Pamela Geller, the controversial author and activist, was set to deliver a lecture Sunday morning to the Zionist Organization of America that she had given many times before, billed by organizers as a revelation of the “root cause of war in the Middle East.”
But instead of taking her place before the few dozen people inside the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Geller and those who had come to see her milled around the sidewalk on Wilshire Boulevard. The Jewish Federation, just hours earlier, canceled the event.
Cancellations, just like death threats — “I have a huge file of death threats,” Geller says — are something of an occupational hazard, particularly after the Southern Poverty Law Center deemed her organization a hate group. Both Jewish and Islamic associations have condemned her as a “fear-monger.”
But in this instance, she said, the Jewish Federation “cravenly submitted to Islamic supremacists who wanted to suppress free speech.”
Officials with the federation declined to comment Sunday.
Geller came to prominence as a dogged and sharp-tongued critic of what she sees as the encroachment of Islamic law in the United States and the threat of radical Islam. She was also a fierce opponent of the Muslim community center that was to be built blocks from the World Trade Center.
The host of Sunday’s event, the Western Region Chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, said she would “discuss the motive behind Islam’s war on the Jews, the war against Israel, and the 1,400-year-old hatred of Jews living in Muslim lands.”
She hasn’t always been an activist. “I assumed my freedom,” she said. But that assumption was changed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“I was shocked to my core,” Geller said. “My basic premise was shattered: Freedom is not free; America is not forever. I felt guilty.”
And while she says she became a defender of freedom, the Southern Poverty Law Center calls her “relentlessly shrill and coarse in her broad-brush denouncements of Islam and makes preposterous claims.” Among the latter, the center cites her claims of President Obama being the son of Malcolm X and a supporter of jihad.
An interfaith coalition of Jewish, Islamic and Christian groups expressed outrage Saturday over the federation allowing her to speak. “We are extremely shocked and alarmed to see a mainstream Jewish organization associating itself with one of the nation’s leading Islamophobes,” the statement said.
Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Greater Los Angeles, said he hoped that Geller’s message as a “fringe speaker” would not distract from progress being made in Jewish and Islamic relations.
“We will not be affected by the noise of people who hopefully become more and more irrelevant,” Ayloush said. “Unfortunately, outrageous rhetoric gets attention because it’s outrageous, and Pamela Geller knows that very well.”
Geller was quick to fire back at her critics: The Southern Poverty Law Center is a “notoriously left-wing communist organization.” And the interfaith coalition? “It’s not an interfaith coalition,” she said. “It’s a mob.”
On the sidewalk in Beverly Grove, the small group protesting Geller were not Muslims, but fellow Jews.
Lauren Steiner, Dorothy Reik and Linda Milazzo hadn’t planned on protesting outside. They had come to hear Geller speak, and were planning on confronting her with tough questions during the question-and-answer session.
The discourse quickly devolved into name-calling. Milazzo got into it with one of Geller’s supporters. She called him “paranoid.” He retorted that she and her cohorts were “disgusting.”
It ended with members of the Zionist organization taking away Milazzo’s sign, which said: “Pamela Geller’s hate speech is not welcome in Los Angeles.” Milazzo had used their paper and markers to make it, they said.
“I’m ashamed to be in the same religion as these people,” Steiner said.
The crowd soon dissipated. Geller and her supporters moved to an event hall a few miles away. There, organizers said, Geller was able to give her speech without interruption.