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The Maher Hathout brouhaha—what’s the end game?

by Rob Eshman

September 28, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Even a resolutely mediocre chess player like me knows it's not enough to have some good opening moves.
 
To win, you need an end game.
 
That's why this month's protest by some Jewish groups against the selection of a Muslim spokesman for a county human relations prize baffled me -- what possible end game could they have in mind?
 
The controversy began in July when the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission selected Dr. Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California and senior adviser to the national Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), to receive the John Allen Buggs Award for excellence in human relations. The presentation ceremony is Oct. 5.
 
As soon as the award was made public, New Republic Online published an article by terrorism expert Steven Emerson documenting Hathout's public condemnation of Israel as "a racist, apartheid state." Emerson asserted that Hathout, an Egyptian-born cardiologist, is a dangerous extremist.
 
Soon, video documentation of Hathout's remarks sprouted up on YouTube.com. The American Jewish Congress (AJCongress), StandWithUs, American Jewish Committee and, later, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, opposed Hathout's selection in the press and in public hearings.
 
Throughout the brouhaha, I kept wondering: to what end?
 
The commission had already selected Hathout: That much was a done deal. To rescind the award would be asking for protest and outrage over a relatively insignificant matter. (Press reports kept referring to it as the "prestigious John Allen Buggs Award," although I couldn't find a soul who had either heard of it or who could name a past recipient.)
 
As the critics raised their volume, Hathout made clear he wasn't going to step down. The outcry, in fact, inadvertently elevated him from a leader whose time was passing to the man of the moment.
 
Meanwhile, major Jewish defense groups -- the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center -- stayed out of the fray. You have to pick your battles, a staffer at one of them commented to me. And where exactly was this battle heading?
 
Hathout's supporters never flinched. MPAC Executive Director Salaam Al-Marayati had put forward Hathout's name in the first place to Robin Toma, the commission's executive director.
 
The process was lax, to say the least, and it's hard to believe Toma did so much as a Google's search worth of due diligence. Evidence of Hathout's extremism, as Emerson points out, is all over the Web, and appears in Emerson's 2002 book "American Jihad."
 
Al-Marayati counter-spun the protests as an attack on free speech. Never mind that the Jewish groups weren't denying Maher's right to make stupid, incendiary statements; they didn't believe he had a right to get a human relations award for saying them.
 
If Toma had done just one more Google search, he could have found plenty of more deserving Muslims.
 
My vote: Azmeralda Alfi, the administrator for the Bureau of Islamic Arabic Education, who has worked closely with Aviva Kadosh, the director of day school and Hebrew language services for the Bureau of Jewish Education, in developing a religious school curriculum -- one of the great local stories of Muslim-Jewish cooperation.
 
After the sound and fury, it ended where it began. The commissioners voted again last week, after a heated public meeting, to give Hathout his award.
 
But it's not over. Although Jews in high places are leaning on the protestors to back off, representatives for StandWithUs and AJCongress told me they are still considering continuing their protests up to the time of the awards ceremony.
 
The best gloss you could give all this is that the protests have called Hathout to public account for his more outrageous statements.
 
"I do not now, nor have I ever, supported Hamas or Hezbollah, verbally or otherwise," Hathout wrote in the Letters section of the Los Angeles Times in response to his critics. "I support the right of Israel to exist, just as I support the right of Palestine to exist. I believe in the futility of a military solution to Palestinian-Israeli conflict."
 
Community Advocates co-director David Lehrer said that the letter was the clearest, on-the-record comments the Muslim leader had made to date of his support for Israel and rejection of terror.
 
Let's put aside the fact that Hathout told Jewish Journal reporter Marc Ballon that he did, in fact, support Hezbollah "in the 1990s," when it was fighting Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon -- the same time it engaged in outright terror attacks against Jewish civilians in Argentina.
 
I, for one, would like to see the man get his award and get offstage, already.
 
While Hathout can be a gracious and intelligent dialogue partner, it's time to move past the old era of Muslim-Jewish dialogue.
 
Muslims and Jews in Los Angeles don't need to sit around hashing out statements on the Middle East or challenging one another on the facts of 1948. The best way to build understanding is to work on issues we all face, and on which we can have a real and immediate impact.
 
Over the past few months, some local young Jews and Muslims at organizations like MPAC, Progressive Jewish Alliance, IKAR, Nashuva, Abraham's Vision and the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation have begun to partner to address issues of poverty and education. They have shared music and art, and gone on to look at how they can improve the social, cultural and political life of Los Angeles.
 
This makes sense. We may never agree on how to fix the Middle East, but we can work together to fix the place where we do, in fact, live.
 
The result could be improved relations, increased understanding and a better city -- and that's a good end game. Tracker Pixel for Entry

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