Menu JTA Search

A controversial Jewish-Muslim pact

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 7 (JTA) — Some two dozen prominent Jews and Muslims here have approved a code of ethics that denounces all terrorism and hate crimes, promotes civil dialogue and urges an end to stereotyping and incitement.

The agreement, approved before banks of television cameras at Los Angeles’ City Hall on Monday, was hailed by spokesmen for both communities as a harbinger of a new era of understanding in ethnic and interfaith relations.

Some 80 Southern Californians have endorsed the code, with Jewish supporters identified mainly with the Reform rabbinate and liberal activist community.

Other mainstream Jewish organizations have so far remained on the sidelines, while the American Jewish Committee has sharply criticized the credibility of the Muslim leadership in the dialogue.

Rabbi Alice Dubinsky, acting director of the Pacific Southwest Region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the congregational body of Reform Judaism, said at the signing ceremony that the code was conceived in “a spirit of holy work” and “despite passionate differences between Muslims and Jews, represents a first step toward building a better Los Angeles and ultimately a better world.”

Representing the Muslim community were Maher Hathout, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California, and Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.

“I have no illusions that we will agree on everything, but we have much common ground and we can disagree in a civilized and constructive way,” said Hathout.

There was a faint scent of deja vu about the proceedings, since exactly a year ago, most of the same principals were on the verge of adopting an almost identical code of ethics.

It is not entirely clear why the code was not signed at the time, but some of the reservations expressed by Jewish critics then are still in place.

Those reservations, which center on Al-Marayati and Hathout, the principal Muslim spokesmen, escalated in June, when Al-Marayati was appointed to a U.S. counterterrorism commission by House Minority leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo).

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, among others, criticized the appointment, charging that Al-Marayati had made frequent statements justifying or condoning terrorism, equating America’s struggle for independence with Islamic fundamentalism and calling for a renewed economic boycott of Israel.

Al-Marayati denied such remarks, or at least their interpretation, and was backed by numerous liberal Jewish leaders in Los Angeles.

Nevertheless, Gephardt eventually withdrew the nomination, triggering great resentment among American Muslims, who blamed Jewish influence for the reversal.

Despite this new Jewish-Muslim friction, Hathout in August proposed a new effort to forge a local code of ethics. With Rabbi Allen Freehling of the University Synagogue in West Los Angeles as the facilitator, small groups from both communities started meeting every two weeks.

Their work culminated in Monday’s signing ceremony, which was hosted by the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission.

One of the early signers was Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, acting director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who suggested inviting Al-Marayati and Hathout to address the board, which encompasses all denominations of Judaism.

Before doing so, however, he consulted Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, an influential member of the Board of Rabbis as regional director of the AJCommittee, as well as former president of the Los Angeles City Police Commission.

When Greenebaum strongly objected, Goldmark dropped the suggestion.

Greenebaum said his objections stemmed from past dealings with the two Muslim leaders.

“They have not proven trustworthy,” he said. “Time and again they have stepped away from categorically condemning terrorism. They keep rationalizing terrorism and I have a problem with that, as should all Jews.”

Greenebaum added that the local AJCommittee has established a dialogue with another group of local Muslim leaders.

Greenebaum’s views were endorsed by David Harris, AJCommittee’s national executive director.

Speaking from New York, Harris noted that AJCommittee was a longtime leader in interfaith dialogue, but in the current case in Los Angeles, he said, “I am trying to provide them with a reality check.

“I don’t question the motives of the rabbis,” he added, “but I think their initiative is largely borne by naivete. Many of them don’t really understand the toxicity” of dealing with their Muslim partners and “the longtime implications on the national scene.”

Some supporters of the Los Angeles dialogue have suggested that while local directors of national Jewish organizations were willing to support their cause, the locals were pressured by their national headquarters in New York to reverse their stand.

Both Greenebaum and Harris denied the charge.

“We are one entity and of one mind,” said Harris. “Los Angeles has experience in walking through the minefield, while we, at national, can put the problem into a broader context.”

In the case of the Anti-Defamation League, its regional director, David Lehrer, was active in the effort a year ago to draft an ethics code, but this time the ADL is on the sidelines.

Speaking for the ADL, its national director, Abraham Foxman, said he was maintaining a position of watchful waiting.

Israel and the Palestinians “have moved a lot farther” toward understanding than the Arab community in the United States, he said. “I am not convinced that they are willing to be real partners, and we shouldn’t give them a status they haven’t earned.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, too, remains more observer than participant.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate dean, said, “The relationship between Jews and Muslims in Los Angeles seems fairly healthy, and I see no need for a new code. The issues now are global and little can be done from here.”

Howard Welinsky, chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Jewish Community Relations Committee, said he had signed the code as an individual and that his board would consider later this month whether to give its endorsement.

NEXT STORY