In a public hearing spiced with accusations of Jew-hating and Muslim-bashing, nearly four dozen religious, ethnic and civil rights activists spoke out Monday on whether a prominent Los Angeles Muslim should be disqualified from receiving a prestigious humanitarian award because he has expressed some views critical of Israel.
Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California, is the first Muslim chosen for the award from the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. But some Jewish groups have vehemently objected to the selection, calling Hathout an extremist masquerading as a moderate, and are urging the commission to rescind the award before it is presented next month.
At Monday's commission hearing, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, an umbrella organization of 22 groups representing 40,000 donors, stepped forward as the latest and most influential opponent to Hathout.
Federation President John R. Fischel told commissioners that Hathout's "false and controversial" statements about Israel - that it is an apartheid state, for instance - had offended and angered many Jews.
"Dr. Hathout takes partisan positions which do not foster harmonious and equitable intergroup relations…. His words regrettably create the very fissures and divides that the [commission] is seeking to repair," Fischel told commissioners.
But Hathout's supporters Monday were more diverse and outnumbered opponents 2 to 1. Christians, Muslims and Jews, blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans, and such civil rights leaders as Connie Rice, who received the 2002 award, spoke forcefully in support of Hathout, describing him as a tireless proponent of interfaith and interethnic harmony.
Rice said it was difficult for her to break with her longtime Jewish friends on the issue, but that Hathout had taken "extraordinarily difficult" actions in promoting tolerance and moderation.
The furor over the award, she said, had turned the issue into a "seminal struggle" over whether Los Angeles would be seen as embracing or rejecting a man who preached tolerant Islamism.
"If we send a message to Muslims in Southern California that someone who has tried so hard to bridge … all of our communities cannot be acknowledged, we would have done extreme damage," Rice said.