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Battle Lines Form Over Award for L.A. Muslim

Some Jewish groups call Maher Hathout an extremist, but he has the support of interfaith leaders.

September 09, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Controversy over the selection of a leading Los Angeles Muslim for a prestigious human rights award mounted Friday, as interfaith leaders praised him as a model of tolerance and moderation, while some Jewish groups denounced him as an extremist.

Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California, is to receive the award next month from the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. But some Jewish organizations have vehemently opposed his selection, denouncing Hathout's criticism of Israel as an "apartheid" regime, support of Hezbollah as freedom fighters and other political views.

"Dr. Hathout is a radical Islamic leader masquerading as a moderate and deceiving the American public," said Sherry Weinman, president of the Los Angeles office of the American Jewish Committee.

On Friday, however, several leaders representing Catholic, Episcopal, Muslim, Jewish and other religious communities gathered at the Islamic center to back Hathout.

Father Alexei Smith, director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the 5-million-member Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese, praised Hathout's "profound respect for the life and dignity of every human being." Smith said Hathout's long years of interfaith work prompted him to invite the Muslim leader to meet Pope John Paul II during his visit to Los Angeles in 1987 and to deliver a eulogy during the pontiff's memorial service.

Smith said it was understandable that a Muslim leader would be critical of Israel but that such views should not disqualify him for the award.

"I've repeatedly heard Dr. Hathout denounce violence and the taking of human life by anyone and everyone," Smith said. "It's high time that the county of Los Angeles recognize him."

Hathout, 70, said his positions have been distorted by opponents and that he has long denounced violence by any organization -- including Hamas and Hezbollah -- against innocent civilians. That, he said, includes suicide bombings against innocent Israelis.

Statements he made in 1998 and 1999 calling Hezbollah freedom fighters referred only to the Shiite militia's actions on Lebanese soil against Israeli soldiers who had invaded the country, he said.

"I am very proud of my record," he said. He acknowledged calling Israel an apartheid regime but said, "that's my opinion and I'm entitled to it."

The issue has provoked such a furor that the 14-member Human Relations Commission has called a special hearing Monday to air public sentiment over the selection. Commissioner Donna Bojarsky said members have been bombarded by e-mails from both sides.

"It's a very, very difficult situation," she said. "It's clearly hit a nerve among a variety of communities in Los Angeles and our job is to be a force of unity and tolerance."

Robin Toma, the commission's executive director, confirmed that Hathout did not receive the vote of a majority of commissioners but won backing from six of the eight present at the July 10 meeting. Hathout was nominated by Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, after the commissioners' first choice, longtime civil rights leader and Christian minister James Lawson, was unavailable to accept the award, Toma confirmed.

Al-Marayati told commissioners that Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Zev Yaroslavsky supported Hathout, Toma said. But both supervisors said Friday that they had never endorsed the Muslim leader.

Yaroslavsky said he only told Al-Marayati that he never gets involved with the activities of any commissions, which are independent. Al-Marayati said Friday he took the statement as a sign of support.

Toma said the voting process was rushed because one of the commissioners had to leave the meeting, which would have broken the quorum. As a result, he said, other candidates for the award were not discussed.

The issue erupted last week, when Steven Emerson published a piece in the New Republic online and appeared on FOX-TV attacking Hathout as an extremist. Since then, other pro-Israel organizations have opposed the selection, including the American Jewish Congress, Zionist Organization of America and StandWithUs.

But other major Jewish organizations have taken no position, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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