December 9, 1999
Jews, Muslims Agree ...and then the disagreements begin
Some two dozen prominent Jews and Muslims met before banks of television cameras at City Hall on Monday (Dec. 6) to approve a code of ethics, whose signatories pledged to denounce all terrorism and hate crimes, promote civil dialogue, and avoid mutual stereotyping and incitement.
The agreement was hailed by spokesmen for both communities as a harbinger of a new era of understanding in ethnic and interfaith relations.
Some 80 Southern Californians have endorsed the code, with Jewish supporters identified mainly with the Reform rabbinate and liberal community activism. Other mainstream Jewish organizations have so far remained on the sidelines, while the American Jewish Committee has sharply criticized the credibility of the Muslim leadership in the dialogue.
Speaking for the Jewish contingent at the signing ceremony were Rabbi Alice Dubinsky, acting director of the Pacific Southwest Region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the congregational body of Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Allen I. Freehling of the University Synagogue in West Los Angeles.
Dubinsky said that the code was conceived in "a spirit of holy work" and "despite passionate differences between Muslims and Jews, represents a first step toward building a better Los Angeles and ultimately a better world."
Representing the Muslim community were Dr. Maher Hathout, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California, and Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.
There was a faint scent of déjà vu about the proceedings, since exactly a year ago an almost identical code of ethics was on the verge of adoption by most of the same principals.
It is not entirely clear why the code was not signed at the time, but some of the reservations expressed then by Jewish critics are in play now.
Those reservations center on Al-Marayati and Hathout, the principal Muslim spokesmen, and reached fever pitch in June, when Al-Marayati was appointed to a U.S. counterterrorism commission by House Minority leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo).
Many Jewish groups attacked the appointment, and Gephardt eventually withdrew the nomination, triggering great resentment among American Muslims, who blamed Jewish influence for the reversal.
Despite this new Jewish-Muslim friction, Hathout, in August, proposed a new effort to forge a code of ethics. With Freehling as the facilitator, small groups from both communities started meeting every two weeks.
Their work culminated in Monday's signing ceremony, which was hosted by the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission.
One of the early signers was Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, acting director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who suggested inviting Al-Marayati and Hathout to address the board, which encompasses all denominations of Judaism.
Before doing so, however, he consulted Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, an influential member of the rabbinical association as regional director of the American Jewish Committee, as well as former president of the Los Angeles City Police Commission.
When Greenebaum strongly objected, Goldmark dropped the plan.
Greenebaum said that his objections stemmed from past dealings with the two Muslim leaders, "They keep rationalizing terrorism and I have a problem with that, as should all Jews," he said. "There is an emerging leadership in the Muslim community, followers of Sheik Kabani, and we have established a dialogue with them," he added.
Some supporters of the Los Angeles dialogue have suggested that while local directors of national Jewish organizations were willing to support their cause, the locals were pressured by their national headquarters in New York to reverse their stand.
Greenebaum and national AJC Director David Harris denied the charge, "We are one entity and of one mind," said Harris.
In the case of the Anti-Defamation League, its regional director, David Lehrer, was active in the effort a year ago to draft an ethics code, but this time ADL is on the sidelines.
"I am not convinced that they are willing to be real partners," said national ADL Director Abraham Foxman, "and we shouldn't give them a status they haven't earned."
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, too, remains more observer than participant. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center's associate dean, said that "The relationship between Jews and Muslims in Los Angeles seems fairly healthy and I see no need for a new code."
Howard Welinsky, chair of the Jewish Federation's Jewish Community Relations Committee, said he had signed the code as an individual and that his board would consider later this month whether to give its endorsement.