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Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat, attacked the organization founded by Jamal Khashoggi on Monday as linked to Al Qaeda, echoing allegations that Saudi officials have leveled to muddy the waters around the state-sanctioned butchering of the Washington Post journalist.
In a speech at Rutgers University, Gottheimer criticized the school for hosting Khashoggi’s organization for an event. “At another event, the same group hosted Democracy for the Arab World Now, DAWN, whose officials have connections to Al Qaeda and Hamas networks,” Gottheimer said. “Hamas sympathizers, or others with ties to other terrorist organizations involved in 9/11, have no place on college campuses. Associates of Palestinian Islamic jihad have no place on this college campus. I know we all believe that hate has no home here. It’s time we all practice what we preach.”
During his speech, Gottheimer also claimed that at an earlier protest organized by the Working Families Party, somebody had shouted “Jew!” at him. “Not long ago, I held an event in my district to talk about the benefits of the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill, only to have members of the Working Families Party disrupt the event by screaming ‘Jew’ at me,” he said. While he did not specify which event he was referring to, representatives from the Working Families Party say they only showed up at one, on September 20.
A review of video of the event provided by the Working Families Party suggests that Gottheimer is either lying or appears to have misheard the protesters. As he left an event out a back door, protesters urged him to engage in one of his regular constituent events that he calls “Cup of Joe with Josh,” in lieu of town halls that his constituents have demanded. “This is your Cup of Joe, Josh. This is your Cup of Joe,” yelled Lisa Schwartz of Teaneck, New Jersey. At the time of the protest, Gottheimer was under intense pressure at home and in Washington to get behind Biden’s Build Back Better Act.
“That’s the only time we saw him, and it was so ridiculous, he avoided us like the plague,” Schwartz, a retired social worker, told The Intercept. “We just wanted five minutes of his time.”
“What an outrageous allegation. I’m someone who’s Jewish. If I’d have heard that, I’d have been outraged and would have left right away, and so would most people there. He’s playing the antisemitism card, and it’s vindictive. I can tell you for certain, nothing like that was shouted,” she said. In a statement provided by the Working Families Party, Schwartz added: “At no time during this rally was Rep. Gottheimer called ‘a Jew’ as he falsely alleges.”
While Gottheimer was speaking on the topic of antisemitism, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., was pursuing a resolution condemning anti-Muslim racism. On Tuesday, Rep. Scott Perry, R-Penn., accused Omar of being “affiliated” with “terrorist organizations” while the House debated her bill. The bill passed, and his words were deemed out of order by the House parliamentarian and struck from the congressional record. Gottheimer was speaking at Rutgers University, not on the House floor, and his remarks are posted on his congressional website.
The claims by Perry and Gottheimer that Omar and Khashoggi have links to terrorist organizations were offered without evidence, though both are likely referring to connections to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, a prominent advocacy group in Washington that is routinely criticized by Saudi Arabia and its allies for having ties to terror networks. Perry had previously introduced an amendment to Omar’s legislation punishing CAIR, and Khashoggi’s group has links to people with ties to CAIR.
Nebulous terms like “networks” and “links” make it easy to claim connections between Middle East figures and terrorist groups while simultaneously draining these claims of meaning. That task was made easier in the wake of 9/11, when the FBI designated countless Islamic charities as potential fronts for financing terror groups, meaning that anybody connected with those charities in any way could then be said to have “links” to Al Qaeda. (The irony, of course, is that Saudi Arabia itself has actual links to the 9/11 attacks and is the subject of ongoing litigation as a result.)
“These are Saudi talking points,” said Michael Eisner, general counsel for DAWN. “DAWN staff and DAWN board members represent a diverse group of people from different races, faiths, religions, and nationalities. Several DAWN staff members are political exiles, including former political prisoners and victims of torture. That these individuals now face some of the same tactics from the authoritarian governments that forced them to flee their home countries is deeply unsettling.”
Khashoggi founded DAWN in 2018 before he was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The group advocates for democratic reforms in the Middle East and has been heavily critical of Saudi Arabia under the rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Multiple intelligence services — including the Turkish, U.S., and British agencies — have concluded that the crown prince was responsible for the killing of Khashoggi.
“These accusations are false, baseless, and derive from Islamophobic, racist, and anti-Muslim tropes that have no place in the United States and in U.S. political discourse,” said Eisner.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, praised the talk as an “important speech” on the “rise of antisemitic rhetoric and the need for leaders to better support Jewish communities.” It was unclear if Greenblatt had noticed Gottheimer’s charge against Khashoggi’s organization.
Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pushed back on Greenblatt for evidence. “In this speech Gottheimer claims, without evidence of course, that @DAWNmenaorg, an organization founded by murdered Saudi activist Jamaal Khashoggi, has ‘connections to Al-Qaeda and Hamas networks.’ Among other slanders,” Duss posted on Twitter. “Why is the ADL endorsing this defamation?” An ADL spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Gottheimer’s links to Saudi Arabia and its network of propagandists go back to his earliest days in politics. In the late 1990s, Gottheimer was a speechwriter for the Clinton White House, where he worked closely with Mark Penn, the president’s pollster. The two have remained close since, and Gottheimer has become a lead spokesperson for the organization No Labels, which Penn’s wife, Nancy Jacobson, runs with Penn’s close involvement. Penn went on to become CEO of Burson-Marsteller, one of the leading public relations fronts for Saudi Arabia, and in 2006, he hired Gottheimer as an executive vice president. Gottheimer spent the next four years at the firm, reporting directly to Penn.
“When evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial. That’s why it was creepy that Hillary Clinton’s pollster and chief strategist in her presidential campaign was Mark Penn, CEO of Burson-Marsteller,” said MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in 2012. (Penn rejected the characterization.) Gottheimer, who didn’t respond to a request for comment or additional information to back up his allegation, was elected to Congress in 2016.