Primary 2017: The Case for Khader El-Yateem

Khader El-Yateem
Jason Jamal Nakleh photography /

Before the Democratic primary on Tuesday, September 12, 2017, for the city council seat that represents Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Bath Beach (presently held by Vincent Gentile, who’s term-limited out), Hey Ridge will run op-eds by supporters of the two candidates we believe are best for the job: Justin Brannan and Khader El-Yateem.

This election feels different to me. It’s about more than traditional, red/blue politics; it’s about who we are as a community, and it’s about how we define community.

I can testify to the character, hard work and dedication to the community of Rev. El-Yateem’s main Democratic rival, Justin Brannan. “Tagging Justin” in various Facebook groups when you have an issue is like putting up the bat-signal. Bay Ridge is fortunate to have a deep bench of capable candidates. Rev. El-Yateem, as a longtime member of Community Board 10, a pastor at Salam Arabic Lutheran Church and a patient liaison at Maimonides, can no doubt share similar stories of being on-call and of tending to people’s needs, whether material, emotional or spiritual. And that kind of personal connection is important in any elected office. It speaks to character, dedication, values and so much more.

But I’m looking for a broader understanding of what government is and what it can do, especially in these times of Trump. I need to know not just that when I pick up the phone I get my particular problem solved but that whoever calls will get their problems solved, even if this problem doesn’t impact me personally. Or, better yet, I would rather know that the person in office is passionately and assiduously working on policies that will address these problems in a way that is transparent, progressive and beneficial to all. Sometimes, though, it seems that as a community we can’t even agree on what the problems are. 

I vividly recall the shock I felt in the summer of 2011 on reading the Associated Press reports about the NYPD surveillance program of the Muslim population. This was an important moment for me politically because it impacted not only the large and growing Arab–American community down here in Bay Ridge but also the Muslim students in my classes where I teach. At both my institution and in the community down here, the response to these revelations was disheartening, at least in the circles in which I moved. A little while later, I was glad to see that Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, the authors of the original AP exposé, were speaking in Bay Ridge at the Book Mark Shoppe about their new book, Enemies Within. (I strongly recommend that book to every Bay Ridge resident!) The night of the event, the room was packed almost exclusively with Arab–Americans.

The talk was chilling, and there was a lot of anxiety and anger in the room, though also tremendous focus and, in a way, almost relief—as if people were just grateful to be talking about this in public. When I discussed the issue with my class at the time, almost all the Muslim students were, like, “Yeah, they’ve been spying on our mosques for some time.” For me, the story had been an exposé; for my students or the people gathered at the bookstore that evening, not as much.

I realized that there was a divide in this neighborhood. It wasn’t among the left, or between old-timers and newcomers, or even on or among the various Facebook groups (as loathsome as some of them are, with their constant stream of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Chinese rhetoric). The divide that I saw was between the lived experiences of the Arab–American community and the lived experience of the white community. Sure, it was reinforced by hate speech (from those dark places) and by geography (especially), and by violence (less frequently), but it really seemed to me to have to do with a deep and persistent failure to see one another.

One complaint you constantly hear about minority groups (whether from these hateful Facebook groups or just generally) is that they keep to themselves, that they don’t take an interest in community events or government, or (worse!) that they don’t try to assimilate. This complaint usually comes without any acknowledgment or understanding of the governmental policies, both federal and local, that are responsible for such segregation in the first place (red-lining, for example). Of course people tend to gather with their own kind, especially, for example, immigrants, who are trying to navigate a new reality that can be forbidding and hostile. But that doesn’t mean that they therefore are also choosing to limit their own possibilities for economic growth, or access to healthcare, education or housing, or that they have no interest in participating in government. Xenophobia works in two ways: first, you identify someone as “other,” and then you use that idea against them to keep them from ever truly belonging. Xenophobia is a feeling, a fear; racism is when this fear translates into policy.

The event in the bookstore gave the lie to the idea that the Arab–American community stays to itself. This was an issue that one would think impacted our entire community. Domestic surveillance, for fuck’s sake! Why wasn’t the whole community out for that? Honestly, I didn’t really understand myself the depth of the problem on a local level until then, either, or the extent to which people from that community were already engaged. If things don’t impact us directly, we tend to not see them as political—or see them at all.

And then Ferguson happened (not local, but seared in my brain nevertheless). Who organized a “Take on Hate” rally here in Bay Ridge in the wake of the unrest and brutal police crackdown?Linda Sarsour and the AAANY. Who reached out to members of the white community after a woman wearing a hijab was assaulted here in Bay Ridge and called a meeting that eventually led to the first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day walk? Organizers with the AAANY, including Kayla Santosuosso, who now runs Rev. K’s campaign. Who provided space for a local event in the wake of the Orlando shooting, where we tried to build bridges between different groups and different communities? Khader El-Yateem.

Do other candidates or community members not engage in outreach? Of course they do, in very important ways that need to continue and be amplified. But there also needs to be a broader conversation about which issues get attention and who’s at the table to discuss them. And this conversation has to move away from community meals and toward city government.

I’ve heard Rev. El-Yateem say many times on the campaign trail that he’s new to politics, and he might not like my saying this, but—ummm, no he’s not. He’s been “political” for years, in deep and meaningful ways. He’s been advancing progressive values, building bridges and showing up—for a long time. Rev. El-Yateem may not be as familiar to you as other candidates in the race, but for someone so naturally gregarious and so willing to reach out, that will no doubt change.

The challenges and indignities that immigrant and other minority communities face predate Trump by generations, but Trump was the nuclear bomb that broke every camel’s back. Since January, there has been a wave of executive actions and policy shifts or reversals—startling in their rapidity and cruelty—that target the most vulnerable among us: Muslim bans, promises of walls and the shameful pardon of racist Joe Arpaio; just the other day, DACA was rescinded, and God knows what’s next…

This is the first significant election since last November, and Bay Ridge has a chance to stand up and say “Enough!”

This is not a test.

Look up where and when to vote, as well as who and what will be on the ballot, here.

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3 comments on “Primary 2017: The Case for Khader El-Yateem

  1. I’m glad to have an opportunity to write here as your sarcasm on Twitter and 140 characters don’t allow for that.

    I don’t know Justin Brannan personally. If we passed on the street, he would not say hello to me, as we have never met in person. The first time I reached out to Justin was in July 2014, when there was problems at the mosque. Brannan had worked at Gentile’s office, but a quick message to his social media account received a fast response. Brannan explained that the police would be monitoring the area and that graffiti would be removed. That evening, we drove to the area with spray paint, but the graffiti had been removed and police cars were also outside the mosque.

    The Orlando Shooting happened on June 12, 2016. June was also Pride Month. No events happened in Bay Ridge for Pride month or to discuss the shooting.

    In early July 2016, an incident happened in Sunset Park. At first, the incident was labeled as “Islamophobia,” but after the police investigated, it wasn’t. The mosque had a video cameras, but strangely only a partial tape of the incident was released to the public. No one called for the full tape to be released. Sunset Park’s absent councilman, Carlos Menchaca didn’t say anything about the incident. I followed it closely. If the situation was xenophobia, then we need to do something. If it was just young men behaving poorly towards a woman, then community leaders have a responsibility to act and set a standard in the community – no one did that. We have seen community leaders from other religions speak out in Bay Ridge. In 2014, after the incident at the Bay Ridge mosque, Rabbi Jack Meyer came to speak at the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge mosque because he is a leader in Borough Park Jewish Community.

    Shortly after the incident outside the Sunset Park mosque last July, men marched in Bay Ridge towards Marty Golden’s office – they blamed the “Trump mentality” for the incident and held Marty responsible because he supported Trump. When the incident overflowed into Bay Ridge, if Reverend El-Yateem was a leader here, we would have heard from him. El-Yateem was silent. He didn’t speak out into our community or even on social media (take a look).

    On the last week of July 2016, Kayla put out this flyer: and on July 28th, a local paper and this site released this press release:

    I messaged Kayla because the flyer made it sound like there was another incident here. She told me the church was not involved and they were just using it as a place to hold the meeting. Khader El-Yateem’s name was not mentioned. Kayla didn’t even want to tell me who the community organizers were. You can see that the flyer doesn’t contain any names of who to contact. The Brooklyn Historical Society didn’t have it on their site, even though the speaker’s credentials listed the Brooklyn Historical Society. I contacted the Brooklyn Historical Society and they had no knowledge of the event and said he wasn’t speaking on their behalf. They understood that the timeliness of the meeting wasn’t appropriate for a community who was still waiting for answers from the investigation. The vagueness of the flyer and it’s lack of exposure made me realize that there were other motives to the event (Was it a requirement for community outreach by a grant? Were the speakers paid – if so by who?) If an organizer was looking to have a beneficial meeting here in Bay Ridge, why didn’t they organize the event with a mosque? Why didn’t the Arab American Association help with space? They allowed the Muslim Democratic Club to meet at their place. Why didn’t the organizers include Gentile or Golden – even just for advertising purposes, their reach is a lot further into the community? The event wasn’t advertised well, so it was poorly attended. (Pic:

    Sadly, it appears that discussions in Bay Ridge have been limited by organizers.

    Although, you didn’t mention the Bay Ridge Unity Task Force in your article, Khader El-Yateem boasts about it often. The title of the group makes residents think that strong leaders are meeting to discuss cultural issues to keep the community strong, but it doesn’t. Strangely, this group doesn’t have a webpage or even a Facebook page and very little information is available. While the group may have started out with good intentions, it turned into a once-a-year breakfast, which was photographed for the papers. Churches like to hold breakfasts to socialize, so the potential for this group was limited. No one wants to offend a priest and tell him that holding a once a year breakfast isn’t going to help cultures understand each other. Holding the task force breakfast on a weekday made the event unavailable for most. Not including teens and young people in the discussion shows the organizers don’t value their input. The task force hasn’t met since February 2016 and they had no response to recent incidents of hate.

    Bay Ridge was not made aware about the surveillance until long after it happened. It wasn’t shared anywhere or in the media until around 2013. Those who it was happening to, weren’t telling papers or saying anything about it out online. I’m not sure if people knew back in 2011 what they legally could do to fight the NYPD. 9/11 shook NYC and many only associated anyone Arab or Muslim with the terrorists.

    When Khader El-Yateem started his campaign this Spring, we had no idea who he was. Although everyone knows Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, we didn’t know the Salem Lutheran Church was upstairs from it. The churches in our area hold events and invite people in all year long. Even the Bay Ridge Jewish Center holds events that welcome everyone in. But the Salem Lutheran Church doesn’t. El-Yateem isn’t this great organizer and leader that he now wants to present to us. Maybe he doesn’t know how to organize because his church is so small. His church has only one mass per week. I was shocked when I saw how few parishioners it had. El-Yateem’s church website is only in English and hasn’t been updated in a very long time. How can a church that is welcoming immigrants have a website only in English?

    El-Yateem strongly supports BDS and articles written by his friends leave that out. Why? Before he started his campaign, BDS was the only topic I could find Khader El-Yateem speaking out about on social media (you can look back on his social media and see this) and on Youtube video as well – El-Yateem didn’t speak out against illegal conversions, housing, the MTA or any of the other issues that he is pushing now.

    The more El-Yateem has told us, the more I realize he isn’t a leader. He complained about not being invited to join a Democratic political club. The Stars and Stripes Democratic Political Club nearest his home announces their meetings online all the time and invites people with: “Please join us.” If you look at the club’s FB site, it’s a diverse group of neighbors. El-Yateem has been invited to join things by Councilman Gentile. Gentile appointed El-Yateem to Community Board 10 and he has been invited to Gentile’s events. But maybe he is used to being invited to things because he is a priest and doesn’t know he had to take the first steps and go to one of the meetings.

    Supporters of El-Yateem go silent when the story of the missing money is mentioned. I see you didn’t mention it here either. But you should have because this involves Bay Ridge and HeyRidge is usually upfront about information. Money was collected for a rehab and apparently wasn’t given to the rehab. ( El-Yateem responded, but doesn’t address the situation – what happened to the 100K that was raised? Instead, El-Yateem wanted to make it a situation about him being Arabic. That is not acceptable as this is about money. And money is easy to prove – just post cancelled checks. Strangely, Reverend El-Yateem isn’t the peacemaker he claims to be as he hasn’t spoken to DePaola in three years.

    Justin Brannan helps everyone. He seems to enjoy helping people. I have even seen someone bash Gentile’s office on FB because it hasn’t been fast enough (is anything fast enough for people today?) and Brannan still helps the person. For years, I have seen him helping people, not just now because he is running for office. Brannan is responsive to this community and in our gerrymandered district, that’s pretty important. I would say it’s pretty easy to compare Brannan’s and El-Yateem’s work in the community for the past few years.

    Brannan has no love for Trump and has consistently spoken out against him. I don’t know why you wouldn’t recognize Brannan for this. Brannan hasn’t forgotten his immigrant roots and he consistently (for years) has reminded people that the US is a country of immigrants. Significantly, Brannan noted that millions of immigrants saw Bay Ridge even before they saw the Statue of Liberty – that’s someone who is connected to his community!

    You said that as a community, we can’t agree on what the problems are. I don’t disagree with you. I think some people are set in their ways and can’t see situations from other people’s perspectives. I also have also found some men in El-Yateem’s circle unwilling to discuss issues with women and completely ignore words from a woman. But MANY people in Bay Ridge recognize everyone on their streets as their neighbors. We don’t know what religion our neighbor practices or what country they were born in, but we know that they love Bay Ridge as much as we do. Our common ground is this community. We talk to our neighbors regularly about our gardens, the new restaurant two blocks away, our property taxes, things happening on our block and in the community.

    This Summer, one of our neighbors children got married. The limo for the bride pulled up and the zaffa group came in another car. For almost 10 minutes, they danced and chanted outside the bride’s home – it was amazing. My block was full of neighbors smiling, snapping pictures and swaying to the music. It reminded of the Brooklyn I’ve known since I was a kid.

    Sadly, the end of this campaigning season has El-Yateem’s supporters speaking a lot of negativity into our community. Many of them don’t live in Bay Ridge and just want to push socialism. When they are asked about El-Yateem’s policies, they can’t answer questions about him. I’ve even had neighbors call me to tell me what they are telling residents about Justin Brannan and it’s simply not true. I’ve watched Brannan – he’s running an honest campaign on his merits.

  2. Usually Hey Ridge is informative. David fails to tell Bay Ridge that El-Yateem wants to use the council seat to support BDS. El-Yateem’s past shows us that like Marty Golden and Nicole Malliotakis, he likes to take pictures and inflate the truth. He boasted about the Bay Ridge Task Force and in reality it’s a group of people who meet and eat breakfast once a year. Then there is a question of money for the substance abuse center – what happened to the money? Why did you leave out all of this info, David?

  3. So much for profiling everyone in the race so that your readers can have all the info in front of them to make a decision.

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