WASHINGTON — A Muslim activist in Los Angeles is fighting efforts by Jewish organizations to block him from receiving a prestigious human rights award.
The Human Relations Commission of Los Angeles County is planning, on October 5, to grant the John Allen Buggs Award for outstanding human relations work to Dr. Maher Hathout, a champion of interfaith dialogue and an advocate of reformist, modernist Islam. Jewish organizations are objecting to Hathout’s receiving the award on the grounds that he has made virulently anti-Israeli statements in the past.
The American Jewish Committee, the Zionist Organization of America and the Los Angeles-based group StandWithUs have been lobbying the commission and the county’s Board of Supervisors not to give Hathout the prize. They are arguing that a person who has called Israel “a racist apartheid state” and a nation of “butchers,” in addition to defending Hezbollah and accusing America of committing acts of terrorism, is not an appropriate recipient of a humanitarian award.
“His language is not one of a bridge builder. It is not the language of a person who is a uniter but [the language of] a divider,” said Sherry Weinman, president of the Los Angeles office of the AJCommittee.
“He’s entitled to say whatever he wants to say, but our community should not honor him for it,” she told the Forward. “His language is inciting. It’s not the language of human relations.”
Hathout, 70, an Egyptian-born retired cardiologist and a longtime activist in Muslim American organizations, has left a long trail of vituperative anti-Israeli comments over the past decade. His defenders, however, note that he also has made statements in support of interfaith tolerance and in opposition to violence and terrorism.
In an interview with the Forward, Hathout said there is no contradiction between criticizing Israeli policies and preaching tolerance. “I am getting an award from Los Angeles County, not from the State of Israel,” he quipped.
Hathout said that as the former president of the Interreligious Council of Southern California and as the initiator of the Muslim-Jewish dialogue in the city, he has demonstrated respect for Jews and for their faith. In addition, he added, “I have condemned terrorists before and after September 11” and condemned suicide bombing as a “major sin.”
At the same time, he said, “I also criticize, in strong language, the behavior of the State of Israel.” Hathout said that by fighting those who are attempting to reverse the commission’s decision, he is trying to show that “you can be a good American patriotic citizen, bringing people together [while] criticizing the State of Israel.” He added, “Whatever I said about the State of Israel is irrelevant to Los Angeles County.”
Jewish activists disagree. In letters and phone calls to commissioners and trustees, leaders of the Los Angeles Jewish community argued that when bestowing such an award upon a person whose public record is as broad as Hathout’s, all facets ought to be taken into account, including inflammatory statements.
In an unusual step, after being bombarded with e-mails from opponents and from supporters of Hathout’s nomination, L.A.’s Human Relations Commission called a special hearing September 11 to hear opinions from both sides. Hathout was also invited to answer to critics. He already had done so September 8, when he convened a press conference with supportive Muslim, Christian and Jewish clerics who said that regardless of his views and statements about Israel, he deserves to be honored for his interfaith efforts.
Jewish communal sources in Los Angeles who have been in touch with members of the commission told the Forward that commissioners were not aware of Hathout’s controversial statements when they approved his nomination for the award.
The commission’s executive director, Robin Toma, told the Los Angeles Times this week that Hathout received backing from only six of the committee’s 14 members. On July 10, when the commission met, only eight of the members were present, just enough to form a quorum, she said.
Toma told the L.A. Times that the voting process was rushed because one of the commissioners had to leave the meeting early. She also said that the person who nominated Hathout for the award — Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council — told commissioners that two of the L.A. County supervisors supported the nomination. Both supervisors, Zev Yaroslavsky and Mike Antonovich, have denied that they supported the idea of granting Hathout an award. Although the Board of Supervisors appoints the commission’s members, these members act independently and do not report to the board.
Members of the commissioners reportedly told L.A. Jewish communal leaders that they are in a bind: On the one hand, they would rather not give the award to someone who has made such inflammatory statements; on the other, stripping Hathout of the nomination would be unseemly. “It’s a very, very difficult situation,” Toma told the L.A. Times. “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.”
The commission will reconvene Monday, September 18, to discuss the Hathout nomination, after which it will announce its final decision, commission members told local Jewish communal activists. These activists said that although they had clear indications that most commissioners were uncomfortable with the nomination, the commission would be even more uncomfortable with reversing, under pressure, a decision that already has been made and publicly announced.