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Jewish Journal

Controversial Muslim leader Hathout gets award despite opposition

by Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

September 21, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Dr. Maher Hathout

Dr. Maher Hathout

At a meeting that featured catcalls, standing ovations and the ejection of a disruptive audience member, Los Angeles' County Human Relations Commission voted again Monday to give an award to Dr. Maher Hathout, a local Muslim leader whose harsh rhetoric on Israel generated accusations of anti-Semitism and extremism.

The four commissioners who voted in favor were outnumbered by five who abstained and four who were absent.

Hathout's victory marks the first time a Muslim-American has received the commission's award.

In what Commission President Adrian Dove called a "tough hearing," the public body ended weeks of uncertainty by reaffirming its vote to confer the John Allen Buggs Award for excellence in human relations on Hathout, despite opposition from much of the organized Jewish community. Detractors had portrayed the chairman of the Islamic Center and senior advisor to the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) as an apologist for terror and called his past criticism of Israel veiled anti-Semitism. Hathout and his supporters have countered that he supports a two-state solution, has long renounced terrorism on theological grounds and for years has worked closely with local Jewish groups to bridge the chasm between Muslims and Jews.

Five commissioners -- Donna Bojarsky, Vito Cannella, Rebecca Isaacs, Eleanor Montano and Mario Ceballos, abstained. Bojarsky, public policy consultant and founder of L.A. Works, a volunteer-service organization, is the child of a Holocaust survivor; she suggested that the honor had been tainted by the process and the controversy and that the commission should recognize Hathout's contributions by making him the keynote speaker at its Oct. 5 awards banquet.

She said she abstained because she believes to do so "was the best thing for human relations."

In a reflection of the highly charged emotions, Allyson Rowen Taylor, associate director of the American Jewish Congress Western Region, said she believes commissioners lacked the courage to vote against Hathout.

"They're afraid of the Muslim community burning cars, burning effigies and burning synagogues," Taylor said after the meeting.

Emerging from the meeting looking exhausted but relieved, Hathout called the outcome a triumph for freedom of speech and tolerance. Extending an olive branch to his critics, he said he would gladly sit down with detractors to find common ground.

"The test of people is not when they agree, but when they maintain humanity, civility and positiveness when they disagree," Hathout said at a press conference following the commission's vote, with a private security guard hovering nearby.

However, many believe the rancor surrounding the doctor's selection has dealt a knock-out blow to hopes of reviving the multi-agency interfaith cooperation needed to dispel the mutual recriminations and mistrust that now envelope relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities in Los Angeles. And the ferocity of the attacks against Hathout raises questions as to whether some Jews and Muslims have grown so suspicious of one another in the post-Oslo, post-Second Intifada, post-Sept. 11, post-Lebanese War world that they can no longer find common ground.

Hathout became a lightening rod for criticism soon after the commission tapped him in July for the human relations award, which he is slated to officially receive at a ceremony next month. Following the announcement in July, terrorism expert Steven Emerson wrote an article for New Republic Online depicting the 70-year-old Egyptian-born retired cardiologist, who immigrated to the United States in 1971, as an apologist for terror groups and a strident critic of the Jewish state.

Hathout has characterized Israel as "a racist, apartheid" state", and has said "the United States is also under Israeli occupation." Emerson, among others, said Hathout wants to delegitimize the Jewish state and called his remarks code for anti-Semitism.

Hathout responded that he has a long history of moderation; he claims to have been the first Muslim leader to publicly denounce the fatwa issued by the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini on the life of author Salman Rushdie.

In the early 1990s, he said, he denied permission to speak at the Islamic Center to Omar Abdul-Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric now serving a life sentence for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. And he helped organize a Jewish-Muslim Passover seder in 2002.

After the publication of Emerson's article, several major Jewish groups joined the criticism of Hathout, including the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Committee, StandWithUs, the American Jewish Congress, the Republican Jewish Coalition and, following an initial statement that it had no position, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

However, there were marked absences among Jewish voices, too: The Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, two international Jewish organizations that fight anti-Semitism and other prejudice, did not take a formal stand. Rabbi Marvin Hier, Wiesenthal's dean and founder, said in an interview that he believes Hathout does not deserve the award unless he publicly labeled Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad as terrorist organizations.

Taking a different tact, the Zionist Organization of America and StandWithUs tried to derail the award by filing a complaint claiming the commission violated open-meeting laws during the selection process. A source close to the commission, who declined to be identified, said county counsel did uncover several violations, including failure to inform the public properly of plans to consider Hathout's nomination at its July 17 meeting.

In response, to comply with the Brown Act, the commission first voted Monday to rescind its July decision. Then, under advisement from an attorney, it reconsidered Hathout's candidacy and again selected him.

In the weeks leading up to the final vote, Hathout's supporters and mostly Jewish detractors waged a multifront war in the media in attempts to sway public and political opinion. Both sides also blasted their members with e-mails admonishing them to attend the Sept. 18 meeting. The groups and their allies also lobbied supervisors and commissioners. In the end, Hathout did a better job of turning out partisans, with about two-thirds of the roughly 100-member audience supporting him.

"I'm proud to be a Muslim, an American, and I'm proud to see justice prevail," said MPAC board member Hedab Tarifi, following the meeting. She added that she hopes interfaith dialogue will make a comeback given the support Hathout received from some moderate Jews.

 
But the scars from the bruising battle over Hathout's worthiness appear to have deepened the wedge between the Muslim and Jewish communities. Many Muslims seem especially upset, because the campaign against Hathout came just weeks after a prominent Jew protested the selection of another MPAC member, Executive Director Salam Al-Marayati for a religious freedom award from the local American Civil Liberties Union.
 
"The fact that this slap in the face is coming from a community that has suffered so many years of abuse, alienation and discrimination is shocking and disappointing, mostly disappointing," said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Southern California Chapter. "I hope I'm wrong, but I think that Muslim-Jewish dialogue is not going to happen now. There's too much tension, too much disappointment."
 
Jewish critics respond that meaningful dialogue between the two groups hasn't happened on a large scale for years because of a paucity of suitable Muslim partners. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, for instance, MAl-Marayati went on a talk show and intimated that Israel could have been behind the attacks. (He later publicly apologized for the remarks).
 
"I wonder whether the most prominent local Muslim leaders, including Hathout, are genuinely moderate or are they closet radicals who have learned how to present a more moderate public face?" asked David Lehrer, president of Community Relations Inc., an L.A.-based human relations organization. Lehrer, who participated in the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue in the 1990s when he served as the ADL's regional director, recently coauthored an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times criticizing Hathout's selection.
 
Large-scale Muslim-Jewish talks might, at best, be moribund, but several of Hathout's Jewish supporters continue to maintain he is a man of peace and a worthy partner. They despair that other Jewish leaders equate him to extremists such as Hezbollah's leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. More than ever, they argue, Jews and Muslims need to collaborate on issues such as civil rights, separation of church and state, and combating rising anti-Semitism and Islam phobia.
 
Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein of Wilshire Boulevard Temple spoke out in favor of Hathout at a Sept. 8 press conference at the Islamic Center, saying the Muslim leader twice sanctioned Islamic Center members to travel with Jews and Christians to Israel, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere in the Middle East.
 
The journeys helped dispel Muslim preconceptions about Israel and Jewish misconceptions that much of the Muslim world is "Al Qaeda and Taliban," Stein said. The Muslims and Jews who traveled together, with Hathout's blessings, have forged close friendships.
 
"We have to be able to listen to each other, and talk to each other," Stein said.
 
Multiorganizational dialogue has become so difficult that the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and MPAC are now in the process of creating the framework that would allow up-and-coming Muslim and Jewish leaders to talk directly to each other. As envisioned by PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch, local Muslims and Jews, grouped by perhaps professions or age, would meet together with the help of a professional moderator to confront their respective prejudices and eventually join forces on such communal social justice projects as combating homelessness and poverty. The PJA-MPAC program is expected to launch in 2007.
 
That other Jewish and Muslim institutions aren't involved highlights the estrangement between the communities and the singular lack of vision on both sides, Sokatch said.
 
"Muslims have painted Israel as a singular wicked state. And American Jews have treated even legitimate criticism of Israel as reason not to talk," he said. "Neither side has exercised leadership or sensitivity to navigate these difficult waters during these dangerous times."
 
The intensity of the criticism against Hathout has raised questions about whether bigger issues are at play. Is it possible the campaigns against Al-Marayati and Hathout are emblematic of a growing Jewish fear of all Islam? Roz Rothstein thinks not. The executive director of Los Angeles-based StandWithUs said Hathout's religion had nothing to do with her group's opposition.
 
"This is simply about being divisive and careful with your words, which he isn't," Rothstein said.
 
Yet David N. Myers, professor of Jewish history and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, believes the Jewish community's outcry against Hathout might reflect a feeling of insecurity. Living in a post Sept. 11 "climate of fear," some American Jews and others have come to view the "Muslim world, writ large, as a counter civilization devoted to destruction-in contrast to Western Civilization, which, in their view, is the embodiment of pure enlightenment," he said.
 
Seeing the world through such a prism has blinded many Jews to the reality that an American-Muslim can both castigate Israel and be a moderate.
 
That's why subjecting Hathout and other Muslims to a litmus test based on their support of Israel makes no sense, said Shawn Landres, coeditor of "Religion, Violence, Memory and Place," a collection of essays to be published in October.
 
"There is so much for us to be talking about and so much work to be done together," he said. "To do so, we shouldn't be completely derailed by legitimate differences of opinions on how to resolve the Middle East crisis."
 
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