics & Government

Aish HaTorah’s New ‘Obsession’

Aish HaTorah’s New ‘Obsession'
Video still from "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West" (2005)
Video still from "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West" (2005)

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.

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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 presidential campaign.

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 nominee.

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 Nazism.

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 production.

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. TheDVD 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 West.

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 formerPLO 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 terrorist.

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 ‘Obsession.’”

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 Israeli civilians.

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 country.”

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 and freedom.”

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.

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Additional reporting and writing by editor at large Larry Cohler-Esses and Washington correspondent James D. Besser.

About the reporter

Sarah Posner

Sarah Posner

Sarah Posner is an investigative journalist and author of God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.