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Breaking new ground: Jewish, Muslim groups’ program encourages leaders to see the ‘other’ as friend

by Marc Ballon

January 18, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Daniel Sokatch, left, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Pacific Affairs Council (MPAC). Photo by Kevin Scanlon

Daniel Sokatch, left, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Pacific Affairs Council (MPAC). Photo by Kevin Scanlon

Is it possible for Los Angeles Jews and Muslims to talk to one another, to share peacefully at the table?

This is the question that some leaders of both groups locally are asking themselves.

These are the ones who are willing to keep trying, despite the enmity in the Middle East and despite a history of conflict among some leaders in the Jewish and Muslim communities here. Early next month, a new effort jointly organized by the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) will be unveiled.

It will not be the first attempt.

Little more than a decade ago, in the warm afterglow of the Oslo accords, a group of Jewish and Muslim leaders in Los Angeles regularly met and talked together in formal and informal groups. Known as the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue, this group of leaders from several organizations hoped to forge a new understanding between the two communities and model the kind of peace moderates on both sides were hoping for in the Middle East.

But despite early optimism, world events got in the way, and the conversation was repeatedly interrupted by news of terror attacks, Israeli settlements and mistrust borne from the faltering Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

In the aftermath of that day, with the Western world's frightened eyes turned on the Muslim community, Los Angeles, too, saw relations between Jewish and Muslim leaders descend into a cross-fire of accusations and distrust. As a result, the official dialogue petered out, becoming largely moribund by 2002.

Local Jewish-Muslim relations, seen for a brief moment as a paragon of interfaith cooperation, continued to deteriorate to such an extent that a few months ago,much of the organized Jewish community united to protest the honoring of MPAC founder, Dr. Maher Hathout, with a prestigious award from the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission.

Symbolically, Hathout's supporters -- not all of them Muslims -- sat one on side of the room during hearings over his suitability for the honor, while his mostly Jewish detractors sat on the other side. Hathout got to keep the award.

Daniel Sokatch, who began participating in the dialogue in 2000 after joining the PJA, a social activist group, thought there had to be a better way. As PJA executive director, he was frustrated to see local Jewish-Muslim relationships constantly held hostage by events taking place thousands of miles away.

Sokatch focused on how much Jews and Muslims here have in common, including traditions that emphasize the need to build a better world.

Recently, Sokatch has been working with Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of MPAC, the Los Angeles-based policy advocacy organization, and in early February, PJA and MPAC will unveil NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.

The program aims to encourage a new cadre of Jewish and Muslim leaders to see the "other" as a friend, said Aziza Hasan, MPAC interfaith program coordinator.

The plan for NewGround is to bring together as many as 30 Jews and Muslims who are in their 20s and 30s for a period of 10 months. Initially, participants will meet with only their own colleagues to confront their prejudices.

When the two groups join together, they will discuss issues ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to immigration to homelessness.

Working with trained mediators, they will also learn how to communicate honestly. Finally, participants will join forces on a yet-to-be-determined civic improvement project, such as homelessness or poverty, said Malka Fenyvesi, PJA interfaith program coordinator.

"I'm delighted, impressed and grateful that such visionary leaders are doing this," said the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector at All Saints Church in Pasadena and a self-described friend of both Sokatch and Al-Marayati. "I think this offers great promise for Jews and Muslims to come together."

Rabbi Steven Jacobs, founder of the new Rabbi Jacobs Progressive Faith Foundation and rabbi emeritus at Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, called the PJA-MPAC initiative "groundbreaking."

He added: "There's too much demonization going on, and this program will help break down the fear that exists in both communities."

Not everyone shares that enthusiasm. Some Jewish leaders question the wisdom of working with MPAC, which they see as unremittingly hostile to Israel and "disingenuous, pretending to be something they're not," in the words of Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy group.

The roots of the distrust hark back to just hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Al-Marayati went on a radio talk show and suggested that Israel might be behind the attacks, because, he said, "I think this diverts attention from what's happening in the Palestinian territories, so that they can go on with their aggression and occupation and apartheid policies."

Although Al-Marayati has said he later apologized to some Jewish leaders for his remarks, many in the Jewish community continue to distrust both Al-Marayati and MPAC and will have nothing to do with them.

Terrorism expert Steven Emerson, author of "American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us" and a former senior editor at U.S. News & World Report, said he believes MPAC is a "front group, a public relations group for radical Islam."

PJA, Emerson believes, is being used by MPAC to confer legitimacy on an organization that, he said, hopes to spread Islam and undermine American support for Israel.

Al-Marayati, for his part, said many Muslims regard Emerson as a cynical "profiteer," who fans fears about Islam for personal gain. Emerson's characterization of MPAC as radical, Al-Marayati said, ignores the group's goal of integrating Muslims into mainstream American society, its condemnation of terrorism and support of the two-state solution.

Still, many Jews pay close attention to Emerson's pronouncements. Following the announcement in July of the county's award to MPAC founder Hathout, Emerson wrote a harshly critical article for New Republic Online, depicting Hathout, former chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California, as an apologist for terror groups and strident critic of Israel, who once publicly characterized the Jewish state as "a racist, apartheid state."

In response, Jewish groups, ranging from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to the Zionist Organization of America to the American Jewish Committee to StandWithUs, joined forces against Hathout. In that debate, PJA was the sole mainstream Jewish organization to support him, despite the fact that Hathout was the first Muslim leader to publicly denounce the fatwa on the life of author Salman Rushdie and has long denounced terrorism on theological grounds. Hathout was given the award, but Jewish and Muslim groups remain as divided as ever, and MPAC, as one of the Muslim community's primary public forums, continues to draw ire.

"I think MPAC has been fairly outspoken on issues of foreign policy and the Middle East [in ways] that are not acceptable to many mainstream members of the Jewish community," L.A. Federation President John Fishel said.

Gary Ratner, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Western Region, goes farther: "I'm happy to dialogue with moderate Muslims, but these people are not. They're radical haters of Israel."

Sokatch said that biting anti-Israel remarks made by Al-Marayati and other MPAC leaders have angered him, too. But he is committed to a continuing dialogue, because it is, he said, the best way "to establish relationships and understanding between people who disagree." Attempts by some of MPAC's fiercest critics to paint it as a radical Islamist organization, Sokatch said, are misguided.

In 2002, amid the rubble of the collapsed Jewish-Muslim Dialogue, Sokatch and a small group of PJA leaders began meeting informally with their counterparts from MPAC. Frustrated by the failure of the multiagency talks, both sides wanted to see whether they could find common ground. It took but a single meeting between four PJA and four MPAC members to realize they could.

Over Mexican food, the ad hoc PJA-MPAC group agreed within an hour to a mutually acceptable statement on the Middle East, which included a two-state solution and a renunciation of violence by both sides.

The eight-person group met every other month for more than two years, discussing the issues of the day, and, more importantly, forging friendships and building trust. The success of those informal gatherings serve as the basis for NewGround.

MPAC's Al-Marayati said that he is proud to be a part of a new Jewish-Muslim dialogue.

"We need to develop our language with each other so Muslims and Jews can move toward mutual understanding, mutual trust and mutual respect," he said. "Otherwise, our children are going to base their relationships with each other on mutual fear and mutual prejudice." Tracker Pixel for Entry

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