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L.A. Panel Reaffirms Muslim's Award

But controversy shrank commission's support, and abstentions outnumber yes votes.

September 19, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission voted Monday to reaffirm its selection of Muslim leader Maher Hathout for a human relations award, ending a bitter, two-week battle that many lamented has seriously set back the region's Muslim-Jewish relations.

After a hearing marked by vitriolic name-calling and the expulsion of one unruly audience member, only four of the 14 commission members voted to support Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California and the first Muslim to receive the county's John Allen Buggs Award. Five members abstained; four were absent.

Hathout said he was not concerned by so many abstentions and called the vote a victory for free speech, inclusiveness and a rejection of the "tactics of intimidation."

"We will not allow untouchable and sacred cows in the midst of our democracy," said Hathout, referring to Israel. He added that he was accepting the award for the "Jews, Christians, Buddhists, atheists and Muslims" who supported him.

The furious fight over what has normally been a quiet award selection process was sparked when some Jewish groups charged that Hathout, a 70-year-old retired cardiologist, was a closet extremist who denounced Israel as an apartheid state and was soft on terrorism. Their opposition prompted the commission to reopen its July decision selecting Hathout.

Hathout's supporters, who spanned a wide ethnic and religious spectrum, called him a pioneer in promoting moderation, tolerance and understanding.

The Muslim leader, in remarks before the commission vote, offered to meet in a dialogue with critics and expressed regrets for harsh language toward Israel.

But his opponents did not seem mollified. They reiterated that they fully supported his right to express his opinions, but believed he was too divisive to merit a human relations award.

"I'm deeply concerned that the selection of Dr. Hathout will further divide our city and will set up extremist rhetoric as a desirable form of public discourse," said Roz Rothstein, national director of StandWithUs, a Los Angeles-based pro-Israel organization.

"It is regrettable that this will now be L.A.'s public image of good human relations," Rothstein said.

Despite the continuing conflict, commission President Adrian Dove said the controversy -- which he called the biggest in his 12 years of county human relations work -- had presented his group with an opportune chance to begin repairing the region's Muslim-Jewish relations.

Those relations have considerably soured in the last five years, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has heightened sensitivities here.

The region's first significant Muslim-Jewish dialogue group, which Hathout and others began in the late 1990s, eventually fell apart as the Middle East conflict grew.

The commission has already begun to plan "human relations summits" between Muslims and Jews in an attempt to bridge their differences, said Dove, who can only cast a vote in the event of a tie.

"We realized by our process that we had opened wounds and now recognize where the healing needs to take place," Dove said.

Similar efforts are underway by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has asked the Rev. Leonard Jackson, an associate minister of First African Methodist Episcopal Church, to head a weekly meeting among Jews, Muslims and other faith leaders to improve relations.

In deliberating the issue Monday, some commissioners sought to find a middle way out of the conflict that would address the concerns of both sides.

Commissioner Donna Bojarsky, for instance, proposed that the commission honor Hathout not by granting the award, which she said had become tainted with controversy, but by featuring him as a keynote speaker at the commission's award event scheduled for next month.

"This is clearly not the environment we want for the Human Relations Commission and county," she said, adding that the last 12 days had been "one of the most difficult" in her life. She abstained.

Commissioner Vito Cannella, a 24-year veteran of the human relations body, asked Hathout if he would withdraw in the interest of harmony.

The Muslim leader refused to do so, challenging commissioners to "look me in the eye" and find him unworthy of the honor despite a record, he said, that showed his support of Israel's right to exist, condemnation of terrorist actions by Hamas and Hezbollah and years of interfaith work.

Cannella ultimately abstained Monday in a shift from his previous vote of support in July.

He said he changed his mind based on new information received reflecting divided opinion toward Hathout.

He said he believed the commission's vote to reaffirm the selection was a mistake.

"Due to the situation, I think we should refrain from giving the award and try to repair the bridges before this time next year," he said.

But Commissioner Albert DeBlanc, who supported Hathout, said his years as an attorney had taught him that judgments should be based on eyewitness testimony rather than hearsay.

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