Salam al-Marayati had become a flashpoint for conservative bloggers’ criticism of the J Street conference, primarily because of a statement he made — and quickly apologized for — eight years ago saying Israel should be a suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks.
That specific controversy didn’t come up at all on Monday morning at a J Street panel session on "How Jews, Christians and Muslims Can Work Together for Peace," but Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, affirmed his support for a two-state solution and said "anti-Semtism is a sin" in Islam.
He was supportive of J Street, noting that he sess the J in the title as symbolizing it is not just a Jewish group but one "based on justice."
Marayati said, though, that while he is a proponent of interreligious dialogue, there are limits to what participants should expect of the other side. Like he wouldn’t expect Jews to promote Muslim unity or advocacy, "you shouldn’t expect me to promote Zionism."
Also on the panel, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism associate director Mark Pelavin had a related point about what hard work such dialogue is.
"You don’t begin with the most difficult issue," he said, "and you begin by discussing, not necessarily agreeing."
Pelavin pointed out that there had been a lot of silence in the progressive community in the months leading up to last winter’s Gaza war, even as Jewish groups tried to call attention to the daily rocket attacks on Sderot.
That led to an insight into why interreligious dialogue is valuable from panelist Greg Khalil, a former Palestinian negotiator and co-founder of the Kairos Project — which educates faith-based leaders and their communities about the Middle East. He said such dialogue educates other faith groups on issues that they may simply not give credence to because they lack any personal knowledge of it.
"These connections need to happen," Khalil said, because "unless you see people actively suffering in Sderot" Christians and Muslims are likely to simply be "dimissive." (
Khalil, oddly, argued that Americans would have been more aware of the destruction in Sderot if Barack Obama had been president last year, because he would have sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton there.)
Al-Marayati acknowledged, though, that participants in such dialogue would always get a hard time from some.
"You have to accept the fact there will continue to be attacks even if we just have coffee," he said.