Michael Goldfarb at the Weekly Standard is criticizing J Street for inviting Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, to speak at its October conference. He specifically points out Marayati’s comments in a radio interview just a few hours after the 9/11 attacks blaming Israel:
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.
According to this statement from MPAC, Marayati apologized to members of members of the Muslim-Jewish dialogue, and also said he was sorry for the remark in the Los Angeles Times a couple weeks later. The one-line apology, contained in an op-ed Marayati co-wrote, was far from effusive: "a hypothetical rejoinder offered by one of us during a recent radio exchange clearly gave regrettable and unintended offense to Jewish Americans."
The MPAC statement also notes — and J Street points out as well — that the organization endorses a two-state solution, condemns suicide bombing and has a partnership with the Progressive Jewish Alliance in Southern California. This 2007 Los Angeles Jewish Journal profile of Al-Marayati, though, paints a complex portrait. It notes that while he maintains he wants to build Jewish-Muslim bridges and has fans among progressive Jews, there are a number of others in the L.A. Jewish community — including some who have worked with him before 9/11 — who don’t want to work with him:
Although Al-Marayati said he subsequently personally apologized to many Jewish leaders for his Sept. 11 remarks, the damage had been done: The multiorganizational Muslim-Jewish Dialogue that Al-Marayati had helped create just a few years earlier lay in ruins, with other participants outraged by his remarks and remaining suspicious of him ever since.
"I won’t work with him, because I don’t trust him," Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood, said last week in a phone conversation. Rosove was among those who quit the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue soon after Al-Marayati made his initial Sept. 11 remarks.
Al-Marayati does have some friends in the Jewish community. Among them is Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who is Jewish. Schiff has worked with Al-Marayati for years on interfaith issues and said he has found him to be a dedicated partner. "We both believe that by sharing insights and strengthening voices of tolerance, we can find common ground in improving the quality of life for the entire community," the congressman said.
Al-Marayati said the hostility from segments of the Jewish community continues to surprise him. MPAC, he said, has gone on record as supporting the two-state solution and has condemned suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism, regardless of the perpetrators.
"I’m committed to dialogue emanating from the best traditions of Judaism and Islam," Al-Marayati said. "It pains me to hear comments questioning my commitment. As I’ve stated before repeatedly, the door remains open, especially to those who have those criticisms."
And another passage in the lengthy piece:
Far from a fire-breathing, closet anti-Semite, Al-Marayati is "a voice of moderation in the Muslim world," said David N. Myers, professor of Jewish history and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies and a PJA [Progressive Jewish Alliance] board member.
Those closest to Al-Marayati say he is a compassionate man committed to equality and justice for all, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian, said MPAC communications director Edina Lekovic.
"His integrity has never been questioned by those who have worked with him on a day-to-day basis," she said.
Yet even some who have worked with Al-Marayati on interfaith issues question his integrity.
David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based think tank, described Al-Marayati as having a "calculating" personality. On at least three occasions in the mid-1990s, Lehrer said, Al-Marayati invited him and other Jewish leaders to the Islamic Center for dialogue. On each occasion, Lehrer, then director of the Anti-Defamation League, Pacific Southwest region, said he and his Jewish colleagues were surprised to find TV cameras or print reporters on hand to record the gatherings.
"His actions called into question how bona fide his interest was in real dialogue, as opposed to posturing to the press for his own gain," Lehrer said. Al-Marayati said he was working on behalf of the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue group and wanted nothing more than to raise awareness about the strong collaboration and cooperation. Hearing Lehrer’s remarks disappointed him, he said.
On the other hand, here’s an L.A. Times op-ed from 2008, co-written by Al-Marayati and Rabbi Steven Jacobs, denouncing political attempts to divide Muslims and Jews:
We acknowledge the tension between our communities created by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And yet it is also clear that Jews and Muslims should be natural allies in countering xenophobia and hysteria. We both suffer from scapegoating as fear works against common sense in our political culture. Whether it is anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, we both know the face of bigotry.
The issue of excluding Muslims to get Jewish votes is not about ensuring domestic security, it is about cowardly politics. It is about playing to fears, not processing facts. It is about the canard that Muslims and Jews have been fighting since ancient times and nothing will change. It is about blaming both for America’s problems. We Muslims and Jews, along with all people of faith, represent the spirit of God. There is much that binds us together. It is in the spirit of this shared history, and our common interests, that we must stand against these divisions being created by the candidates.
UPDATE: J Street also emphasizes that it does not agree with all the positions of all its speakers. A J Street spokeswoman noted that its list of scheduled speakers includes think tankers such as Ken Pollack and Patrick Clawson — Middle East experts whose viewpoints don’t necessarily match J Street’s.
Others in the Jewish community also work with Marayati and MPAC. Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism associate director Mark Pelavin said his organization is aware of some of Al-Marayati’s past comments, but "we have, and do, sit in coalitions and dialogue with MPAC and with Salam. We believe they are people with whom it is valuable to build relationships. Not unlike ISNA [the Islamic Society of North America], we don’t need to agree on everything to be able to find common ground.”