June 26, 2000
By Tom Tugend
LOS ANGELES Jewish leaders here have again come to the defense of a controversial Muslim leader who was rejected last year from a national commission on terrorism. But in contrast to last year's events involving Salam Al-Marayati, when local Jewish leaders complained that national Jewish organizations based on the East Coast spoke out without consulting them, most national groups decided to stay out of the recent controversy.
Rep. James Rogan
Local Jewish leaders backed Al-Marayati after the campaign manager of Rep. James Rogan (R-Calif.) criticized his Democratic challenger in the upcoming election, Adam Schiff, for attending a forum with the controversial Muslim leader.
"I have worked with Al-Marayati on many community events," said Rabbi Gilbert Kollin of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, in Rogan's district. "I'm sure we don't agree on, say, the future of Jerusalem, but no one has a right to suggest that he is an apologist for terrorism."
Kollin made his comments at a news conference last week in Al- Marayati's defense attended by a dozen liberal clergymen and community leaders of various faiths. Irv Rubin, the leader of the Jewish Defense League, enlivened the conference by hoisting a sign reading, "Rogan Doesn't Kiss Terrorists' Butt." The controversy began after Al-Marayati's organization, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, together with Mormon, Presbyterian and Unitarian churches, sponsored a forum on "The Role of Alcohol in Crime." Schiff and Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti were the main speakers.
Two days later, Jason Roe, Rogan's campaign manager, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying that Schiff's presence at the same forum with Al-Marayati "raised some questions about the associations" Schiff "plans to keep" if elected to Congress. Pointing to the pro-terrorist sentiments attributed to Al-Marayati last year, Roe said it seems "odd that Sen. Schiff would feel comfortable, especially as a Jew, to be participating in this event." Roe added that Rogan had declined to appear at the same forum because of Al-Marayati's co-sponsorship of the meeting.
Parke Skelton, Schiff's campaign manager, said that Rogan "is trying to drive a wedge between Schiff and the Jewish community." Al-Marayati said Rogan had attended several events with him during the past five years. Rogan, running for re-election in a district north of Los Angeles, was one of the most zealous among the 13 Republican House managers who carried the impeachment charges against President Clinton last year.
The race, whose outcome may help determine which party controls the House next year, is neck and neck, with both sides pouring millions of dollars into the contest.
A year ago, the sharpest protests to Al-Marayati's appointment to the National Commission on Terrorism by House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) came from the New York headquarters of the American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations.
Al-Marayati maintained that the statements attributed to him were lies or comments twisted out of context, and many local Jewish liberal leaders and the city's main Jewish newspaper came to his defense, but Gephardt withdrew the Muslim leader's nomination. A Christian Arab American was appointed to the commission.
The attacks elicited widespread resentment from Los Angeles officials and members of the organizations. In addition, some national Jewish organizations criticized a code of ethics signed last year by Los Angeles Jewish and Muslim leaders.
The regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, whose national headquarters protested Al-Marayati's appointment last year, indicated the changed attitude. "We have had and continue to have substantial differences with Salam Al-Marayati on a variety of issues," said David Lehrer. "But that doesn't mean that we or others ought to shun him or treat him as a pariah. There is room for civil discourse." Added Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents, "In contrast to last year, I consider the present controversy a local matter and we won't get into it."
One group that spearheaded last year's protest about the appointment of Al-Marayati was in no mood to change its tactics. The president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, said, "No person in politics should have any dealing with a man who praises such terrorist groups as Hamas and Hezbollah, and who signed a letter calling for the dismantling of Israel. The fact that Schiff appeared in public with Al-Marayati gives credibility to a man who compared Prime Minister Netanyahu to Hitler and praised Holocaust deniers."
Rabbi Dov Fischer, president of the ZOA's Los Angeles district, launched a media campaign in support of Rogan. Fischer, who said his chapter was formed about six months ago after the first Al-Marayati controversy, released a letter praising Rogan's "moral courage in standing up against those who would justify terrorism."
Meanwhile, the controversy quieted by the end of the week. Rogan and Al-Marayati met at a Chamber of Commerce banquet, and the congressman handed the Muslim leader a letter, which said in part: "I have reviewed statements attributed to you. Many of them were hostile toward Israel. As a longtime supporter of Israel, I strongly reject those sentiments. However, provocative foreign policy opinions do not equate with pro-terrorist opinions. I find nothing in your previous statements that I have seen indicating you encourage or support terrorism."