Trying to Talk

Relations between Southern California’s 600,000 Jews and 500,000 Muslims, which have been marked by roller coaster-like ups and downs over a 50-year history, have hit near bottom in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

With more than 200 hate crimes against Arab Americans reported nationally since then, some here are trying to decrease tensions between the Muslim and Jews communities.

The most recent attempts at building bridges between leaders of the two communities — named the Jewish-Muslim Dialogue — was already on hold before Sept. 11, in the wake of the bitterness engendered by the intifada.

But the dialogue returned to the news last week after a prominent Muslim participant suggested that Israel be considered a suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca convened his own version of Oslo to help address fears and prejudices.

Baca enlisted the support of Rabbi Stephen Jacobs of Kol Tikvah and Dr. Nazir Khaja of the Islamic Information Group to bring members of the Jewish and Islamic communities together and open the dialogue between faiths.

“It ultimately has to come from the hearts and minds of the people,” Baca said.

In 1999, Khaja, a Palestinian American, negotiated alongside Jesse Jackson for the release of four Americans being held hostage by Slobodan Milosevic.

“Out of 1.2 billion Muslims, 80 percent are non-Arab,” Khaja told The Journal. “They live in Southern Asia and the Far East. They don’t speak Arabic; have very little knowledge of it. Yet the authentic source of Islam is in Arabic. They are left to rely solely on second-hand teaching from leaders who have gained the knowledge of Arabic and teach these masses their own version of Islam with their own agendas attached.”

Since his move to the United States in 1972, Khaja trained at Harvard University-affiliated hospitals in Boston and then moved to Los Angeles, where he has been a clinical assistant professor at UCLA School of Medicine. Realizing there was very little information about Islam in Los Angeles, Khaja founded the Islamic Information Service. On the way to Belgrade, Khaja met Rabbi Stephen Jacobs.

“If there is a positive to this huge tragedy, it is the relationships that can be built and mended, as well as a recognition of the Arab Americans in this country,” Khaja said.

On the eve of Rosh Hashana, in front of some 2,500 congregants, Jacobs shared a letter written by Usman Farman, a young Pakistani man from New York. A Chassidic Jew rescued Farman as he lay in front of the World Trade Center. “Help came from the least expected place, and goes only to show, that we are all in this together … regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. Those are principles that this country was founded on,” Jacobs said.

But that coming together was jolted less than a week after the initiation of interfaith meetings when Arab American leader Salam Al-Marayati told KCRW radio host Warren Olney that Israel is a state which might ultimately benefit from the terrorism in New York.

According to the show’s transcript, Al-Marayati said at one point, “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.”

Al-Marayati subsequently told the Los Angeles Times that the quotation was accurate but taken out of context, and he sent a “clarification” to Jewish leaders.

These actions did not mollify David Lehrer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, who told the Times, “I’ve had a long relationship with Salam, and I am so disillusioned with what he has done in the past week as to not be interested in engaging in a dialogue with him.”

Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, a veteran dialogue participant, labeled Al-Marayati’s statement “so offensive and provocative that I am in crisis as to whether I am going to stay in the dialogue.”

Further raising Jewish ire were several anti-Zionist articles in the local Muslim magazine, Minaret. The publication went to press before Sept. 11, but angered Jewish leaders, who noted that the editor, Aslam Abdullah, was a longtime dialogue partner and so-called moderate.

Muslims, in turn, protested when the Simon Wiesenthal Center posted a photo on its Web site showing cheering Palestinians as they celebrated the suicide attacks on New York and Washington.

Charging that the photo fanned “the flames of ethnic and religious hatred,” a handful of Muslims held a brief press conference in front of the Wiesenthal Center.

The photo was removed from the Web site after the Associated Press, which had sent out the picture, removed it from circulation, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate dean.

Into this heated arena, a somewhat unexpected peacemaker has come to the front: Lee Baca, sheriff of Los Angeles County.

Baca, a Latino elected public official, brought together spiritual leaders from five synagogues and five mosques shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

A second interfaith meeting, convened by Baca on Thursday, Sept. 20, drew elected officials and some 70 participants, representing the spectrum of the county’s religions. The Journal was the only media present.

In contrast to past Jewish-Muslim dialogues, in which the Jewish representation heavily outnumbered the Muslim one, the situation was reversed at the Baca meeting.

Gov. Gray Davis, Supervisor Zev Yaroslovsky and County Mayor Mike Antonovich sat beside Baca at the meeting.

Addressing religious leaders from Muslim, Jewish and Christian groups, Davis asked them to “make your views known in a strong way.” Urging leaders to “prove to ourselves and the state, if we live here, we are Americans and all one people. We must condemn violence against any group.”

Many leaders pleaded with officials to stop media outlets and other groups from making the situation worse. “The message resonates more fully when it comes from the clerics and community members to which it was directed. My words are not as useful or as powerful as yours,” Davis responded.

Yaroslovsky discussed the “nervousness in the Jewish community,” asking leaders to “protect civil liberties and not scapegoat issues.”

Baca asked the leaders to “come in with a kinder heart. Don’t think privately and speak out publicly to unveil your prejudices to the public. What we say here can’t be minimized by other actions in other forms in other places. If I did that as sheriff, it would be a breach of my responsibility to protect. I ask you to reach that level of agreement with yourself.”

Rabbi Leonard Beerman, a longtime participant in Jewish-Muslim dialogue, said: “We can’t expect to agree on some of the critical issues. It doesn’t mean we cannot see the humanity of the other people.

“The discussion should focus on the fact that Jews and Muslims have a right to be who they are. If we could try to keep our eye on the ball and the central issue, we would see that Israelis and Palestinians have a right to their own identities,” Beerman added.

Rabbi Marc Dworkin of Leo Baeck Temple said one way to keep dialogue going is to keep discussion local. “The task at hand is to heal our community. People are traumatized,” he said. “Pakistani Muslims are afraid to send their kids to school. Human civil rights are for everyone. Once there is a relationship between people and trust, we can take on the difficult issues.”