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Jewish World Review Aug. 6, 1999 /24 Av, 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Probing The Limits of Civility: When Community Relations Collides With Communal Interests -- EARLIER IN THE YEAR, I received a letter from a reader who was concerned because of a letter she had received from a local utilities company. It turned out that the company was doing a program with a local Arab-American communal group which benefited from the association with the company.

The reader saw some Arabic writing in the mailing and freaked out. She didn't know what it exactly what it meant but she didn't like the look of it. She wanted the Jewish Exponent to find out what was up.

I asked one of our reporters to look into the matter and after a couple of brief inquiries, he discovered that the whole thing was entirely innocuous.

The local Arab group was completely above board and the utility was doing nothing out of the ordinary.

As far as I was concerned, that was the end of the story. Which is to say that we published nothing because nothing was there to write about. Except that wasn't the end of the story.

It turns out that the utility (which we had called to find out about the program) got very nervous about being questioned (however gently) about their association with an Arab group.

The utility called the local Arab-American group and let them know that the Jewish Exponent was "investigating" them. The Arab-American group was made to feel that the future of their association with the utility was somehow in jeopardy.

Eventually I met with representatives of the Arab group along with the head of the Jewish Community Relations Council to talk about the issue The conversation was open and friendly and ended with everyone agreeing to keep in touch.

I explained to them that newspapers are supposed to ask questions and that we had behaved appropriately. Nothing we had done should have been the cause of any problem between them and the utility.

They understood that but still felt it was unfair for us to question them when we wouldn't have made inquiries about another ethnic group. I acknowledged that they had a point, but that didn't mean we shouldn't ask questions when they come up. Yet, I resolved to think carefully about the consequences of such decisions the next time such an issue crossed my desk.

The problem is, relations between Jews and Arabs in this country are, shall we say, delicate.

Leiters Sukkah On the one hand, the majority of Arab-Americans are no less respectable and just as much decent citizens as the majority of American Jews. They don't deserve to be stereotyped negatively as supporters of terrorism.

And given the fact that Israel and the Palestinian Arabs are involved in a peace process, the points of conflict between friends of Israel and American supporters of the Palestinians ought to be fewer in number. But problems still exist.

The fact remains that there is substantial support for extremist Arab terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad among Arab-Americans. As investigative journalist Steven Emerson has reported in a number of articles and his documentary film "Islam in America," the American support network for Arab terrorism has played a crucial role in keeping both Hamas and Islamic Jihad alive.

The question is, does our interest in good communal relations with Arab-Americans outweigh our need to speak out against those who support or justify terrorism?

Once there would have been no question that when anyone said something that in any way justified terrorism against both Israelis and Americans, the Jewish community would have spoken with one voice in denouncing such persons and demanding that they have no place in Washington. But is there still a Jewish consensus on this issue?

Maybe not.

The most recent example of the crack in this consensus was last month's brouhaha over the appointment of one Salem al-Marayati to the U.S. Commission on Terrorism by House Minority leader Richard Gephardt (D-Missouri).

Marayati, heads a group called the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a group that has made a habit out of justifying Islamic and Palestinian terrorism and vilifying Israel.

But he is also a member of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission and has strong ties with many Jewish leaders in Southern California.

Many national Jewish groups noted the absurdity of appointing someone who supported terror to a commission devoted to fighting it and called for the withdrawal of Marayati's appointment.

Within a couple of weeks, Gephardt broke down and rescinded the appointment. Ironically, that was just the beginning of a groundswell of support for Marayati.

The first indicator of this swing was the the front page New York Times article reporting Gephardt's switch. The outrageous headline screamed "Gephardt Bows to Jews' Anger Over Nominee."

The Times' spun the story as one of a prejudiced Jewish community stigmatizing an Arab-American. And most editorial pages around the country followed their lead.

Indeed, Marayati even won some support among American Jews, especially in Los Angeles. The head of the local Anti-Defamation League office vowed to continue working with him, the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles opposed the attacks on Marayati and one L.A. rabbi even denounced opposition to Marayati as "ignorance, mindlessness and arrogance."

Some choose to single out Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, as the villain of the piece, despite the fact that ZOA was not the only major Jewish organizations that had opposed Marayati. Others rationalized Marayati's statements as understandable because they see Arab resistance to Israel as, in some sense, justifiable from the Arab point-of-view.

It has become fashionable to bash Marayati's denouncers in the name of good manners. According to some Jews these days, holding people like Marayati accountable is something only prejudiced "extremists" are interested in doing.

Do they think the peace process in the Middle East has progressed to the point where defense of Israel's interests no longer requires a strong stand on terrorism? Or do good community relations with Arab-Americans require us to shut up about people like Marayati?

If the mainstream of American Jewry's answer to either question is yes, then we have reached a watershed on these issues, perhaps without even realizing it. The increasing acceptance of Arab-American leaders - including those who have said nice things about Hamas - in Washington and the White House, has meant that friends of Israel are now put in the postion of having to attack people with powerful friends.

We do need to be judicious in our comments about Arab-Americans and should not frivolously court a confrontation. But neither should we be silent when outrage is necessary.

Those who have defended Marayati have stigmatized his opponents as ill-mannered extremists. But there are limits to civility, and when a man crosses the line into justifying Arab terror against Israel as Marayati has done, American Jews needn't be shy about speaking out. Indeed, to refrain from doing so, is to exhibit a form of moral cowardice.

And that is a characteristic far more lamentable than bad manners.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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©1999, Jonathan Tobin