ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — For more than 20 years the Council on American-Islamic Relations has held its annual banquet at the Marriott Crystal Gateway hotel in Crystal City, Virginia, just outside the nation’s capital, according to CAIR’s executive director, Nihad Awad.
Sporadic protests and angry phone calls targeting the Muslim civil rights group were not unusual.
This week, though, as CAIR shifted the focus of its banquet to emphasize support for Palestinians amid the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, the hotel canceled Saturday’s banquet at the last minute. Awad said was due to thousands of calls — some threatening violence — demanding that the hotel withdraw from the event.
The banquet is going forward, Awad said, but at a location that has not been publicly announced.
“The key message is that we’re not going to be stopped, silenced or intimidated,” Awad said in a phone interview.
CAIR is not the only Pro-Palestinian organization forced out of a hotel venue. In Texas, the Hilton Houston Post Oak by the Galleria canceled a conference scheduled for Oct. 27-29 by the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, citing unspecified safety concerns.
In both cases, the hotels were the subject of organized campaigns bombarding the hotels and their corporate offices with calls demanding the hotels withdraw from hosting the events.
On Friday, the Zionist Organization of America thanked its activists for what it deemed a successful effort to compel Marriott and Hilton to withdraw from the events.
“Your responses to ZOA’s Action Alert about the CAIR banquet were tremendous. You called various Marriott phone numbers despite difficulties in getting through the switchboards,” the organization said in a press release praising Marriott and Hilton for their decisions.
The Jewish group’s campaign said that hosting CAIR was equivalent to sponsoring terrorists and morally indefensible.
The hotel, though, cited security concerns in its decision to cancel.
“The safety and security of our guests and associates is always our top priority,” a hotel spokesperson said in a statement. “After careful consideration, we have determined that we are unable to move forward with an event planned for this weekend due to significant risks to the safety of event attendees, guests and associates. We have long hosted groups of various faiths and backgrounds at our hotel.”
Awad said he understands the hotel’s safety concerns — some callers threatened to plant bombs in the hotel garage or lob Molotov cocktails at the hotel, he said — but lamented that the hotel acquiesced. The group additional security and had talked to federal and state public safety agencies to ensure the event could go forward safely.
Liz Berney, the Zionist Organization of America’s director of research and special projects, said in a phone interview that she’s not aware of any of her organization’s activists threatening violence.
“If I found out any of our activists were threatening violence, I would have been the first one to report it,” she said.
Arlington County Police said they responded to the hotel Thursday after the hotel reported it received anonymous calls threatening violence. Police said they are investigating; a patrol car was parked outside the hotel Friday.
In Texas, The USCPR said in a statement that the hotel was “capitulating to external pressure from hate groups,” and executive director Ahmad Abuznaid called the cancellation “clearly an act of ethnic, racial and religious discrimination.”
The Hilton said in a statement Friday that it does not endorse the positions of other groups and organizations and is concerned about the safety of its staff and guests.
“Given escalating security concerns in the current environment, the hotel has determined that it cannot serve as the venue for this event because of the potential risks,” the Hilton statement said.
Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on X praised the hotel’s decision and said the event would be hosted by “Hamas supporters.”
“Texas has no room for hate and antisemitism like that supported by Hamas. No location in Texas should host or sponsor USCPR,” Abbott wrote.
USCPR, on its website, states it works to end “U.S. complicity” in Israeli violence against Palestinians and seeks freedom, justice and equality for Palestinians.
Abuznaid called Abbott’s statement “alarming” and said it puts the organization’s staff and supporters at risk.
“The governor’s rhetoric, and actions by the hotel echo and inflame the sharp increase in hate incidents that are targeting Arabs,” Abuznaid said on X.
Hamas militants from the blockaded Gaza Strip stormed into nearby Israeli towns on Oct. 7, which coincided with a major Jewish holiday. The attack killed hundreds of civilians. Since then, Israel has launched airstrikes on Gaza, destroying entire neighborhoods and killing hundreds of Palestinian civilians.
There have been concerns the war will inspire more violence in the U.S. Last week, police in major cities increased patrols, authorities put up fencing around the U.S. Capitol and some schools closed. But law enforcement officials stressed there were no credible threats in the U.S.
Awad said he sees the hotel cancellations as evidence of “cancel culture against Palestinians and Muslims.” But he expects CAIR’s banquet at the undisclosed location to have even higher attendance as supporters rally to stand with Palestinian people.
“People are fired up,” he said.
Associated Press reporter Ken Miller in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.