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Jewish Journal

ACLU Dispute Shows Tension Among Interfaith Friends

by Marc Ballon

July 19, 2006 | 8:00 pm

As local pro-Israeli and pro-Arab groups hold ever larger and more heated demonstrations, relations among Los Angeles Muslim and Jewish groups threaten to go into a deep freeze. In one reflection of the changing climate, a longtime Jewish member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has blasted the group's local chapter for planning to honor a Muslim activist whom he characterizes as an anti-Israeli propagandist.

The dispute at the ACLU began July 20, when 30-year member Joel Bellman, press deputy to County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, sent a blistering e-mail to ACLU of Southern California Executive Director Ramona Ripston, in which he vehemently questioned the group's plan to honor Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), with a prestigious Religious Freedom Award at the upcoming 43rd annual ACLU Garden Party. Bellman wrote that he intends to boycott the Sept. 10 event, and he will encourage other ACLU members to do so as well.

"I'm not sure when [Al-Marayati] and MPAC would legitimately deserve such recognition," Bellman wrote, "but it most certainly is not at a time when MPAC is falsely blaming Israel for defending herself in a two-front war launched without provocation by Islamic terror organizations with the support and sponsorship of two rejectionist nations.

"I've known Salam personally for nearly 20 years," Bellman continued. "Under ordinary circumstances, I can tolerate his posturing on MPAC's behalf as the voice of 'moderate' Islam, although his actual political positions are scarcely distinguishable (except in tone) from those of most of the anti-Israel Muslim world."

When told of Bellman's e-mail by a reporter, Al-Marayati responded that Bellman's attack on MPAC is wholly unjustified and off-target. MPAC is a mainstream Islamic advocacy group, he said, and it accepts a two-state solution, condemns suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks and has long acted as a leading voice in interfaith relations.

"When Hamas and Hezbollah commit terrorism, we condemn that," Al-Marayati said, "and when the state of Israel violates the human rights of the Palestinian people, we condemn that as well."

Upon first learning of Bellman's claims from the reporter, Al-Marayati reacted with stunned silence. The Muslim activist said he wished Bellman, whom he called a friend, had called him personally to share his concerns. MPAC board member Nayyer Ali defended Al-Marayati, saying he is a man of "high ethical and moral standards" who wants justice and freedom for All peoples, regardless of their religious backgrounds.

Bellman also said he objects to Religious Freedom Awards to be given to Rabbi Leonard Beerman and the Rev. George Regas at the September event, because the pair, along with Al-Marayati, recently appeared in an MPAC-sponsored rally to end Israel's occupation in the territories. The interfaith event took place at the Islamic Center of Southern California on July 16, just after three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped, one by terrorists in Gaza and two by Hezbollah, in Lebanon.

Beerman, the retired founding rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles, said he, Al-Marayati and Regas "have always been united in our quest for peace." He said he believes the "excessive" use of military force by Israel can only exacerbate the crisis and that he cares deeply about the survival of the Jewish state.

Ripston, who is Jewish, said the local ACLU's plans to honor Al-Marayati, Beerman and Regas are based upon their work on the issue of the separation of church and state and represent a move to celebrate religious diversity. Their positions on the conflict in the Middle East "have nothing to do with this," Ripston said. The Garden Party event was planned months before current hostilities, she said.

Bellman's missive so angered Ripston that she said she called both him and his boss, Yaroslavsky, to discuss the letter. During her conversation with Yaroslavsky, Ripston mentioned that Bellman had used a county computer in writing one of the two e-mails he had sent to her office.

Bellman said he wrote his original letter of protest on his home computer. He said he wrote a follow-up e-mail, a response to a note sent by Ripston's communications director, on a county computer during his lunch break. "He did nothing wrong, and I think many people in the Jewish community would agree with what [Bellman] wrote," Yaroslavsky said.

In an interview, Bellman questioned Ripston's motives for "attacking one of its own members in good standing in his place of employment for a political position he took in his own time."

Ripston said she supports Bellman's right to free speech and only talked to Yaroslavsky to "smooth everything out." She said she has no plans to cancel or alter the gathering.

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