On the morning of February 25, 2019, two prominent leaders of the New England Jewish community walked into a Boston police station to report that I had committed an anti-Jewish hate crime against both of them by threatening them with bodily harm. Robert Trestan, the New England regional executive director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and Jeremy Burton, the executive director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), told the police that I was motivated by anti-Jewish bias, and that they were in fear for their physical safety as a result.
But, when Boston Police Department (BPD) detectives spoke to my attorney, Jewish civil rights advocate Karen Hurvitz, they were surprised to learn that I myself am Jewish and that, like Trestan and Burton, I am the executive director of a Jewish 501(c)(3) non-profit, Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT), which confronts anti-Jewish bias as part of its primary mission.
In these troubled times, law enforcement cannot take reports of violent threats against Jewish leaders lightly. The level of urgency was upped several notches in this case because Messrs. Trestan and Burton, as prominent civic leaders in New England, have close personal relationships with Boston’s chief of police and mayor, the Suffolk County district attorney, the local U.S. Attorney’s office, and the governor of Massachusetts, among others. Mr. Trestan is a civil rights attorney, had advised the Obama White House on countering violent extremism, was honored by the Boston Police Foundation, and currently sits on the governor’s Task Force on Hate Crimes. Galvanized by the threat of prominent Jewish leaders being targeted by a dangerous criminal, scarce police resources were immediately mobilized to investigate the alleged threats.
Once the BPD detectives learned that I was a Jewish community leader, they were, understandably, confused as to why two Jewish executive directors would call the cops on another one and falsely accuse him of an anti-Jewish hate crime. My attorney explained the likely motive: my recent article in The Federalist, in which I was highly critical of Trestan and Burton’s leadership. The article criticized Trestan and Burton for politicizing the Boston Jewish community’s vigil for the victims of the 2018 Pittsburg synagogue massacre by turning it into an anti-Trump resistance rally.
Worse, the article noted that they had invited a real anti-Semite – Hamas-linked Boston imam Yasir Fahmy, to promote his agenda at this vigil. The article came with video of Imam Fahmy preaching to Boston’s Muslims that the Jews of Israel are desecrating the Al Aqsa mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount – a widespread anti-Semitic slander that has led to murderous violence against Jews. Trestan’s ADL usually censures Arab and Muslim leaders who resort to this sort of antisemitic incitement over the Temple Mount, instead of inviting them to speak at a vigil for antisemitism’s victims.
The article also revealed that Imam Fahmy preaches to Boston’s Muslims the same religious fundamentalist views about homosexuality that Mr. Burton loudly denounces when they are preached by Jewish rabbis. Burton, who has written heartbreaking accounts of being driven close to suicide by the intolerance he faced growing up gay in the Orthodox Jewish community, appears to be relatively less anxious about the emotional health of gay Muslim youths at Imam Fahmy’s mosque. Instead of loudly denouncing Fahmy, a few weeks after the article came out, Burton came to Fahmy’s mosque to praise the hate preacher, calling him “my teacher, Shaykh Yasir.”
The detectives saw what was really going on. “Tell me if I’m getting this correctly,” one of them asked my attorney. “All of them are Jews, but Feoktistov is more on the Right, and Trestan and Burton are more on the Left when it comes to politics?”
I do not doubt that Messrs. Trestan and Burton were quite upset by the article and emails that I sent them about it. Most people do not enjoy criticism. Then again, most people do not try to get their critics arrested for it. According to the police incident report, Trestan and Burton complained that “they receive emails regularly from the suspect (Ilya Feoktistov) that are offensive/ harsh in nature in regards to their work.” The email that they claimed threatened them with bodily harm ended with this line:
“I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’”
To two non-Jewish Boston cops, this ‘disaster’ stuff, combined with Trestan and Burton’s misrepresentations to the police, might well sound like a potential threat. Instead, as the detectives learned, it was Jeremiah 18:11, a Bible passage included in the email under the apparently-mistaken assumption that Boston’s Jewish leaders know Jewish scripture. In the passage, the prophet Jeremiah criticizes the failures of the Jewish leaders of his time, predicting disaster for the entire people if their rulers continued to ignore threats to Israel’s safety. Ironically, Burton and Trestan now seem to mimic those corrupt ancient Jewish leaders, who responded to Jeremiah’s warning by having him arrested, saying:
“Come, let us denounce him and pay no heed to any of his words.” (Jeremiah 18:18.)
It is possible that Trestan and Burton are simply illiterate when it comes to their religion’s holy texts and had failed to distinguish Jewish scripture from an anti-Jewish threat; that they were then genuinely panic-stricken by the email and were compelled to report the Bible lesson as a hate crime. But I doubt it. Jeremiah is so well-known for preaching disaster that his name is synonymous with the angry harangue against the powerful. The part of Jeremiah (18:1-12) containing the verse is one of the most-quoted allegories in the Hebrew Bible – the piece of clay in the potter’s hand – and is part of the traditional evening prayers on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur. Burton, who identifies as an Orthodox Jew, is himself fond of quoting Jeremiah. Perhaps he and Trestan nevertheless didn’t get the reference. Or perhaps they knew what they were doing when they came up with their plot.
Thankfully, once the detectives figured out that I had gotten “jussied” – that Burton and Trestan had filed a fake hate crime report against me for political reasons – I was off the hook. Unfortunately, there is little chance that these well-connected grandees are now going be held accountable, like ordinary folks who file a false police report, by their own friends in law enforcement.
Trestan and Burton’s misappropriation of the criminal process as a personal tool to quash public criticism is Kafkaesque by American standards, but lame compared to what people like them can do when the state allows them to denounce their fellow citizens for crimes of speech and thought. In the Soviet Union, it was common knowledge then that there were people in that society who, for venal, malicious, or ideological reasons, would reach out to those with the legal authority to use violent force and secretly provide false denunciations against their foes or rivals. These people exist in every society. In the United States, however, the destructive influence of such people on the social and moral fabric is mitigated by due process, democratic norms, and, among those familiar with scripture, the commandment against bearing false witness.
Like their 20th Century comrades in my former homeland, contemporary leftists are not bound by such restraints. Censoring speech and opinion that they do not like, to the point of resorting to false denunciations, has often become standard practice for the progressive movement within the spheres where it is dominant. Even as they steadily lose legitimacy in the Jewish community due to the growth of anti-Semitism on the Left, progressive Jewish leaders like Trestan and Burton demand ever greater authority to dictate proper opinions to American Jews.
Recently, while defending Democrat Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib from charges of anti-Semitism, Burton insisted, emphatically and without irony, that the nation’s media and government must grant leftist Jewish leaders like him and Trestan, “leaders who represent the sensibility of our community,” the exclusive privilege “to determine what is, or is not, anti-Semitic.” Even without this privilege, leftist Jewish leaders like Trestan and Burton presume to appropriate anti-Semitism as an exclusive label for their political enemies; resulting in the absurdity of Burton telling Boston’s police that I am an anti-Semite, and telling Boston’s Jews that Rashida Tlaib is not.
Crying “anti-Semites!” at their political opponents as the proverbial wolves will, at some point, stop working for progressive Jewish leaders if they continue to devalue the term for their own political advantage to the point of meaninglessness. Ultimately, the real wolf shows up, and all of us – except perhaps Trestan and Burton – have read how the story ends.