October 19, 2000
Arab and Jewish leaders meet to build trust.
While violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians have captured the headlines in recent weeks, Jewish and Arab leaders in major American cities are working quietly to forestall confrontations between their communities.
Their efforts are marked by some common guidelines.
Don't try to solve - or even discuss - the basic issues roiling the Middle East. Acknowledge deeply felt differences and go on from there. Condemn any act of violence by their co-religionists in the United States. Build on the trust established in previous years in joint battles against discrimination.
In Jewish communities, the efforts are spearheaded by both mainstream and liberal organizations and are most fully developed in Detroit, Los Angeles and New York, cities with the largest Arab and Muslim populations.
"We started establishing contacts with the Arab community after the signing of the Oslo accords seven years ago," says Allan Gale, assistant director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit. The area holds some 200,000 Arab Americans, twice the number of Jewish residents.
"We have worked on such issues as discriminatory immigration laws, racial stereotyping and ethnic profiling at airports.
"We've had some incidents and some vociferous Arab spokesmen, but on the whole relations are good," add Gale. "The Arab community here is reticent to act in an unlawful manner."
In Los Angeles, some 10 Jews and five Arabs met Oct. 17 in the sukkah of one participant. Although all were aware of the Mideast tensions, the meeting had been scheduled some time ago as one in a series of monthly meetings by the "Dialogue Group."
The group was established more than a year ago, when representatives of the two communities signed a code of ethics in a public ceremony.
"We try to keep open our lines of communications open and learn about each other's culture and faith," says Elaine Albert, the urban affairs director for the Jewish Community Relations Committee.
The lines of communication do not include anything as dramatic as secure hotlines or red phones in case of threatening confrontations, "but we are constantly in touch with each other via e-mail or phone," says Albert.
Jewish membership in the dialogue group include the mainstream Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, represented by Albert, and individual members of the Orthodox and Reform communities. Not surprisingly, the group has a strong liberal representation.
One member is attorney Gideon Kracov of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), who says, "We have a joint interest in dealing with hate crimes and maintaining an attitude of mutual respect."
Douglas Mirell, the PJA president, observes that "we're in a period when it's easy to be carried away by emotions and to say things that we may come to regret later. We need to curtail the level of rhetoric here and the level of violence in the Mideast."
Another liberal activist is Rabbi Allen I. Freehling of University Synagogue in Brentwood, who says, "We will experience more difficult times, but I'm optimistic that we can maintain a relationship of trust and respect with the Arab-American community."
A leading Arab voice within the dialogue group and on the Los Angeles scene is Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee.
Al-Marayati tends to attract controversy. A year ago, his appointment to the National Commissions on Terrorism was rescinded under pressure from mainline national Jewish organizations, which described him as an apologist for terrorists.
Many Los Angeles Jews who have worked with al-Marayati took issue with this description, and his organization strongly condemned the recent destruction of Joseph's Tomb in Nablus by rampaging Palestinians.
"Our dialogue with the Jewish community is working," says al- Marayati. "We are both free communities, and if we can't talk to each other, how can you expect Palestinians and Israelis to talk to each other? At all times, we must show zero tolerance for violence and hate crimes."
Phone calls to other leading Arab organizations in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, such as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Arab-American Institute, went unanswered.
Al-Marayati said that the lack of response did not indicate a reluctance to talk to the Jewish press, but simply that for the past few weeks, Arab spokesmen have been inundated by media calls. "I only get to answer one in 10 requests," he said.
In New York, Michael S. Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, is one of the key figures in the "Coalition of Concerned Arab-Christians, Jews and Muslim New Yorkers." The coalition will meet next Monday and recently released a statement, noting, "Although the tensions that currently exist in the Middle East can intensify emotions here in New York, we can not allow these events to divide our city."
In addition, "isolated incidents must not be used as an excuse for scapegoating or reason to condemn entire communities," the statement noted, adding," By working cooperatively, this coalition can serve as a model for our children and a shining beacon guiding other groups toward resolving their differences."