One witness’s testimony riveted the courtroom at the deportation trial of a Muslim spiritual leader accused by U.S. officials of having had ties to Hamas.
It was the account of David Senter, an Orthodox-trained rabbi from Pompton Lakes, in defense of Imam Mohammad Qatanani as a man of peace and love and an asset to America.
Senter’s words, tearful at times, and the mere sight of him — a man in a yarmulke speaking out for a Palestinian imam accused of ties to Israel’s avowed enemy — brought a hush to the courtroom.
“For many in my community, it was unexpected support they saw,” Qatanani, 44, said recently in his office at the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Paterson.
Immigration Court Judge Alberto Riefkohl is expected to decide next month whether to grant Qatanani, who came to this country in 1996 on a religious visa, permanent U.S. residency. If Riefkohl rejects Qatanani’s petition, immigration officials could deport him.
Senter’s testimony cemented a friendship between the two men that began four years ago at an interfaith meeting filled with doubt and reluctance.
Their roots, after all, are in territories that are at war with each other, tainted with the blood of so many — soldiers, civilians, paramilitaries, freedom fighters, terrorists, fathers, mothers, children.
Senter, who grew up in Jersey City, lived on the West Bank as a young man, constructing homes in what Palestinians condemn as occupied lands, and ready to use the Uzi on his shoulder.
“I had some positive experiences, and some negative experiences, with Arabs” said Senter, rabbi of the conservative Congregation Beth Shalom and a staunch supporter of Israel.
Qatanani grew up on the West Bank and, like many Palestinians, harbored resentment toward Israel. When he was 10 years old, Qatanani recalled, his father took him to a house in Jafa, a port city on the Mediterranean.
“He said ‘This was our house,’ and he was crying,” Qatanani said, with visible anguish. “A Jewish family was living there. Israel just took our homes.”
The vestiges of their ancestral enmities followed them to North Jersey decades later.
At their first meeting, they approached each other tepidly.
“I’d had interfaith dialogue with Jews before,” Qatanani said. But those meetings tended to stay cordial, diplomatic. “When I met [Senter] for the first time, it was new. There is the history — always — of the Muslims and Jews. In the history of Palestine, there’s the conflict, the misunderstandings.”
Senter is blunt about that first meeting.
“I was frightened when I first saw him,” said Senter, 47. “He had the cap and the robe; he was the image I had seen on TV of Hamas leaders talking about the rockets they’d fired at Israel. I shook his hand, but reluctantly.”
At the time, Qatanani was gaining a statewide reputation as a pillar of moderation in the Muslim community. He was one of the first imams in the nation to publicly condemn terrorism after the 2001 attacks. He urged his congregation to be less insular and to become part of the larger American community.
The image that initially haunted Senter hovered over the imam’s four-day trial in Immigration Court in Newark in May and June. Prosecutors for the Department of Homeland Security contrasted the popular reputation of Qatanani as a peace-loving interfaith leader with a portrait of a man with a dark, lesser-known past.
The imam, his wife and three of his six children (the others were born in the U.S.) face deportation because immigration officials say Qatanani lied on his 1999 green card application when he said he’d never been arrested or convicted of a crime.
Immigration officials say Israeli authorities told them that Qatanani had been detained for three months and convicted of having had ties to the militant group Hamas, which Israel and the United States have designated as a terrorist organization. (MORE)