Behind the Headlines: Flap over Terror Panel Appointee Erodes Ties Between U.S. Jews, Arabs

House Minority leader Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) decision to withdraw the appointment of a prominent American Muslim leader to a congressional commission on terrorism has opened a seismic rift between Jews and Arabs in America.

Gephardt’s decision came after Jewish organizations protested that Salam Al- Marayati, who heads the Los-Angeles based Muslim Public Affairs Council, had condoned acts of terrorism against Israel.

Several members of Congress had also raised objections, urging the FBI to fully investigate whether he was qualified to serve on the newly created 10-member National Commission on Terrorism, which is charged with reviewing national policy on preventing and punishing terrorism.

In a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Gephardt said the process of gaining a security clearance would take longer than the six-month life of the commission itself. Aides said political considerations did not influence the decision.

Infuriated by Gephardt’s reversal, Arab and Muslim leaders have rallied behind Al-Marayati, defending him as a voice of moderation.

They blame American Jewish leaders for misrepresenting him as part of what they are calling a larger “witch hunt” to exclude Arabs and Muslims from government policy-making positions.

They point to a recent campaign supported by some Jewish organizational officials to oust Joseph Zogby, the first Arab American to work for the State Department’s Near East bureau in decades, from his post because of articles he wrote criticizing Israel — and to opposition earlier this year to the appointment of Al-Marayati’s wife, Laila, to an international commission on religious freedom.

In a joint statement issued Monday, nine American Muslim and Arab American organizations called on Gephardt to reinstate Al-Marayati, saying they were “appalled by the McCarthyite tactics applied by extremists seeking to sabotage this appointment and muzzle our communities’ authentic voices in order to monopolize discussion.”

Jewish officials dismiss the notion of a conspiracy to keep Arab or Muslims out of government. The controversy surrounding the terrorism commission, they say, has nothing to do with Al-Marayati’s ethnic or religious background and comes down solely to his statements on terrorism.

The flap has added another stress point to already strained relations between American Jews and American Arabs that is certain to complicate efforts to revive intergroup dialogue.

It has even caused tensions among Jews, with some Los Angeles Jewish activists backing Al-Marayati and condemning the Jewish organizations who campaigned against him.

Relations between American Jews and American Arabs and Muslims have taken a tumultuous course since the beginning of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993.

The goodwill and dialogue that grew out of the signing at the White House has given way to a series of grievances and an almost complete breakdown in communication between groups as the peace process has foundered in recent years.

Now, amid renewed optimism for peace in the Middle East with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s assumption of power, Arab and Muslim leaders in America say the Al-Marayati episode is particularly distressing.

Khalil Jahshan, president of the National Association of Arab Americans, said the controversy has done “extremely important and significant damage” to Jewish-Arab relations, “especially when you consider the fact that there is very little trust and working relations in existence at this time.”

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said the allegation that Al-Marayati poses a security threat is “dangerous” and “repugnant,” adding, “People need to think about what that means.”

Zogby, whose son, Joseph, was at the center of the State Department controversy, added that he was “very distressed that some responsible leaders in the Jewish community have bought into the effort to defame” Al-Marayati.

Following word of Al-Marayati’s appointment last month, which came at the recommendation of David Bonior (D-Mich.), the Democratic whip of the U.S. House of Representatives, Gephardt’s office was flooded by letters of protest from groups including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.

Although Al-Marayati has said he condemns terrorism, he has come under fire for a series of statements that Jewish officials say justify terrorism, equate America’s struggle for independence with Islamic fundamentalism and call for a renewed Arab economic boycott of Israel.

A March 1997 MPAC statement found on the group’s Web site, for example, asserts that Israel’s prime minister “bears the brunt of responsibility for the loss of innocent lives” following a Hamas suicide bombing attack.

“Because the Palestinian people have no avenues to redress their grievances,” the statement said, “some of them have been pushed beyond the margins of society and have adopted violent reactions to express their despair and suffering.”

The 38-year-old Al-Marayati has lived in the United States since his family fled political persecution in Iraq when he was 4. He has been active in the Democratic Party and has been invited to attend events at the State Department and White House, including two Middle East peace signings.

He currently serves on Los Angeles’ Human Relations Commission and has worked over the years with local Jewish leaders to forge greater ties between their communities.

Al-Marayati did not return phone calls seeking comment, but was quoted by the Washington Post as condemning Jewish “pressure tactics” in “imposing their agenda.”

David Harris, executive director of the AJCommittee, said the attempt to cast Jewish opposition to Al-Marayati’s appointment as an “anti-Muslim, anti-Arab framework,” is a “predictable and unfortunate tactic.”

“The issue is not nor has it been ethnic nor religious background,” he said. “The issue is qualifications or lack thereof, and if it had been a Christian or a Jew holding the same views, we would have been equally forceful.”

Morton Klein, president of the ZOA, called Al-Marayati’s statements “appalling” and said that if Arab American groups are standing behind him, “then we’re going to have a serious problem with mainstream Arab groups.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, called the reaction from the Arab and Muslim communities “regrettable and counterproductive to what we all want to see, which is to see terrorism addressed seriously in this country.”

Although a spokeswoman for Gephardt said this week that the congressman was considering appointing another American Muslim to take Al-Marayati’s place on the panel, as far as Arab and Muslim groups are concerned, the damage has been done.

Zogby of the Arab American Institute said the controversy marks not only another setback in Arab-Jewish relations, but a turning back of the clock.

“We want to continue to have the kind of positive relations we have had” in the past, he said, “but it has to be based on mutual respect.”

Jewish leaders, for their part, insist they remain open to dialogue, but have made clear that terrorism is one issue on which they will not cede ground.

“We have a set of core concerns and core values that we are not prepared to compromise on, and we’re not going to sacrifice those core concerns for the sake of any form of intergroup dialogue,” Harris said.

In the meantime, at least one Los Angeles-area Jewish official who has had frequent contact with Al-Marayati said he plans to keep working to bridge differences.

“We’ll be talking together and seeing where we can agree and what we could do together,” said David Lehrer, director of the ADL’s office in Los Angeles.

Other Jewish figures in Los Angeles rallied even more forcefully behind Al- Marayati, with some appearing with him at a news conference last Friday.

Rabbi Emeritus Leonard Beerman of Leo Baeck Temple charged, “This assault on Al-Marayati by a consortium of Jewish organizations is for me, as a rabbi and as a Jew, an appalling display of ignorance, mindlessness and arrogance.

“In an attempt to dishonor a good man, I think these organizations have dishonored themselves,” The Los Angeles Times quoted Beerman as saying.

Jahshan, for his part, said he hoped that “somehow in the future people of goodwill on both sides can still get together and begin to forge a steady alliance, peace process or no peace process.

“Instead of following initiatives from overseas,” he said, “I think we should set the example for others who are trying to negotiate peace.”

As for what it will take to get to that point, however, Arab and Jewish Americans now appear at a loss.

NEXT STORY