January 18, 2007
Despite past sparks, Al-Marayati wants Jewish dialogue
(Page 2 - Previous Page)As evidence of Al-Marayati's commitment to dialogue, MPAC and the PJA have just announced the creation of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. Al-Marayati said he hopes the program will help thaw the freeze in local Muslim-Jewish relations by training a new generation of Jewish and Muslim leaders to work together, in spite of their differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, many Jewish leaders, including executives of the American Jewish Congress and StandWithUs, have criticized the new PJA-MPAC initiative, saying that partnering with Al-Marayati is a mistake. Terrorism expert Steven Emerson, arguing that Al-Marayati has never condemned Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist groups, called the MPAC leader a radical who "speaks a smooth game."
In response, Al-Marayati said he condemns all terrorism, regardless of the perpetrator. He said he believes the U.S. government, not he, should label terrorist groups, although he added: "Hamas and Hezbollah are on the U.S. government's list of terrorism groups, and we condemn them."
For nearly a decade, Jewish organizations, especially those on the right, have labeled Al-Marayati an extremist masquerading as a moderate. In 1999, for instance, then-House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt withdrew his appointment of Al-Marayati to the National Commission on Terrorism after an outcry from Jewish groups, especially the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). "Haters like Louis Farrakhan, David Duke and Salam Al-Marayati should have no seat in respectable society when it comes to discussing any issues of importance," ZOA President Morton Klein said in a recent interview. "We should seek to marginalize and dismiss them, not legitimize them."
Al-Marayati's Sept. 11, statements not only stained his reputation but appear to have put his life in jeopardy: The FBI intervened on a plot by the Jewish Defense League to bomb MPAC's Los Angeles offices soon after his controversial statements.
Last year, Al-Marayati again came under fire from a prominent Jewish figure. In late July, Joel Bellman, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's press deputy, publicly lambasted the ACLU of Southern California for honoring Al-Marayati with a prestigious religious freedom award. Bellman had been a member of the ACLU for 30 years, and he accused Al-Marayati of holding political views indistinguishable from the anti-Israel Muslim world.
Al-Marayati got his award, but the stage was set for a second battle of the same nature between Jewish and Muslim groups, this one even more bruising, when the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission decided to bestow an award on MPAC founder Hathout, who is Al-Marayati's mentor. Although PJA's Sokatch, as well as some local liberal rabbis, supported Hathout's award, many of the biggest figures in the organized Jewish community spoke out against it at a public hearing. They included John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; Allyson Rowen Taylor, then-associate director of the American Jewish Congress, and Rabbi John Borak, director of inter-religious affairs at the L.A. chapter of the American Jewish Committee.
To Al-Marayati and his many Muslim supporters, the attacks against Hathout were also squarely aimed at MPAC, Al-Marayati and the entire Muslim community. "These groups are trying to push us beyond the margins of society," Al-Marayati said. "They want a monopoly on discourse and don't want our voices heard, especially as it relates to the whole Middle East."
In the end, Hathout, like Al-Marayati, received his award. The experience, Al-Marayati said, "was more draining than painful. Unfortunately, we've just gotten used to it." In the aftermath, Jewish-Muslim relations had sunk to a new low point.
The irony, Al-Marayati's supporters say, is that MPAC's leader supports building bridges to Jewish groups and holds moderate views on the Middle East, by comparison to much of the Muslim world.
Far from a fire-breathing, closet anti-Semite, Al-Marayati is "a voice of moderation in the Muslim world," said David N. Myers, professor of Jewish history and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies and a PJA board member.
Those closest to Al-Marayati say he is a compassionate man committed to equality and justice for all, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian, said MPAC communications director Edina Lekovic.
"His integrity has never been questioned by those who have worked with him on a day-to-day basis," she said.
Yet even some who have worked with Al-Marayati on interfaith issues question his integrity.
David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based think tank, described Al-Marayati as having a "calculating" personality. On at least three occasions in the mid-1990s, Lehrer said, Al-Marayati invited him and other Jewish leaders to the Islamic Center for dialogue. On each occasion, Lehrer, then director of the Anti-Defamation League, Pacific Southwest region, said he and his Jewish colleagues were surprised to find TV cameras or print reporters on hand to record the gatherings.
"His actions called into question how bona fide his interest was in real dialogue, as opposed to posturing to the press for his own gain," Lehrer said. Al-Marayati said he was working on behalf of the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue group and wanted nothing more than to raise awareness about the strong collaboration and cooperation. Hearing Lehrer's remarks disappointed him, he said.
UCLA Professor David N. Myers has a different explanation for the hostility toward Al-Marayati. Living in a post-Sept. 11 climate of fear, he said, "One tends to think of one's counterpart in the most dire, unflattering and even sinister of terms."
Myers said he considers Al-Marayati "as good a partner for dialogue as anybody out there" and sees him as a victim of the times in which we live. Rabbi Steven Jacobs, founder of the new Rabbi Jacobs Progressive Faith Foundation and rabbi emeritus at Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, said he thinks Al-Marayati has become a "punching bag" for the frustration many Jews feel about events in the Middle East." Jacobs said that in recent years, Al-Marayati, whom he called an "honest broker," has moderated his views on Israel and seems chastened by the fallout from his Sept. 11, remarks.
Al-Marayati seems exasperated by the slings and arrows that Jewish groups have flung his way over the years. When the subject of Jewish criticism comes up during an interview, he suddenly appears uneasy, his body language closed, with his legs and arms crossed. He chooses his words with the care and circumspection of the engineer he once was. Despite his frustrations, Al-Marayati says the attacks have energized him to do more.