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The right men for the awards

September 14, 2006|Daniel Sokatch | DANIEL SOKATCH is executive director of the Los Angeles-based Progressive Jewish Alliance.

MOMENTS AFTER I heard about the shootings at the Seattle Jewish Federation building earlier this summer, my phone rang. It was Salam Al-Marayati, the executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, calling to express his profound sorrow and anger over this attack by a Muslim on the Jewish community. That Salam called me was not a surprise; during this summer of conflict in the Middle East, we spoke to each other almost daily, trying to keep lines of communication open and tensions down between Los Angeles' enormous Muslim and Jewish communities.

I am thus particularly pained by the recent efforts by some in our community to pressure the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission to reconsider honoring MPAC founder Maher Hathout with a prestigious human relations award, and a similar effort directed at the ACLU of Southern California for honoring Al-Marayati for his work protecting freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Both of these attempts are part of a misguided campaign to marginalize and discredit MPAC.

As those of us dedicated to improving community relations in Los Angeles and to supporting the emergence of a moderate American Muslim voice know, undermining MPAC is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Opposition to Hathout and Al-Marayati is based largely on their positions on the Middle East conflict, something unconnected to either award. Critics accuse both men of being anti-Israel and of supporting and excusing terrorism. They are routinely described as extremists and radical Islamic leaders.

Although both men have made comments with which I strongly disagree, criticizing Israel is not the same as supporting that nation's destruction, nor should it be equated with supporting terrorism. Hathout and Al-Marayati have consistently opposed and condemned terrorism, and both are on the record as supporting Israel's right to exist. MPAC's board of directors has passed a resolution supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and MPAC has dedicated itself to improving relations between L.A. Muslims and Jews.

However much many in the Jewish community may disagree with Hathout's or Al-Marayati's positions on Israel, neither man -- and certainly not MPAC -- can be described as extremist. Israel is not even the main focus of MPAC's work. Far from it.

MPAC exists to protect the civil rights of Muslim Americans and to facilitate their integration into American society. It is a voice of an emerging moderate American Islamic identity, one that sees neither Jews nor Israel as an enemy to be vanquished.

It is just the kind of organization that those worried about the threat of Islamic extremism should seek to work with, not discredit.

Some opposing Hathout and Al-Marayati may genuinely think these two leaders are undeserving of the awards. But others see the two as leaders of an organization that poses an extremist danger to Israel and the U.S. and thus must be excluded from civic discourse.

This is a dangerous delusion. Yes, MPAC is often critical of Israel, and yes, many of us in the Jewish community have reason to disagree with it. But that does not make MPAC the enemy. What kind of message will discrediting MPAC and its leaders -- seen as moderates in the Muslim community -- send to millions of American Muslims about their place in our society? If MPAC's moderate agenda is thwarted, what do we think will take its place?

Those in the Jewish community who desire MPAC's disappearance should be careful what they wish for.

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