As Democrat Marc Elrich prepares to become Montgomery County executive next week, a name on his
transition team is raising some eyebrows.
Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state delegate who supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel, is serving on the executive-elect’s transition team, consulting on government and technology issues, according to Elrich.
A member of Freedom2Boycott Maryland, Ali has built a reputation as one of Montgomery County’s most vocal critics of Israel. Last year, he organized a protest of Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) after the congressman co-sponsored a bill that would have barred American companies from supporting international boycotts of Israel.
And last month, Ali posted on Facebook a video of himself asking Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous, a Democrat, to stop defending Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s anti-BDS executive order in court if elected. Ali declined to be interviewed for this article, but confirmed that he both supports the BDS movement and Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state. He added that he’s never spoken with Elrich about BDS.
Elrich, who has said both before and after Election Day that he opposes the BDS movement, insisted that Ali’s appointment to the transition team — which includes more than 180 people, according to Elrich — has nothing to do with his views on Israel. He said the transition team is broken into several working groups focused on issues like education, transportation and housing.
“He used to be a state delegate so he certainly understands processes in the state and he’s been involved in the community,” Elrich told WJW. “He’s also an IT person and one of our concerns is how to make the county more efficient in terms of IT stuff.
“This is a team that’s looking at my agenda and commenting on how my agenda would be measurable. The thing he’s controversial about has nothing to do with what I’m doing in transition or what I’m doing in county government.”
But some county residents are concerned. Elrich and Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington Executive Director Ron Halber both said they’ve received emails about Ali since the transition team was announced.
Rosalind Feldman, a member of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville, said she was surprised to see Ali’s name on a list of transition members published by Bethesda Beat. She said she told friends from her Na’amat book club about it and a number of them reached out to Elrich to express their concern. Elrich said he responded by assuring them that Halber — who opposes BDS — is also on the transition team.
“Mr. Elrich is handing Mr. Ali the opportunity to denigrate any alliance touching on Israel, any appointment of individuals who might support Israel,” Feldman said in an email to WJW. “The County in the past has engaged in cooperative programs with Israel and Israelis that have touched on commerce, tourism, education, culture and more. Mr. Elrich starts as County Executive with a cloud of being soft on BDS despite his denials.”
But Halber joined Elrich in saying that there’s no reason for Israel supporters to be concerned about the incoming executive’s views or policy positions. Halber said that the two have developed a friendship over the years, and that if he had any concern about Elrich’s views on the BDS movement, the JCRC would “raise hell.”
“Saqib is just a screamer, he’s very active on social media, he brings 20 to 30 people a year to Annapolis to try to get them to support BDS,” Halber said. “But I’ve been telling people, ‘Stop worrying. He’s a member of a transition team with 180 members. He’s not being appointed secretary of state.’”
Robert Samet, a Potomac attorney, said that his group, Coalition of Pro-Israel Advocates (COPIA), was considering mobilizing supporters in opposition to the appointment. They had not at press time.
In August, COPIA led a campaign against the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington to disinvite a speaker who the group claimed was anti-Israel. In 2014, COPIA, under the name COPMA, launched a boycott of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington over its support of Theater J, which the group charged with running anti-Israel plays.
Samet, who is COPIA’s chairman, declined to say how many members the group had, but said that its email alerts went to “many thousands” of addresses. An August email listed the group’s other officers as: Mark H. Lazerson, vice-chairman; Carol Greenwald, treasurer; Barbara Leber, secretary; and Michael I. Krauss, general counsel.
Despite his predecessor, Isiah Leggett, taking an economic development trip to Israel, Elrich said during the campaign that he most likely wouldn’t go abroad on county business, though he might send representatives to the Jewish state. Elrich said that he’d prefer to stay in Maryland rather than taking international trips on the taxpayer’s dime.
To Halber, the entire controversy surrounding Ali amounts to nothing.
“There are enough things for the Jewish community to worry about. Let’s worry about Iran getting a bomb,” Halber said. “Let’s not be concerned with Saqib Ali being on a transition team.”