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Jews Question State’s Invitation to a Controversial Arab American

January 24, 2002
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Some American Jewish leaders are angry that a controversial Muslim leader has been asked to address the State Department next week.

Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, is scheduled to address State Department staffers Jan. 28 to speak on “Rising Voices of Moderate Muslims,” as part of the department’s annual Open Forum lecture series.

Al-Marayati has been criticized by Jewish leaders for comments he has made about the State of Israel, most recently claiming Israel should be a suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, has written to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Richard Haass, director of policy planning, asking that Al-Marayati’s invitation be revoked.

The lecture series “is no place for any extremist who praises terrorists and calls for the destruction of America’s ally,” he said, referring to Israel.

“Allowing Salam Al-Marayati to speak at the State Department will give him a podium and legitimacy that he does not deserve,” Klein wrote in the letter.

Al-Marayati’s comments on a Los Angeles radio show in the hours after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks outraged Jewish leaders and others.

“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,” he said.

He later told the Los Angeles Times that the quotation was correct but taken out of context, and that he sent a “clarification” to Jewish leaders.

He has also justified suicide bombings in Israel, reportedly saying a bombing in a Jerusalem pizzeria last year was the “expected bitter result of the reckless policy” of the Israeli government. He has commonly called actions considered by Americans and Israelis as terrorist actions “legitimate resistance.”

“He represents the very thing we are fighting against,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said this week.

“He has constantly been attacking Israel, and even those who have defended him earlier have changed their thinking.”

For his part, Al-Marayati said he believed the Jewish response was just “diversionary tactics to keep attention away from the modern Muslim voice.”

“I think they need to listen to what I have to say before making a judgment,” he told JTA. “That’s the whole purpose of an open forum. You let people who you don’t normally listen to have a say and try to develop a better understanding.”

Al-Marayati has long been controversial in the Jewish world.

When the issue was raised at the State Department briefing on Wednesday, spokesman Richard Boucher said Al-Marayati was not invited by the secretary, but by the forum’s coordinators.

“Their goal, with a mandate from the secretary, is to encourage a variety of discussion,” Boucher said. “As far as I know, there’s no policy approval of who speaks and who doesn’t.”

The State Department’s Open Forum is an annual set of lectures that “explores important questions related to U.S. national interests and honors leaders” in various fields for outstanding contributions to international affairs, according to the State Department Web site.

On Wednesday, Klein was invited to speak at the Forum as well. He said that while that didn’t address his concerns about Al-Marayati, he has accepted the invitation.

Other speakers this year include Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, discussing counterterrorism.

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