A Step Backward for Jewish-Muslim Relations

Douglas E. Mirell is a founder and president-elect of the Progressive Jewish Alliance

The irony could not be richer. Barely one week after House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) timorously withdrew his nomination of Salam Al-Marayati to serve on the National Commission on Terrorism, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak appointed Israeli Arab Hashem Mahameed to the Knesset's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mahameed's selection marked the first time in its 51-year history that Israel's parliament had appointed a non-Jew to such a sensitive post. Moreover, Mahameed was nominated notwithstanding his public characterization of Israel as an occupying power in southern Lebanon and his vocal support of armed resistance by Islamic guerrillas. He also has advocated that the Palestinian people "use all means" in their "struggle for liberation."

The choice of Mahameed led to a firestorm of criticism against Barak by hard-line nationalist politicians within Israel. The opposition Likud Party established a task force, led by former defense minister Moshe Arens, to fight Mahameed's appointment. Likud also filed a no-confidence motion in the newly formed Barak government based on this nomination.

Yet, despite this wave of criticism, Barak held firm. Mahameed's pronouncements were correctly viewed by Israel's broad-based governing coalition as insufficient to disqualify him from serving on this most sensitive of Knesset committees. Indeed, within a matter of days following Mahameed's appointment, two more Israeli Arabs--both of them Druze--were nominated to the same Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Knesset's appointment of Mahameed, and the Barak government's response to the criticism it engendered, contrast sharply with the way in which Gephardt rapidly buckled under criticism of Al-Marayati leveled by a number of the American Jewish organizations. Unlike the Barak-led Knesset that stood squarely behind Mahameed, Gephardt beat a hasty retreat.

Gephardt's precipitous withdrawal of this nomination is all the more incongruous and lamentable since none of the statements for which Al-Marayati was excoriated is any more inflammatory than those of Mahameed. Indeed, many of Al-Marayati's comments--when not being taken wholly out of context--are truisms. For instance: "Because the Palestinian people have no avenues to redress their grievances, some of them have been pushed beyond the margins of society and have adopted violent reactions to express their despair and suffering."

There are two other aspects of the Al-Marayati incident that have not drawn much attention, but which merit further consideration.

First, a spokesperson for Gephardt said the senator was withdrawing Al-Marayati's nomination not because of pressure from Jewish groups but because of the time it would supposedly take to obtain a security clearance. Thus, Gephardt implicitly gave credence to the further canard that Al-Marayati is a security risk.

In truth, of course, the "security clearance" issue is a smokescreen. Al-Marayati has been flown to Washington on Air Force Two. He has been a guest of the State Department and President Clinton, attending two Middle East peace accord signing ceremonies at the White House. How much more "clearance" could he conceivably need?

Second, what are the true costs of excluding Al-Marayati from the 10-member terrorism commission? Even if one thinks Al-Marayati would spew propaganda, does anyone seriously believe that this commission would have permitted itself to become a forum for justifying terrorism?

The commission's other members include L. Paul Bremer, former U.S. ambassador at large for terrorism; R. James Woolsey, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency; and former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), who served on the congressional National Security and Intelligence Committees. It is inconceivable that any of these individuals would have "gone soft" on terrorism in the event Al-Marayati had tried to use his position as a forum for justifying or excusing such conduct.

Moreover, given the nature of such a commission's work, it is far more likely that Al-Marayati would have deferred to the accumulated wisdom and experience of the commission's expert members. If he did not, he would likely have been deemed a renegade and relegated to the role of lonely dissenter.

Instead, the most likely scenario is that Al-Marayati would have provided the terrorism commission with valuable observations and insights, and would have agreed with the commission's ultimate conclusions and recommendations. Had he done so, an important leader of the American Muslim community would have sent the message that terrorism of all kinds is utterly unacceptable.

That message would have been of incalculable value to all Americans. It would have gone a long way toward finally burying the "dual loyalty" hobgoblin that afflicts the American Muslim community every bit as much as it has historically oppressed American Jews.

Of course, given Gephardt's withdrawal of this nomination, none of us will know how Al-Marayati would have performed as a commission member. All we do know is that major segments of the American Jewish community have squandered enormous political capital in a campaign to deprive a moderate and rational spokesperson a seat at the table.

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