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New appointee to terror panel gets thumbs up from Jews, Arabs

WASHINGTON, Aug. 2 (JTA) — Just weeks after American Jewish groups erupted in anger over the appointment — and Arab groups opposed the subsequent withdrawal — of a controversial Muslim leader to a counterterrorism commission, leaders of both communities have welcomed a new appointee. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) last Friday named Juliette Kayyem to serve on the 10-member National Commission on Terrorism, which is charged with reviewing national policy on preventing and punishing terrorism. Kayyem, an Arab American of Lebanese Christian descent, has worked in the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department on a variety of policy issues associated with U.S. anti-terrorism laws. She is married to a Jewish lawyer who recently became a professor at Harvard Law School. Last month, Gephardt withdrew the appointment of Salam Al-Marayati, who heads the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, after Jewish groups accused him of condoning acts of terrorism and making statements highly critical of Israel. Gephardt, explaining his decision to revoke the appointment, said only that the process of getting Al-Marayati a security clearance would take longer than the six-month life of the commission itself. Kayyem, 29, who has served as counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights and in other positions in the Justice Department’s civil rights division, already has a security clearance. The withdrawal infuriated Arab and Muslim leaders, who blamed Jewish groups for misrepresenting Al-Marayati as part of what they called a “witch hunt” to exclude Arabs and Muslims from government policy-making positions. Jewish leaders emphasized that their opposition to Al-Marayati had nothing to do with his ethnic or religious background and solely came down to his statements on terrorism. Although Al-Marayati has said he condemns terrorism, he came under fire for a series of statements he and his associates have made that placed the blame on Israel for inciting Palestinian terrorist activity and condoned attacks against Israel soldiers in southern Lebanon. In commending Kayyem’s appointment, David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said that unlike Al-Marayati, Kayyem “appears to have a strong background in national security issues and a clear and unambiguous understanding of the terrorist threat to the United States, as do the other appointees to the commission.” The Anti-Defamation League’s Washington director, Jess Hordes, whose office has worked with Kayyem in the past, said, “She’s someone who certainly will be sensitive to the civil liberties and civil rights issues that relate to terrorism and enforcement.” Although Arab American groups have argued that Al-Marayati never should have been removed to begin with, most said Kayyem is well qualified to serve on the commission. “She’s a very competent and sensitive civil rights attorney who brings that perspective to her work,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. At the same time, he said her appointment does not erase the fact that the whole episode was “badly handled” and that the Jewish community “behaved very badly.” “I still believe that people did not give Salam a fair opportunity, and I’m frankly still quite troubled” by the notion that Arab American and Muslim American appointees must be “vetted by the Jewish community,” he said. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, for its part, congratulated Kayyem on her appointment, but said in a statement that another Muslim should have been named to replace Al-Marayati. “The issue of American Muslim exclusion from the political process has yet to be resolved,” the group said in a statement. “This exclusion will cast doubt on the credibility of the commission and will lead American Muslims to believe that their views are not being heard on this very sensitive issue.” Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, supported the appointment, but agreed it may have been better if Gephardt had appointed a Muslim because it would have “demonstrated with some finality and decisiveness that no one objects to a Muslim occupying such positions.” Kayyem was not available for comment, but said in a statement that she was “confident that my experience working on civil rights issues associated with U.S. anti-terrorism policies will allow me to contribute to the commission’s work.”

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