October 25, 2001
Why I’m Leaving the Dialogue
I believe in dialogue. That is why I have participated in the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue of Los Angeles for close to two years. I entered the dialogue because I know that ignorance of each other's faiths, legal traditions, histories, cultural and psychological perceptions can lead to destructive stereotyping and mistrust. Through honest discussions, we Jews and our Muslim partners can understand each other better, which is the central purpose of the dialogue, namely fostering mutual respect while exploring and accepting our differences.
Since last spring, however, events have so shaken my trust that I have decided, with sadness and regret, to withdraw from the dialogue. In May, after eight months of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, many of the Jews in the dialogue were openly distressed when our Muslim partners unilaterally withdrew from the dialogue, blaming Middle East tensions. Our partners returned, but then, only days before our monthly dialogue was to resume last month, a disturbing issue of the Minaret appeared. Minaret is published by the Islamic Center of Southern California, edited by Dr. Aslam Abdullah, and advised by nationally respected Muslim leader Dr. Maher Hathout, senior advisor of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and Salam Al-Marayati, MPAC's executive director. All three are dialogue members.
That issue of Minaret included a special section: Zionism and Racism. The editor solicited articles from two Jews who penned vicious attacks on the State of Israel, the Zionist movement and Israelis in general. The authors, unknown to any Jewish members of the dialogue, represent an extreme fringe group in America, including Netura Karta, a group that has never accepted the legitimacy of the State of Israel, but the editor claimed that they represent a large segment of American Jewry.
Further, he did not mention Israel once, but referred 19 times to the "Zionist State" or "Zionists." This language has long been used by those who would deny the existence of the State of Israel and encourage its destruction; the editor certainly knew how offensive such language would be to his dialogue partners and Jews everywhere.
Warren Olney, of public radio talk show "To the Point" (KPCC 89.3 FM), invited Al-Marayati to speak about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Al-Marayati said, "If we're going to look at suspects, we should look to groups that benefit the most from these kinds of incidents.... I think we should put the State of Israel on the suspect list, because 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."
I was astounded by this reckless accusation, coming as it did from a man I know to be intelligent, sophisticated, and articulate. Al-Marayati's comments incited an intense outcry from the community, and so Olney called Al-Marayati the next day, giving him an opportunity to retract his comment. No apology or retraction was forthcoming. To our Jewish dialogue partners he wrote a letter explaining that he did not intend to hurt Jewish feelings. I could only take his stance as duplicitous: and I am not comforted.
The following week Al-Marayati, with Hathout, wrote about the Muslim community's response to the Sept. 11 attacks in the Los Angeles Times. They condemned the attacks but explained them as the result of an unbalanced American foreign policy in the Middle East (read: wrongful American support for Israel). Al-Marayati must now accept that Muslim extremists were responsible. After all, to continue to accuse Israel would no longer follow logically -- but still there has been no apology and no attempt at reconciliation.
I am disturbed that during the two years of the dialogue, our Muslim partners have never acknowledged any responsibility of Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians for the ongoing tensions and violence in the Middle East. I am disturbed that if I were to continue in the dialogue, I might strengthen the voice of our Muslim members to foreign policy makers in Washington.
I am disturbed that Hathout and Al-Marayati visit President Bush in the White House regularly. I am disturbed that we still have never heard from our Muslim partners that they accept the moral legitimacy of the Jewish people to a Jewish State, though we Jews have often repeated our belief in the moral legitimacy of the Palestinians to a state alongside Israel.
Thus, I can no longer participate in a dialogue that has, alas, proved to be no dialogue at all. But let me not be misunderstood. I would welcome true dialogue here in Los Angeles with moderate Muslim leaders who want good relations with moderate Jewish leaders.
However, I have learned three important lessons from the failure of this dialogue. First, minimal conditions need to be established in which dialogue partners recognize each other's legitimate standing and existence as a people. For Jews this means that Muslims must accept Israel as the legitimate expression of the Jewish people's national aspirations and that anything inconsistent with this, such as charges that Zionism is racism, does not meet the minimum threshold for dialogue.
Second, as clergy, I recognize the large role rabbis and imams have in our respective communities to advance the cause of moderation over extremism. Despite our best efforts to find Muslim clerics to include in our dialogue, only lay and political Muslim leaders were members. I wonder if there are any moderate Muslim clerics who would want to join in dialogue, and whether the Muslim community as a whole shares the extremist views of the current Muslim dialogue members.
And third, I believe that terrorism must be condemned as evil by all sides without apologies or justifications.