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AWARD CONFIRMED MUSLIM TO KEEP HUMANITARIAN HONOR.

Byline: BRAD A. GREENBERG Staff Writer

The county Commission on Human Relations on Monday affirmed a decision to honor the humanitarian efforts of a local Muslim who has promoted interfaith dialogue but also called Israel an ``apartheid state'' run by ``butchers.''

The commission's decision this summer to recognize Maher Hathout with the prestigious John Allen Buggs award caused a deep divide in Los Angeles religious communities, particularly between Muslims and Jews, after it was revealed that Hathout had made statements supporting Hezbollah as ``freedom fighters'' and sharply criticizing Israel.

During the past three weeks, Hathout has steadfastly defended his right to freely speak his mind, and his interfaith work has been strongly supported by a broad cross section of Angelenos, including some Jews.

``They are actually supporting America, the American way,'' Hathout, chairman of the L.A.-based Islamic Center of Southern California, said after a sometimes vitriolic 2 1/2-hour hearing. ``We will not allow untouchable sacred cows in the midst of our democracy.''

L.A.'s largest Jewish advocacy and community groups expressed regret after Monday's vote.

`Divisive'

``The mandate of the county Commission on Human Relations speaks very clearly in terms of building bridges and creating harmonious relationships in a very, very diverse, often fragmented, pluralistic Los Angeles County,'' said John R. Fischel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. ``The man has taken positions that are divisive.''

``A true humanitarian and man of peace does not have to worry about his words or actions being used by someone, however misguided, as a justification for violence,'' Sherry Weinman, president of the L.A. chapter of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement.

Monday's hearing was a showdown between Hathout's right to criticize governmental policies and the discretion and sensitivity that would be employed by the kind of bridge-builders the commission seeks to honor.

Unity was clearly absent in the Supervisors Hearing Room at the Hall of Administration. A metal detector screened attendants as they entered. Hathout was flanked as he sat near the dais by two bodyguards wearing bulletproof vests under their suits. There was a sense that Jews who supported Hathout were traitors. And the audience responded to most public comments from the speakers, called to the lectern in about 20 pairs of pro and con, with boos or applause.

``We should count our blessings that we have people like Dr. Hathout espousing mainstream Islamic-American ideals,'' said Maha Youness, 36, of Pasadena.

That sentiment sickened Marsha Roseman, who is Jewish.

``Throughout the centuries, people have said things like Mr. Hathout against us, and we have been slaughtered because of it,'' the 61-year-old Van Nuys woman said.

But Dan Wolf, whose father received the commission's first annual John Anson Ford Award for human relations in 1972, said Hathout was one of only two nonfamily members or rabbis at Rabbi Alfred Wolf's funeral two years ago.

``Were he alive today, my father would be here instead of me, speaking far more eloquently than I on behalf of Dr. Hathout and his life as a fellow builder of bridges,'' said Wolf of Glendale, later adding, ``To be sure, Dad and Dr. Hathout did not agree on everything -- what brothers do? But brothers they were.''

A 70-year-old native of Egypt who immigrated 35 years ago and practiced cardiology, Hathout is the first Muslim to receive the Buggs award. He was nominated for the award after the commission learned that its first choice, the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., was unavailable to accept.

Hathout was selected, and all was quiet until The New Republic Online ran a story Aug. 31 that included a 2000 speech Hathout gave in a park across from the White House.

``At the moment you come to demonstrate, this means you are taking your message to the streets of America. So the message we have should be clear, should be crisp and should be consistent,'' Hathout said to a group in Lafayette Park. ``We did not come here to condemn the condemned atrocities committed by the apartheid brutal state of Israel, because butchers do what butchers do.''

After the vote Monday, Hathout said he regretted ``the use of harsh language'' but stood by his criticism of Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

The Rev. Zedar E. Broadous, one of the four commissioners to affirm Hathout's selection, said those opinions should not disqualify him from receiving the award.

``If you look at the whole man and the whole landscape of his life, you can see the great things he has done and the great things he continues to do,'' said Broadous, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Pacoima.

Five abstain

In all, four commissioners supported Hathout, five abstained and five were absent. None voted against him.

The commissioners are appointed by the Board of Supervisors. The others who supported Hathout were Susanne Cumming, Albert DeBlanc and Tong Suk Chun. Those abstaining were Eleanor Montano, Mario Ceballos, Rebecca Issacs and two commissioners who said they did not believe Hathout should receive the award but withheld their votes nonetheless, Vito Canella and Donna Bojarsky.

``Our duty is to create harmony, and maybe in this issue we failed and should accept the responsibility,'' Canella said before suggesting that no one receive the award this year.

Bojarsky, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, said she would rather invite Hathout to be the keynote speaker at the John Anson Ford dinner at which the Buggs award would have been presented.

She then abstained because she said she ``thought it was the better human-relations decision. We need to move forward.''

brad.greenberg(at)dailynews.com

(818) 713-3634

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(color) Local Muslim leader Maher Hathout looks on Monday during a special session of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission.

Gus Ruelas/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 19, 2006
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