Jewish-Muslim Dialogue Newly Tested
Reactions by Los Angeles’ Jewish and Muslim leaders to last week’s terrorist attacks have put new strains on the two groups’ already-tenuous relationship.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a pro-Israel organization that tracks anti-Semitic activities worldwide, posted a picture on its Web site showing jubilant Palestinian youths celebrating the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Muslims charged that the photograph fanned “the flames of ethnic and religious hatred.” A handful of Muslims held a brief press conference Friday in front of the center’s West Los Angeles headquarters. The photograph was removed from the Web site shortly before.
Meanwhile, a Los Angeles Muslim leader told a radio interviewer that Israel should be put on the “suspect list” of those behind the destruction of the World Trade Center. On Friday, two Jewish leaders called the remarks by Salaam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, “irresponsible and inflammatory.”
At least two Jewish leaders who have supported Al-Marayati’s participation in the on-again, off-again dialogue between Muslim and Jewish leaders say that he should withdraw or explicitly apologize.
Both sides sought Friday to cool the rhetoric and to reaffirm the importance of Jewish-Muslim dialogue. They were joined a day earlier by Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who called the second interfaith meeting in a week to build political and religious cohesion in one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse counties.
Still, the incidents pointed to the rawness of political and religious sensitivities at a time when President Bush and others are calling for national unity.
Al-Marayati was interviewed the day of the terrorist attacks, by Warren Olney on KCRW-FM’s “Which Way, LA?” According to a transcript provided by the Anti-Defamation League, an organization created to defend Jews against anti-Semitism, Olney asked: “Are you worried about another spate of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States?”
Al-Marayati replied: “Yes, we’re warning about generalizations that will only aid the criminals who perpetrated this deplorable act and really hurt innocent people. . . . “
The discussion then turned to suspects. According to the transcript, Al-Marayati said, “If we’re going to look at suspects, we should look to the groups that benefit the most from these kinds of incidents, and I think we should put the state of Israel on the suspect list because I think this diverts attention from what’s happening in the Palestinian territories so that they can go on with their aggression and occupation and apartheid policies. Why not put all the suspects on the list, instead of going ahead and shooting from the hip and saying those people did it and bombing the cornfields of Afghanistan and pharmaceutical factories of Sudan. . . .”
David A. Lehrer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he will not join any dialogue involving Al-Marayati.
“I’ve had a long relationship with Salaam, and I am so disillusioned with what he has done in the past week as to not be interested in engaging in a dialogue with him,” Lehrer said.
Rabbi John I. Rosove of Temple Israel in Hollywood said he found Al-Marayati’s statements “so offensive and provocative that I am in crisis as to whether I am going to stay in dialogue.”
Al-Marayati said Friday that the quotation is accurate but out of context. He said an earlier guest on the show said that Islamic “Wahhabism,” a radical anti-Western form of Islam, was behind the attacks. (On the day of the interview, authorities had not yet linked Islamic terrorists to the attacks.)
“My point [Sept. 11] was to say [that] if you’re going to accuse political Islam, then Muslims will accuse political Zionists, and we both should not do that,” Al-Marayati said Friday. He said he made that point when Olney invited him back Sept. 12 to explain.
On Friday, Al-Marayati said he also sent clarifications to various Jewish leaders. He did not call them apologies.
Al-Marayati’s explanation Friday was deemed to be “irrelevant” by the Wiesenthal Center’s Cooper. Baca said he was also concerned.
“We need to carefully concern ourselves with the feelings of other individuals and not engage in rhetoric that just inflames divisiveness,” Baca said he told civic, business and religious leaders at a meeting Thursday at his office.
“Any subject of discussion relative to who suspects may or may not be--obviously we now know who the suspects are--is a police matter, an FBI matter,” Baca said Friday. “People shouldn’t be accusing innocent people of being criminals, or even alluding to innocent people being criminals.”
Among those attending Baca’s interfaith meeting were Gov. Gray Davis and county Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Zev Yaroslavsky.
The Wiesenthal Center said it removed the Palestinian-celebration photo from its Web site Friday because the Associated Press, which originally distributed the picture, had stopped circulating it. The center posted a new picture Friday showing Muslims in Pakistan burning President Bush in effigy.
Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California office of the Council on American-Muslim Relations, accused the Wiesenthal Center of unethical conduct. Ayloush said the vast majority of Palestinians had condemned the bombing and expressed sympathy and support for the American victims.
“We are trying to defend our community from hate crimes, but the Wiesenthal Center is exploiting our situation to incite hate against us,” Ayloush said. “To exploit our tragedy to score a couple of political points against Palestinians is very unethical.”
Rabbi Allen Freehling of University Synagogue criticized the Wiesenthal Center’s actions. “I don’t see any purpose for this other than fostering more hate and mistrust at a time we don’t need hate and mistrust,” he said.
Cooper defended the picture’s use and called “ludicrous” claims that it jeopardized the safety of Muslim Americans. He said the center used the photo in connection with its mission to oppose terrorism. It captured the “reality” that “so many young people are growing up in that part of the world with such a hateful view of America,” he said.
Adding fuel to the Muslim-Jewish controversy was the latest issue of a Los Angeles-based Muslim magazine, which published several anti-Zionist articles. The magazine, the Minaret, went to press before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Rosove said the editor of the magazine, Aslam Abdullah, has been one of the participants in the Muslim-Jewish dialogue. Rosove complained that Abdullah did not give dialogue participants the courtesy of letting them know about the stories in advance, much less offering to print their rebuttal in the same issue. He called the articles inflammatory.
Abdullah said Friday he has offered to print their response in the next issue. But he said he was under no obligation to consult them in advance about the content of his publication.
Times religion writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this story.
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