On Linda Sarsour, Islamic Missionary, and Jewish Fundraisers: The Whole Story

A guest post by Hen Mazzig


When you raise 10 dollars for a cause, the 10 dollars should go to that cause, you should not keep 4 dollars for yourself, because it is not what people donated for, right? Simple. Well, not always.

On November 25th, 2018, The Forward (which has been the strongest and most outspoken Jewish media outlet to defend Linda Sarsour from criticism of her antisemitic rhetoric and involvement with her antisemitic spiritual leader Louis Farrakhan), published a very bizarre article.

The writer of this article attempted to convince readers that the money Sarsour helped fundraise with the Muslim organization, CelebrateMercy (CM), would be used to support the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting- ultimately a Jewish cause.  As I read through the article I was surprised to find out that according to CelebrateMercy, only $10,000 were sent there, out of $238,000 raised.

Sarsour and CelebrateMercy consistently used this fundraiser for PR, claiming to support the Jewish community. As the article twisted the whole story, it appears that the money sent to Tree of Life Synagogue was in fact raised in another fundraiser for Jewish cemeteries, totalling $162K, out of which $60K still remains in the account of CelebrateMercy.

Are you confused? So was I, but as I looked into the numbers, agreements, articles and statements, the picture became clear.

CelebrateMercy (CM), based in Philadelphia, is Tarek El-Messidi’s charity and “its aim is to teach the life and character of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon”.

Meanwhile, Linda Sarsour helps run another organization called, MPower Change, which is primarily political. MPower and CM logos were both on the two fundraising campaigns to “Repair Jewish Cemeteries” and for the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting and Sarsour promoted the fundraisers as her own.

The two organizations have raised a total of $400,000 for Jewish causes (supposedly), in two fundraisers:

A. “Repair Jewish cemeteries” (162k) – with Sarsour mentioned as the organizer. This campaign reached its goal on Jun 1, 2017.

B. “Support Tree of Life shooting victims (funeral expenses, medical bills)”- with CelebrateMercy as the organizer and Sarsour’s MPower as co-sponsor. This campaign reached its goal on Nov 7, 2018

Fundraiser (A) had significant delays in distributing the funds to the Colorado Jewish cemetery, to which the fundraiser was dedicated. In fact, it took six months for the community to receive anything at all. This fact alone raised legitimate questions about whether Sarsour and El Messidi can be trusted to manage funds for Jewish causes. Out of the money raised for the cemeteries (A), more than a third still has not been paid out, a year and a half later and it’s not earmarked for a specific recipient ($62,000).

In The Forward piece, CM claimed that $10,000 were sent to the victims of the Tree of Life attack on the same day that Messidi was interviewed, but this money was taken from Fundraiser A.

It must be noted that according to The Forward, the cemetery director said that no longer did they require funds, so the remaining money from the fundraiser ($62K), as decided in late November, would be used as a “rapid-response fund” for “any hate crimes or vandalism that takes place at synagogues or any kind of Jewish institution”. That’s how the $10K from this fundraiser was brought to Tree of Life.

The writer mentioned that “El-Messidi wrote on the crowdfunding website that he ended up sending $155,000, $5,000 more than promised, to the Islamic Center. On Sunday he posted a document signed by himself, Mohamed, and a Tree of Life representative detailing exactly how the funds will be distributed to victims and their families.  The document was signed by Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, CelebrateMercy and the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh.” These funds were provided from fundraiser (B).

Messidi also said on The Forward’s piece that, “he is still brainstorming what exactly to do with the remaining $83,000 promised for Muslim-Jewish partnerships. “I do have some ideas: If there’s a mosque that wants to host fast-breaking dinners in Ramadan for the Jewish community…” He said he wanted to have a conversation soon with MPower Change, Sarsour’s organization, to “brainstorm more ideas…”

I took to Twitter and tweeted that “Interfaith efforts are important, but raising money under the guise of helping victims of tragedy (B), then repurposing to interfaith efforts is wrong.” Some activists including a Haaretz journalist claimed that I am misleading the public and that the money will be sent directly to the Tree of Life.

However on November 27th, Sarsour posted a Facebook update confirming that I was right, saying: “Celebrate Mercy will administer these funds and will act as grant makers.”

So by November 27th it was still clear to Sarsour and CelebrateMercy that the $86,000 (B) will be kept by Tarek El-Messidi’s missionary organization, CelebrateMercy (“its aim is to teach the life and character of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon”), for “projects that help foster Muslim-Jewish collaboration & solidarity.”

One can only wonder how they wanted to spend the money. While The Forward is busy digging up dirt on Jewish charities (as the editor proudly stated), they fail to document the fact that CelebrateMercy is a missionary charity with the goal of promoting the religion and even converting people to Islam, as well as hosting events with speakers such as Omar Suleiman, who openly call for an intifada or violent uprising against Israel. Maybe the character of this organisation, and its official and unofficial missions should raise a red flag and question El-Messidi, who wants to administer more than $80,000 of donations for a Jewish cause, and then decides to use it for so-called  “Muslim-Jewish projects.”In response to requests for transparency, Sarsour lashed out on social media at what she called “right wing Zionists and the alt-right”. In the same sentence, Sarsour claimed she was “using her brand” to help Jews. This hypocrisy and demonization are unacceptable.

Funnily enough, the Rabbi of ToL is a strong Zionist, the type that Sarsour calls to dehumanize and shut down.

On November 28th, Allison Kaplan Sommer, reported for Haaretz that the aforementioned were false in her article titled, “Muslim Fundraisers Falsely Accused of Not Handing Over Money to Jewish Victims of Pittsburgh Shooting”. Yet at the same time that her article was published, ironically enough, CM announced that they have “transferred the additional funds raised ($84,534) to the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh for them to deliver to the Tree of Life synagogue. As stated above in Update #6, these additional funds (beyond the $155,000 raised for the victims) will be spent on projects that help foster Jewish-Muslim solidarity, collaboration, and dialogue.”

Some may point out that CM updated the fundraising page to say that any donation over $150k will go to interfaith projects, but this update was far on the bottom of a fundraising page titled,  “Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue Support Shooting Victims with Short-Term Needs (Funeral Expenses, Medical Bills, Etc),” along with the Pittsburgh synagogue logo. Many voiced outrage online for this grossly misleading fundraiser.

Moreover, CelebrateMercy continued to promote the fundraiser, even after reaching $215,000 and passing the $150,000 mark, as a fundraiser for the victims of Tree of Life shooting.

We now know that until November 27th, Sarsour and CM were still looking to manage the $86,000 from fundraiser (B). Following the burst of outrage online regarding the lack of accountability for the funds raised, otherwise known as the Sarsour and CM “conspiracy theory swirl”, the fundraiser website was surprisingly updated on November 28th.

On the same day, CM announced through The Forward (once again), in yet another vague piece, that they had changed their minds about the remaining funds. They announced “a new agreement, reached Wednesday, November 28th, between the three parties” and that CM transferred $84,534 on that same day to the synagogue for use in “projects to help foster Muslim-Jewish collaboration, dialogue and solidarity”.

That was very quick, given that the same Forward writer claimed that “it is not easy to quickly transfer tens of thousands of dollars and make sure it’s going to the right place.”

At the end of the day, all of the money raised from fundraiser (B), somehow reached Tree of Life. Yet, $84,000 was agreed to be used for interfaith projects for Muslim and Jews, and not for the original purpose of the campaign. This being said,  it will be administered by ToL, which is a better outcome than before.

Tree of Life synagogue issued a letter on November 28th, saying that they have received the funds, but contrary to the publicity and to the new agreement, noted that the funds were received on November 21st, perhaps a mistake. The remaining funds of fundraiser (A) is still in the dark ($53,000-$63,000) and CM claims that they will keep it for future Jewish emergencies. This must be accounted for.

This was not an attack on Sarsour or on CM. It was a legitimate public concern, the same public that was told that Sarsour raised $400,000 for Jewish causes. The same public that is concerned about misuse of funds raised for the Women’s March by Linda Sarsour and her team.

I questioned the fundraising led by Sarsour and got a lot of backlash for it: I was called an Islamophobe, a liar and an anti-Palestinian by the leaders of the Women’s March  and by Sarsour’s supporters. I believe that public pressure for transparency had the right impact. I am happy that the funds found their way to the Jewish community in Pittsburgh.

In the end, the facts are clear and more importantly, these organisations and their leaders now know that they are being watched and that there is pressure for accountability and transparency. Stay tuned.

Hen Mazzig is an Israeli writer, public speaker and strategic communications consultant from Tel Aviv.

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