Dr. Maher Hathout, like no other local Muslim leader in recent memory, has divided the Jewish community, exposing fissures between Jews who fervently believe in reviving the frayed Jewish-Muslim dialogue and those who have lost faith.
The chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California and senior adviser to the national Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), Hathout became a lightening rod for criticism soon after the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission tapped him in July for the prestigious John Allen Buggs Award for excellence in human relations, which he is slated to receive next month.
Following the announcement, terrorism expert Steven Emerson penned an article published in New Republic Online depicting the Egyptian-born cardiologist, who immigrated to the United States in 1971 and is a U.S. citizen, as an apologist for terror groups and a strident critic of the Jewish state. In his piece, Emerson points to Hathout's past attacks on Israel, including publicly characterizing the country as "a racist, apartheid" state, as his accusation that "the United States is also under Israeli occupation."
These remarks, which Hathout says were made in the context of criticizing the Israeli government, Emerson argues are actually code words for anti-Semitism, and should disqualify Hathout from receiving an award established to promote positive race and human relations in multicultural Los Angeles County.
Hathout, in an interview with The Jewish Journal, said he has no intention of withdrawing. To do so, he said, would reward the forces of intolerance and intimidation.
At a Sept. 11 commission meeting convened to allow for public comment about the proposed award, Hathout said that "probably my words were harsh" at times, but that he stands by his statements. Hathout said he had no problem with the Israeli people but only with their government. He has helped to organize interfaith services and has traveled to Israel on joint missions in the past.
After the publication of Emerson's article, three major Jewish groups, the American Jewish Committee, the Zionist Organization of America and StandWithUs, criticized Hathout and questioned the commission's decision to honor him. On Sept. 11, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles joined the trio.
Hathout's "words regrettably create the very fissures and divides that the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission is seeking to repair," Los Angeles Federation President John Fishel said in a speech before the commission meeting. Rabbi John Borak, director of inter-religious affairs at the L.A. chapter of the American Jewish Committee said that the fact that someone with Hathout's opinions is considered a moderate Muslim shows why Muslim-Jewish dialogue has faltered in recent years.
"The Muslim community doesn't have honest brokers," Borak said in an interview before the meeting on Monday. "They say they're for peace, but their actions don't accord with that. [Hathout] is an example of that."
Yet some Jews who have worked closely over the years with Hathout dismiss the criticism as mean-spirited and counterproductive. His defenders include rabbis and political activists, among others, who characterize him as a moderate Muslim who opposes Muslim extremism and favors tolerance and inclusion. They argue that intemperate remarks about Israel should not be justification to marginalize him. "He's a man who's demonstrated in every way his commitment to what is humane," said Rabbi Leonard Beerman, the retired founding rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles. "He's a moderate in the Muslim world. If we can't embrace him, we're left twisting in the wind."
Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs, rabbi emeritus at Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, argued that Hathout's humanity and decency was especially evident at a 2002 Jewish-Muslim Passover seder he and Hathout helped organize.
Hathout called the seder one of the most moving religious experiences of his life, Jacobs said.
"If I felt [Hathout] was an extremist prone to violence and approved of things that are antithetical to Jews, I wouldn't be here," Jacobs said at a Sept. 8 press conference at the Islamic Center, which attracted more than 20 prominent local religious leaders who support Hathout.
Appearing three days later before the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, a confident and resolute Hathout said he has worked tirelessly to promote dialogue and diversity. Attempting to allay concerns over his past remarks, he told the commission and the emotionally charged audience of 100 that he supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestianian confict, as well as Israel's right to exist, and that he has long condemned suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism as antithetical to the Quran's teachings.
At the same time, Hathout remained steadfast in his criticisms of Israel. The retired cardiologist defended his right to criticize the president and Congress of the United States, as well as the state of Israel, and he said he would continue to do so long as he saw injustices. He said he believes that it is only his sharp comments about the Jewish state that have created the pressure on the human relations commission to rescind.
"There's a storm of hate raised to a hurricane directed to me, my name, and, I guess, to you," Hathout told the commissioners. "You can be sure if I had been talking about Canada or Brazil, we would not have such a hurricane."
The human relations commission, after listening to nearly 50 speakers in a two and half hour meeting, decided to postpone a decision on what, if anything, to do about Hathout's award until its next meeting on Sept. 18.
Some of Hathout's critics used their time before the commissioners to raise questions about the nomination process. Normally, a commission subcommittee accepts nominations for the award and the full commission accepts the nomination. The county supervisors themselves have no vote in the matter. According to sources, ordinarily commissioners themselves put forward names. In this instance, Hathout's name was put forward by MPAC Executive Director Salam Al-Marayati. Al-Marayati represented that Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Zev Yaroslavsky supported Hathout's nomination, though both men have said they never took a position.
Still, the commission may take no further action, as the award was already voted on. "We took public testimony because we heard such passion on both side of the issue," said Human Relations Commission member Donna Bojarsky. "We felt it was important to let the public speak. But there is no guarantee of a specific action."
Among some of the controversial statements Hathout has made over the years:
- At an October 2000 speech at Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., Hathout said, "Israel is not a democracy; Israel is a theocracy, and is an apartheid state...."
- At a May 2001 conference at Cal State Fullerton, he suggested that Zionists controlled the United States: "It is obvious, at least from our perspective, the United States is also under Israeli occupation. And so we have a Congress that beats the Knesset in being pro-Zionist."
- At the Nation Press Club in Washington in 1998, Hathout defended Hezbollah as "fighting only for freedom, an organized army, limiting its operations against military people. This is a legitimate target of occupation."
- When he spoke in defense of Hezbollah in the late 1990s, Hathout said, the organization was fighting against Israel's occupation of Lebanon. In the recent Israeli-Lebanese war, though, Hezbollah targeted civilians, which he condemned. He added that he also condemns Hezbollah's charter, which calls for Israel's destruction.
Hathout said he believes he was the first Imam 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, under his direction, a group of Muslims from the Islamic Center twice joined Christians and members of Wilshire Boulevard Temple on recent visits to Israel.
The outcry against Hathout comes on the heels of another controversy involving a member of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. In late July, Joel Bellman, a 30-year-member of the American Civil Liberties Union and 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 accused Al-Marayati of holding political views indistinguishable from most of the anti-Israel Muslim world.
Hathout, Al-Marayati and others wonder whether the real goal of their detractors is to besmirch MPAC, undermine the already frayed Jewish-Muslim dialogue and marginalize Muslim critics of Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
"I don't expect my Jewish friends coming to the table to convert to Islam," Al-Marayati said in an interview, "and they should not expect me to convert to Zionism."
Progressive Jewish Alliance Executive Director Daniel Sokatch said that MPAC and its leaders should be embraced for the values they share with Jews and not rejected because of their positions on Israel.
"What kind of message are we sending to millions of American Muslims if American Jews are trying to blackball a Muslim organization that, in the context of the Muslim community, is moderate?" asked Sokatch, whose group is currently trying to revive Jewish-Muslim dialogue with MPAC.
Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi went even farther. The chairman of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California -- the coordinating body for 70 local mosques, said in early September that "an attack on Dr. Hathout is an attack on the whole Muslim community."
Jewish critics of Hathout respond that they have no desire to squelch his free speech, discredit him or the Muslim community. Instead, they say, Hathout's past incendiary statements about Israel, America and Hezbollah make him a poor choice for a human relations award.
"One has to question whether he deserves an award of this kind," said David Lehrer, president of L.A.-based Community Advocates Inc., a human relations organization, and former regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
"You can't ignore the fact that a wide spectrum of human relations activists in Los Angeles took time to offer the highest praise to Dr. Hathout," commission member Bojarsky said. "On the other hand, it's clear he's overlooked sensitivities of the Jewish community, which is of course problematic."