Imam finds passionate ally in Rabbi

3 08 2008

Friendship on display during deportation hearings

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.

During his trial, and in numerous press interviews, Qatanani denied ever having ties to Hamas. He said he didn’t disclose the detention in his green card application because the Israelis had never told him he was convicted of a crime. He said Israelis routinely detained Palestinian men at the time and added that he’d been tortured for much of his three-month detention.

“When I first heard about the torture, I couldn’t believe it,” Senter said. “That kind of treatment is clearly not a Jewish value. My first thought was ‘It can’t be true.’ ”

But then an expert on the Israeli judicial system testified that the harsh treatment described by Qatanani had been commonly applied at the time. The expert noted that the Israeli authorities’ interrogation tactics were outlawed by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1999.

“I thought, ‘My God, this really happened,’ ” Senter said.

But he reconciled the painful realization.

“Israel is a self-correcting society,” he said. “The Supreme Court outlawed the torture.”

In the imam’s fight against deportation, Senter has emerged as one of his most passionate allies.

In the courtroom, before the trial, Senter, a towering figure at 6-foot-4, grasped the hands of the imam, a diminutive man who is slightly over 5 feet, and said a prayer for him in Hebrew, then in English.

On the witness stand, and in press releases, he condemned a government prosecutor’s reference to a Quran passage that the imam had uttered in a sermon.

“Quoting the Quran out of context in an effort to discredit the imam is frightening,” Senter wrote in an e-mail to the press. “The same thing can be done with the Torah or Christian Scripture in an effort to cast a shadow on any religious leader. I was shocked that a representative of the U.S. government would use the tactics of hatemongers in an effort to tip the scales of justice. Islam and the Quran are not on trial.”

They clung to and nurtured their friendship, despite great odds. Each faced criticism from their congregants as their interfaith efforts with each other’s house of worship grew.

“Our community was not ready for a dialogue with Jews,” Qatanani said. “People said: ‘How can you trust people who took our homes, who took Palestine?’

“They said Jews would never accept Muslims or Islam.”

Senter, whose synagogue begins services with a prayer for the Israeli Defense Forces, encountered similar skepticism. And though both men say their congregations have come a long way in supporting their friendship, and bonds have formed among some congregants, not everyone goes along with it.

Senter, in particular, was a target of angry words after his vehement support for the imam during the trial.

A Pittsburgh man wrote that Senter’s support of Qatanani was “… hurting your reputation and is damaging to the entire Jewish Nation. Please refrain from these continued public statements which bring shame on our community and our people.”

In a recent synagogue newsletter, Senter responded to his critics by saying: “Are there those who will look at him and automatically believe that the things being said about him are true? Absolutely. These people may constitute a significant grouping within the Jewish community.

“I, however, have a personal and professional relationship with this man.

He has put himself on the line personally and professionally to say that Jews and Muslims can and should peacefully co-exist. … Could I turn my back on him? Sure I could. I would be no better than the Christian clergy in Nazi Germany.”

The two men have gotten used to the stares they get when they — Senter, in his yarmulke, and Qatanani in his kufi and flowing Islamic robe — enter restaurants together to catch up with each other’s lives.

Senter has spoken at the mosque about the importance of forging bonds, but also about his support of the state of Israel and its right to defend itself. The imam has spoken at the synagogue.

“We used to not speak about politics,” Senter said. “I thought, we’re never going to agree, so why discuss it? But our friendship got to the point where we could disagree and still be fine.”

“I really care about him. He is a true friend,” said Qatanani.

They hope their ability to connect despite their differences will serve as a lesson.

“In the Middle East, there are some real boundaries that keep people apart,” Senter said. “Here, in this country, the only boundaries that exist are in our minds.”