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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.

"I wouldn't say we made great progress," says Hassan Shareef, a center spokesperson. Shareef, who attended the breakfast, says fireworks flew when the imam told Singer and Gralnick that, "Muslims don't like Jews in Israel but don't have the same kind of animosity toward Jews in America."

"It was uncomfortable," Shareef recalls. "Mr. Gralnick explained to us that Jewish people do not differentiate between those in Israel and those in the United States. We understand that it offends Jewish people for us to separate Israel and America in this nationalistic sense. That is what we have come to understand. But they have to understand certain aspects of our faith."

Singer describes the meeting as "typically Middle Eastern": "It was calm, pleasant, formal," he says. "You know, like they always like to do."

Gralnick, however, dismisses the meeting as "public relations," saying that the best action right now is no action. "I don't know what good it would do anybody just to get us in a room together. That might even be dangerous," he asserts. "We considered the material [on the Website] blasphemous. The imam was very open about the fact that, if something was quoted from the Koran, that was just the way it is."

"No public dialogue is really in order until we get beyond the present mood," Singer says. And the rabbi doesn't anticipate pressure from members of Temple Beth El to move forward with communication. No one has requested that so far, but if someone does, Singer says, he would probably invite Muslim leaders to Temple Beth El without playing detective first.

Gralnick, however, says he's more resolute than ever about putting any Muslim through a series of checks. Although he would not detail how that information would be compiled, Gralnick says the American Jewish Committee "starts with the state department's lists of terrorist organizations. We assume that any individual that appears in the press and at rallies and who's on that list is going to be in our files. We have files on people who we think may do us harm: the Klan, the John Birch Society. I don't apologize for that."

Dremali is offended by the idea of being investigated. "There's already so much misunderstanding between us that that seems to make things much worse, the assumption that we are already suspects," he says. "I'm afraid any little mistake Muslims may have made in their lives will be known, exploited, used by a small group of people to their advantage. [Gralnick] told me that several million Muslims are already questionable to him. What gives them that authority?"

Although Jewish leaders support Gralnick's belief that the two groups should continue to refrain from open dialogue, they are distancing themselves from the term background checks.

Boca's chapter of the Anti-Defamation League aims to protect the rights of South Florida's 580,000 Jews, 64,500 of whom live in Boca Raton; the majority of Jews throughout the region attend conservative synagogues. The organization also serves South Florida's 70,000 Muslims, who first began migrating to the area in significant numbers 15 years ago. It's unclear how many Muslims live in Boca, but approximately 15 mosques and 10 houses of prayer have sprung up in southern Palm Beach County since the mid-1980s.

ADL director Bill Rothchild and associate director Ilene Goodman split hairs on the topic of Muslim and Jewish forums. They say they would recommend the groups "proceed with caution" and perform background checks not on Muslim organizations but on individual Muslims.

Not everyone with the league is quick to impose conditions on talks between Jews and Muslims. Art Teitelbaum, the organization's Southern Area director, says that, though Muslims have lived in South Florida for decades, only in the past few years have followers of Islam increased their civic and social presences here. "Now we have an extraordinary situation created by events here and in the Middle East," says Teitelbaum, who has led thousands of interfaith forums. "I can't think of a better time to talk than right now."

A voice from the Muslim community agrees. Dr. Zulfiqar Shah, the director of Fort Lauderdale's Islamic Studies Center and former University of Florida scholar on Judaism and Islam, says restricting communication between Jews and Muslims is "damaging, foolish, and dangerous."

"We need to unify our religions, not try to discard each other's credibility," effuses Shah. "This is not the time for picking apart issues mired in the Middle East. We must refocus as a nation and face terror like a nation. Dialogue is the best thing for everyone. These men call themselves faith leaders; they should act that way."

Dremali says he'd like to organize a forum for Jews and Muslims. "I feel that it's something we must do. Continuing with this level of conflict right here in our town is not healthy," he says. "That is not why I came to this country, to feel divided from another group. There is all this talk about feeling united right now. Well, where is that in Boca?"

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Ashley Fantz
Contact: Ashley Fantz

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