Babel in Boca | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Babel in Boca

Imam Ibrahim Dremali finished evening prayers on September 26 at Boca Raton's Islamic Center in front of a sparse congregation. The mosque, which he had helped establish three years ago, would normally have been packed with worshipers, but the events of September 11 and the subsequent backlash against Muslims in the United States, however sporadic, had thinned the crowd. As he walked out the double doors, he passed two security guards, hired as the result of threatening phone calls he and his flock had received.

As if that weren't enough, the 40-year-old Palestinian-American had spent the day fielding angry complaints from Jewish leaders demanding that the center remove a link from its Web page that teemed with anti-Semitic rhetoric. Dremali didn't know how it got there; he hadn't even seen it yet. He would take it off, he assured them. But around 9 p.m., all he wanted to do was go home, maybe play with his boys, ages eight and ten, and talk with his wife.

Still, he fretted about the link as he walked to his Toyota Camry parked near the mosque. He thought about it on the short drive home.

"I had so much on my mind that, when I saw someone behind me, flashing me with their high beams, I ignored it," he recalls. "I arrived home, stepped out of my car, and I was pushed back into the car. This guy was pushing a big gun into my chest."

A clean-shaven white man wearing a T-shirt and jeans shoved the butt of his gun into Dremali's chest again. "If I see you in church tomorrow," he warned, "you're dead meat."

Another man, similarly dressed, stood at the foot of Dremali's car and pointed a handgun at him. Calmly the assailants climbed back into their white Chevrolet truck and drove away, two American flags flapping on the tailgate.

"I was completely shocked," says Dremali, a Sunni Muslim and karate student with a third-degree black belt. "Obviously they'd followed me from the mosque to my house. I couldn't speak. I felt helpless." He remembers fearing that his boys would rush outside to greet him, as they often did. "My God, what if they would have come outside? I saw death in front of my eyes."

The September 26 assault is still under investigation by Boca Raton police. Distracted by the menacing of their prayer leader, officials of the center didn't think to remove the Web link for four days. Though Dremali has since apologized for the link, the mistrust and ill will between Boca Raton's Jewish and Muslim communities -- which apparently fueled both the hate crime against Dremali and the hate speech that appeared on the center's site -- shows little sign of abating.

The delay in removing the offending link irked local Jewish leaders, particularly William Gralnick, the South Florida regional director of the New York City-based American Jewish Committee, one of the nation's largest Jewish organizations. Gralnick now insists that, if Muslims wish to engage in any sort of official dialogue with Jews, Muslims must initiate the talks and then undergo "background checks" for terrorist ties by the American Jewish Council. Gralnick's position is supported by the Boca Raton chapter of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

The hard-line position seems odd for a man like Gralnick, who has built a career on interfaith relations. Praised by long-time Boca rabbi Samuel Silver for having "a very light touch" and being "an extraordinarily skilled negotiator," the 56-year-old New York native was given an honorary doctorate from Florida Atlantic University in 1999.

On this issue, though, Gralnick is digging in his heels. "I don't think there was an appreciation for how offensive the material on the site was," Gralnick explains while stabbing a caesar salad at famous Jewish deli Wolfie's in Boca Raton. The link, finally removed from the center's home page the first week of October, was penned by someone identified only as "Sheikh." In answering a Web-posted question, "Why can't Jews and Muslims live in peace?" on a Website separate from the Islamic Center, "Sheikh" calls Jews "treacherous... usurpers and aggressors" and describes stories of Muslims murdering Jews.

"Outrageous, unbelievable, and hateful stuff that went on at length," Gralnick fumes about the posting.

"The words on the link were really terrible," Dremali agrees. "We did not know the guy who put it on our site. I didn't know it was there. I believe in working with the Jewish people, especially right now."

At the request of Gralnick and prominent rabbi Merle Singer of Boca's largest synagogue, Temple Beth El, Dremali posted an Internet apology and issued a press release denouncing the link. Neither gesture seemed enough for Gralnick or Singer, both of whom met over breakfast falafels at the imam's home October 3. The leaders emerged from the two-hour-long discussion with nothing more than full bellies and ruffled feathers.