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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.

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