In a display of rare unity, major Jewish organizations recently spoke as one in opposing Representative Richard Gephardt’s nomination of Salam Al-Marayati to a national commission evaluating U.S. policy on terrorism. Al-Marayati is executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) in Los Angeles and many of his prior statements, activities and affiliations prompted serious misgivings about his suitability for the anti-terrorism post.
Media coverage of the controversy was startling; Jewish expressions of concern were presented as outrageous and unwarranted, while Al-Marayati’s record was ignored, distorted or whitewashed. This was the case, even though Jewish organizations had cited details of the nominee’s record which showed a striking pattern of rationalizing terrorism, advocating the positions of America’s adversaries and even of inverting terrorist and victim.
No major media outlet investigated Al-Marayati and his affiliations seriously, or provided an independent factual assessment of the competing claims about the candidate. None reported that Al-Marayati’s organization had, for instance, labeled as a terrorist an Israeli bystander who in February 1996 shot an Arab-American after the Arab rammed his car into a crowd of commuters waiting at a Jerusalem bus stop. Shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great), the driver killed an Israeli woman and injured twenty-three others. In his car was literature from the terrorist group Islamic Jihad and subsequent inquiry revealed he had made statements about intending to kill Jews. Nevertheless, MPAC demanded the “extradition” of the Israelis involved in the shooting for trial in the United States on charges of “terrorism” or “conspiracy” to commit terrorism.
Writing in the virulently anti-Israel publication Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Al-Marayati has likened supporters of Israel to Hitler and the writings of former Prime Minister Netanyahu to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Among other extreme anti-Israel positions, in 1997 Al-Marayati’s organization issued an Alert advocating renewal of the Arab economic boycott of Israel.
Among the most troubling statements linked to him are those published in the Minaret magazine, on whose six-member editorial board Al-Marayati serves. A 1998 issue contained an editorial strongly defending French Holocaust-denier Roger Garaudy, who had been tried in French courts and fined for his writings. The Minaret deplored the general silence of Muslim organizations in coming to Garaudy’s defense, but singled out for praise Al-Marayati’s Muslim Public Affairs Council, which alone had “issued an immediate condemnation statement [of the French ruling].”
Al-Marayati has also made numerous disturbing statements about U.S. conduct, claiming, for example, that Iraqi behavior may be “reckless” but “the same can be said about U.S. policy as a result of its reactionary mode.” He has repeatedly compared Jihad, or holy war, to the American struggle for independence and has likened today’s terrorists to Americans fighting in the Revolutionary War. He has written that, “When Patrick Henry said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ that statement epitomized Jihad.” And he has argued that, “American freedom fighters hundreds of years ago were also regarded as terrorists by the British.”
Unlike modern terrorists, of course, American colonists fighting the British did not kidnap, hijack and blow up English civilians. Warfare was directed at military targets. But such bogus comparisons – aimed at deflecting attention from the true nature of terrorism today – were actually dismissed as harmless by the few publications that even bothered to look at some of Al-Marayati’s statements. The Atlanta Journal Constitution scoffed at concerns about such analogies and the Chicago Tribune explained that Jihad means “legitimate struggle,” and that Al-Marayati in any case subscribes to none of this.
The San Francisco Chronicle fulminated that Jewish complaints were “a hail of calumny and character assassination.” The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Sacramento Bee deplored opposition to Al-Marayati and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote that the candidate “got a summary execution.” Rare was the editorial voice that noted, as the New York Post did, that keeping someone like Al-Marayati off a commission charged with making recommendations about U.S. terrorism policy is “an exercise in common sense.”
But the Los Angeles Times championed Al-Marayati like no other media outlet. Running sharply distorted news reports that omitted both direct quotes by the nominee and independent examination of the substance of the controversy, the paper misrepresented entirely the character of Jewish apprehension and criticism. Inverting the truth, Times reporter Larry Stammer claimed absurdly that “moderate” Jewish leaders supported Al-Marayati. He cited voices such as Rabbi Leonard Beerman, who railed at the mainstream Jewish community for “an appalling display of ignorance, mindlessness and arrogance.” This is the same “moderate” Rabbi Beerman who served on the Executive Committee of the far-left Jewish Committee on the Middle East (JCOME), signing their ads which denounced Israel as a “pariah state” where “racialism, religious discrimination, militarism and injustice prevail,” and where events “reminiscent of pogroms” take place that threaten “to stigmatize Jews everywhere.”
Another so-called “moderate” quoted opposing the Jewish groups was Stanley Sheinbaum, who serves on the board of directors of “Deir Yassin Remembered,” a pro-Palestinian organization that aims to “promote the human side of a people who have been the victims of the Zionist colonization of their land and of apartheid conditions under which they now live.”
The Times also repeatedly cited spurious charges that the Jewish community was using “McCarthyite” tactics against Al-Marayati, and it published on its Op-Ed pages a remarkable screed by Professor Norman Birnbaum of Georgetown University. A veteran far-leftist hailing from the editorial boards of the Nation and Tikkun magazines, Birnbaum excoriates Israel, which he deems in “danger of becoming like the Germans from 1933 to 1945—accomplices, if not perpetrators of permanent oppression.” (The only other two Op-Eds on the subject, one by Al-Marayati and his wife, also advocated for the commission appointment.)
The evident fury of the Los Angeles Times at Jewish criticism of Al-Marayati may be related to its own longstanding relationship with him; the paper has published numerous Op-Eds by Al-Marayati over the last five years and quoted him scores of times on Muslim-related topics. Their strongly worded editorial defending him and denouncing his critics shows no trace of willingness to question the record and weigh the facts. They write:
The groups that attacked Al-Marayati combed his public statements for evidence of his supposed tolerance of anti-Israel terrorism. The best they could offer in support of their allegations were a few sentences that some might infer to be insufficiently condemnatory.
This skewed reporting may also have influenced coverage nationally; the Birnbaum column was carried later by several other newspapers and the aggressive opposition to mainstream Jewish sentiment was widely echoed.
The Jewish public, whose concerns about Al-Marayati have been distorted by the media, would do well to challenge such misreporting, lest the community face similar sharp bias in the future, leading potentially to a reluctance about raising legitimate concerns in the face of outrageously unfit candidates and dangerously mistaken policies.