Jewish Journal

Stopped Talks

Intifada II has put a halt to local efforts of Arab-Jewish dialogue.

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Jun. 28, 2001 at 8:00 pm

Jewish and Arab Angelenos have not been able to escape the impact of events in the Middle East. Above, Israeli police investigators examine the wreckage of a car that exploded in Jerusalem on March 27, 2001.   Photo from JTA

Jewish and Arab Angelenos have not been able to escape the impact of events in the Middle East. Above, Israeli police investigators examine the wreckage of a car that exploded in Jerusalem on March 27, 2001. Photo from JTA

The headlines in the Los Angeles Times track the fever chart of relations between the city's large Jewish and Muslim communities:

"Arabs, Jews [in L.A.] Hoping Peace Will Blossom" (Jan. 22, 1988).

"Terrorism in Israel Strains Muslim-Jewish Ties in L.A." (March 25, 1996).

"Jews, Muslims Agree About Disagreeing" (Nov. 30, 1988).

"Muslims, Jews Set to Unveil Code for Debate" (December, 6 1999).

And currently:

"Muslim-Jewish Group Breaks Off Dialogue" (June 6, 2001).

"Jewish-Muslim Group to Resume Dialogue" (June 19, 2001).

These days, the dialogue is on hold -- though once again organizers are trying to revive what's left of years of intermittent effort.

Attempts at creating a viable relationship between representatives of some 600,000 Jews and 500,000 Muslims in Southern California go back almost as far as the 1948-49 war between Israelis and Arabs, and, as the headlines show, have reflected the fortunes of peace and war in the Middle East.

The parallel is not as self-evident as it seems. Time and time again, Jewish and Muslim/Arab leaders here have vowed to concentrate on such local issues as ethnic discrimination and interreligious ties, and to ignore the intractable and divisive conflicts of the Middle East.

Even now, as local leaders seek to repair the break in the dialogue, the talk is again about emphasizing educational and youth programs and fighting hate crimes.

The domestic-issues approach has its defenders and successes, if only in preventing a complete breakdown in communications between the two communities, or even outright confrontations.

But looking at the record over decades, Jewish and Muslim Angelenos have not been able to escape the impact of events in the Middle East.

"Originally, we tried to concentrate on concerns close to home, but we soon realized that we couldn't ignore the elephant in the living room," says Rabbi Allen Freehling of University Synagogue, spokesman for a group of progressive colleagues who have been a mainstay of the various dialogues.

Rabbi James Rudin, for decades the American Jewish Committee's (AJC) national point man for interreligious affairs, observed in a 1996 interview: "The state of encounter [in the United States] is almost in direct proportion to the situation in the Middle East.

"If there is real movement on both sides [in the Middle East], the fever drops and there is movement here. When you have a terrorist bombing or a Jew shooting Muslims at prayer ... there is a cessation of contact, or strained and awkward contact."

Even Rabbi Alfred Wolf, considered the progenitor of Jewish-Muslim relations in Los Angeles, acknowledges the problem.

"In the early 1970s," he recalled in a later interview, "we had a very good dialogue going, which was terminated by the 1973 Yom Kippur War."

Wolf was the first in a continuing line of Wilshire Boulevard Temple rabbis to initiate contacts with Muslim religious leaders. Largely at his initiative, Muslims were invited in the late 1940s to join Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergy in the Inter-Religious Council of Southern California.

The following years and decades were marked by a succession of often bewildering groupings, working for Jewish-Muslim understanding.

In the 1960s and '70s, they included such established organizations as the AJC, American Jewish Congress, National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the American Friends Service Committee.

The 1980s were a particularly fruitful decade, with the establishment of such groups as the Foundation for Middle East Communication, catalyzed by Beverly Hills attorney Michael Lame and the late TV producer Zev Putterman.

A successor group was the Middle East Cousins Club of America, which, in one well-publicized event, planted two olive trees adjacent to City Hall.

"Side by side we plant these trees, and side by side our peoples will flourish," intoned the master of ceremonies, radio and television host Casey Kasem, for years an active Arab member of various dialogues.

By 1987, a Los Angeles Times report estimated that some 60 dialogue groups were operating throughout the United States.

Another period of cooperation occurred, somewhat ironically, during the 1990-91 Gulf War, when The Jewish Federation, Anti-Defamation League and AJC publicly protested government harassment of Arab Americans.

The famous 1993 handshake between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn triggered another spurt in Muslim-Jewish joint talks and ventures.

One was Builders for Peace, a high-level effort to mobilize Jewish and Arab capital and know-how in the United States to build up the economy of the West Bank and Gaza, but which foundered after a couple of years.

The most recent incarnation has been the Jewish-Muslim Dialogue, which in December 1999, forged a well-publicized code of ethics. It bound some 80 signatories to denounce all terrorism and hate crimes, promote civil dialogue, and avoid mutual stereotyping and incitement.

In the last 50 years, an impressive array of men and women have devoted themselves to bettering Muslim-Jewish relations. Some have stayed the course, while others became burned out or moved on to other causes.

On the Muslim/Arab side, the senior representative and one of the two key players has been Dr. Maher Hathout, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California. The Egyptian-born physician has devoted himself to relations with the Jewish community, from almost the moment he arrived in Los Angeles in 1971. His partner is Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Born in Iraq, Al-Marayati is media-savvy, the focus of frequent controversies and the most visible Arab figure in Los Angeles.

Don Bustany was a leading Arab spokesman in the 1980s and early '90s. He helped form the Arab-Jewish Speakers Bureau, whose mixed teams spoke frequently at synagogues and, to a lesser extent, at churches and mosques.

On the Jewish side, following in Wolf's footsteps, has been a group of predominantly liberal and Reform rabbis, including Freehling, Leonard Beerman of Leo Baeck Temple, Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom, John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, Chaim Seidler-Feller of the UCLA Hillel Council, Harvey J. Fields and Steven Z. Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and Steven B. Jacobs of Kol Tikvah.

An early lay voice was that of Susan Weissman, an attorney and mediator, who in the early 1980s formed her own dialogue group, consisting initially of 15 Jews and two or three Arabs.

Gradually, more Arabs joined, while Jews dropped out, because "they had come thinking they would set the Arabs straight, but they didn't get that," Weissman observes.

Like some other activists, she discontinued her intensive involvement after the 1993 Rabin-Arafat handshake, mainly in the optimistic belief that her mission had been accomplished.

A recent effort off the beaten track is the Open Tent Middle East Coalition, which sponsors joint Arab-Jewish cultural events and discussions. It was founded by Jordan Elgrably, a Sephardi community activist who faults the Jewish community for lack of self-criticism and failure to acknowledge Arab grievances.

Elgrably, sounding a not-uncommon note of frustration, likens the job of dialogue facilitator to that of King Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who was condemned to forever roll a heavy stone uphill, only to see it tumble down again as soon as it reached the peak.

One of the main current activists is Arthur Stern, a Holocaust survivor who after a brilliant engineering and business career in the United States, has turned his considerable talent and energy to Jewish community causes.

The role of The Jewish Federation, the official voice of organized L.A. Jewry, has been generally cautious and somewhat ambivalent.

Its rabbinical arm, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, has maintained a hands-off policy vis-a-vis Jewish-Arab dialogues.

"We have members on the far left and far right," notes Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, the board's former president and acting director. "We could not function if we had to deal with controversial issues that could cause us to implode."

The Federation's main arm in working with other ethnic and religious groups is its Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC). During his 1985-1995 tenure as JCRC director, there were "sporadic moments of engagement," recalls Dr. Steven Windmueller.

A few years later, the JCRC formally joined the ongoing Jewish-Muslim Dialogue in December 1999, after the latter had promulgated its code of ethics.

Elaine Albert, now the JCRC's associate director, attended monthly meetings of the group until March of this year, when JCRC withdrew.

The reasons given for the withdrawal by Albert and JCRC Executive Director Michael Hirschfeld were an internal restructuring of the JCRC, escalating terrorism in the Middle East, and the imbalance of Jewish to Muslim representation at meetings and retreats.

The latter point is frequently mentioned by critics of the dialogue, where Jewish participants not uncommonly outnumber Muslims and Arabs by a ratio of 6 to 1 or 10 to 1.

One prominent mainstream Jewish community leader, who asked not to be identified, said: "We are constantly meeting with the same two or three Arab professionals, always Hathout and Al-Marayati, who say one thing to us and another when they talk to their own groups.

"Where are the Arab lay or religious leaders? Are these two men really leaders in their community? When The Jewish Federation speaks, it represents 50,000 Jews. But who do they represent?"

The most outspoken mainstream critic of the dialogue is Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, Western regional director of the AJC.

Greenebaum says he worked with the Islam Center and the Muslim Public Affairs Council between 1990 and 1995, but then concluded that neither organization "has been operating in an open, honest way since the Oslo accords. At some point, their MO changed from interest in interreligious work to political activism."

Greenebaum believes that in the last few years, the local Muslim community has become more fundamentalist, with accompanying intimidation of middle-of-the-road groups.

Al-Marayati responds to one point of the criticism by saying that the Jewish leaders themselves have failed to reach out to other organizations within the Muslim community.

He adds, "We are much less organized and structured than the Jewish community, to begin with. The few leaders who are willing and able to devote the time and effort to dialogues -- including Aslam Abdullah, editor of the Minaret, and Muzzammil Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Society of North America and its Orange County chapter -- are overwhelmed by demands on their time."

Other members of the Arab community, as well as Jewish dialogue participants, warmly defend the two men.

"Dr. Hathout and Salam are best equipped to speak for the Arab and Muslim communities," says Kasem. "They are both very honest and able."

Another point of contention, this one mainly intra-Arab, is whether a dialogue with the Jews should be led by a Muslim or specifically Arab organization.

The point is important because, for one, the local Arab population is about evenly split between Christians and Muslims. For another, Arabs represent only a minority within the Muslim community, being outnumbered by immigrants from Southeast Asia and by African American converts.

"The conflict in the Middle East is at the center of our dialogue; without it there would be no friction and need to dialogue with the Jewish community," says Bustany.

"But the conflict is not a religious one, it's a matter of real estate," he adds. "What do Muslims from Indonesia and the Philippines care about Palestine?"

Al-Marayati rebuts Bustany's point by arguing that the status and future of Jerusalem "is a central concern of all Muslims everywhere."

The Muslim-Jewish Dialogue is now on hold, at least temporarily, after the Arab side called for a time-out in early June. "After the F-16 raids, we needed a cooling-off period to deal with our own community," says Hathout. "It had nothing to do with the Jewish community." At a subsequent meeting between the two Arab leaders with a group of rabbis and the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), it was noted that most of the principal players would be away for part of the summer and that regular meetings should resume in the fall.

On the JCRC side, Chairman Ozzie Goren convened a meeting of five former chairs of the organization, who were asked to submit suggestions at a future date on the format and content of a resumed dialogue.

With all the ups and downs of dialogues past and present, there remains a vital core of supporters on both sides who believe in the intrinsic value of their efforts and hope devoutly that they might eventually serve as role model for the combatants in the Middle East.

Douglas Mirell, president of the PJA, says: "In the dialogues with Muslims, as in similar dialogues with African Americans and Latinos, what is critically important is not so much what is said, but that they take place at all. There is great value in the dialogue qua dialogue."

Arthur Stern, who steps nimbly between his roles as JCRC vice chairman, PJA vice president and private citizen, observes:

"Some people may label me as naive, but I believe we should never stop talking. As long as we talk, there is a chance of understanding. When we stop talking, we fall back on rumors and stereotypes."

Tracker Pixel for Entry


View our privacy policy and terms of service.