U.S. Jewish-Muslim relations in trouble

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 25 (JTA) — Relations between southern California’s large Jewish and Muslim communities, marked by ups and downs over the years, have hit near bottom in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

However, in other cities with large Arab, Muslim and Jewish populations, relations between the two communities seem to have remained on an even keel — at least on the official level.

In metropolitan New York, there is no single umbrella organization dealing with Jewish-Muslim relations, but rather several neighborhood coalitions, usually including Christians, that focus on such local concerns as health care and other quality of life issues.

These coalitions have functioned successfully over the last year, said Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

The council has joined with other organizations and public officials in denouncing individual harassment of Muslims.

Miller praised the lead taken by African-American Muslim spokesmen in roundly condemning the Sept. 11 hijackers and those who sheltered and financed them, as was done at Sunday’s mass rally in Yankee Stadium.

“I would encourage leaders of the Arab American community to step forward and do likewise,” Miller said.

In the Detroit area, where an estimated 250,000 Arab-Americans coexist with 100,000 Jews, “relations have remained on course,” said David Gad-Harf, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit.

“It’s hard to find a silver lining in this cloud, but since Sept. 11, Jewish spokesmen have taken the lead in denouncing harassment of Muslims from the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Pakistan,” he said.

However, Gad-Harf noted that good relations between the Arab and Jewish organizational leadership have not filtered down to the grass roots in either community.

He warned that if the “Israel factor” and the close ties between Washington and Jerusalem move to the forefront of public attention, the interethnic ties in Detroit could be severely strained.

Somewhat the same picture was drawn on the national level by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“In general, our communities are participating, or taking the lead, in dialogues and interfaith services attended by Jews, Muslims and Christians,” said Hannah Rosenthal, JCPA’s executive director.

The New York-based umbrella organization encompasses 123 Jewish community councils across the country and 13 national agencies.

In Los Angeles, the most recent attempt at building bridges between leaders of the two communities, named the Jewish-Muslim Dialogue, was already on hold before Sept. 11 due to the bitterness engendered by the intifada.

Some 600,000 Jews and 500,000 Muslims live in the Los Angeles area.

Now two of the more prominent Jewish members in past dialogue efforts are rethinking their participation after their main Arab partner implied in a radio interview that Israel might have had a hand in the destruction of the World Trade Center.

Interviewed on the respected “Which Way, L.A.?” program on Sept. 11 was Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and one of the highest-profile and most controversial Arab spokesmen in Los Angeles and the United States.

According to the show’s transcript, Al-Marayati said at one point, “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.”

Al-Marayati subsequently told the Los Angeles Times that the quotation was accurate but taken out of context, and he sent a “clarification” to Jewish leaders.

These actions did not mollify David Lehrer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, who told the Times, “I’ve had a long relationship with Salam, 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.”

Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, a veteran dialogue participant, labeled Al-Marayati’s statement “so offensive and provocative that I am in crisis as to whether I am going to stay in the dialogue.”

Further raising Jewish ire were several anti-Zionist articles in the local Muslim magazine Minaret. The publication went to press before Sept. 11, but angry Jewish leaders noted that the editor, Aslam Abdullah, was a longtime dialogue partner and considered to be a moderate.

Los Angeles-area Muslims, in turn, protested when the Simon Wiesenthal Center posted a photo on its Web site showing cheering Palestinians as they celebrated the suicide attacks on New York and Washington.

Charging that the photo fanned “the flames of ethnic and religious hatred,” a handful of Muslims held a brief news conference in front of the Wiesenthal Center.

The photo was removed from the Web site after the Associated Press, which had sent out the picture, removed it from circulation, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate dean.

In its place, however, went a new photo, showing Muslims in Pakistan burning President Bush in effigy.

Hussam Ayloush, a local official of the Council on American-Muslim Relations, told The Times, “We are trying to defend our country from hate crimes, but the Wiesenthal Center is exploiting our situation to incite hate against us.”

A somewhat unexpected mediator has come to the front in the person of Lee Baca, sheriff of Los Angeles County.

Baca, a Latino elected public official, brought together spiritual leaders from five synagogues and five mosques shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

A second interfaith meeting, convened by Baca on Sept. 20, drew California Gov. Gray Davis and some 70 participants, representing the spectrum of the county’s religions.

In contrast to past Jewish-Muslim dialogues, in which the Jewish representation heavily outnumbered the Muslim one, the situation was reversed at the Baca meeting.

Noticeable was the strong attendance by Pakistanis and other Muslims from Southeast Asia, according to one participant.

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