Last week, the White House quietly announced the appointment of Dr. James Zogby to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Zogby—whom I have debated on occasion on radio programs and who has always been a gentleman—is the founder and president of the Arab American Institute and co-founder of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.  

But is Zogby the proper person to fight for religious freedom in the Middle East at a time when minorities are under the worst siege since the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands in the wake of Israel’s founding?

Alas, the answer to that is no. Zogby has at times demonstrated an apologia which undercuts his ability as an advocate. Take, for example, an incident a decade ago in which Harvard University decided to partner with the United Arab Emirates’ Sheikh Zayed Center, an institution which sponsored Holocaust denial and promoted blood libel. The indefatigable Tom Gross catalogued the Zayed Center’s activities here. Zogby, however, who currently is also a visiting professor in Abu Dhabi, rushed to Zayed’s defense. From the CBS Evening News on May 19, 2003:

“That’s wrong, that smacks of a witch hunt,” says James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute. Zogby says the center does bear the sheik’s name, but so do a lot of things in his country. Zogby believes the sheik did not know about it. “There is no relationship between Sheik Zayed and the center,” says Zogby. “He knows who’s there,” says [Rachel] Fish. “There’s no way he does not know.” Harvard refused our request for an on-camera interview, but in a statement, called some of the center’s activities “repugnant and indefensible.” It said it is “carefully investigating” any links with Sheik Zayed.

Zogby was also a featured writer for the Arab Voice at the time that paper was excerpting the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Zogby responds at the base of the article, which is followed by a follow-up article casting doubt on parts of his explanations). He accused Israel of waging a “Holocaust” against the Palestinians. More recently, he embraced political polemics if not conspiracies regarding the Iraq war. And most recently, Zogby accused Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of being an “Israel firster,” an anti-Semitic trope.

Zogby has long been an activist for the Democratic Party and an enthusiastic supporter of President Obama. It’s understandable that Obama wishes to reward him for his loyalty and, perhaps, for his political views. To do so with a seat at the USCIRF at a time when minorities are under siege from Syria to Egypt to Iran, however, shows the lack of seriousness with which Obama treats religious freedom.

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