December 29, 2005
Earlier this month, three California Jews -- all of us strong supporters of Israel -- established a scholarship fund to honor a Palestinian patriot. He was murdered in the terrorist attack in Amman, Jordan, in November, since which time we've been joined by many other prominent members of the local Jewish community. A lot of people have asked me why I was one of the founders. Here's why.
Last April, our van filled with Americans and Jews, Israelis and Arabs, rumbled through traffic to a celebratory dinner hosted by one of Los Angeles' great Jewish philanthropists. We'd finished three days of sparring and collaboration at the Milken Institute Global Conference, imagining how to "privatize the peace process."
Our goal was to propose practical measures for an economic road map to build the infrastructure of a Palestinian economy. We envisioned a Palestinian state that could stand on its own to provide jobs and enough capital to fuel economic stability, a necessity for the two-state solution to conflict that has been the official policy of the U. S., Israel and the rest of the civilized world for more than a decade.
Everyone in that crowded van was animated with the conversational cadences and clamor of the Middle East -- that shared passion of intense human engagement and debate that comes from a common love for the region and a sense that what we spoke and argued about really mattered. Over the previous days, we'd come to know each other.
Like Hagar, the Muslims were raising their eyes from despair to hope, and like Sarah, we Jews were beginning to laugh again and embrace the future. A heady and optimistic sense was returning in the dialogue, fueled by too much coffee and not enough sleep as we anticipated a shared, final meal before planes started departing.
Abed Alloun switched back and forth from English to Hebrew. Over the days, we'd developed a cautious but growing friendship. He'd learned Hebrew during his teen years in Israeli prisons, having cut his political teeth as an activist during the first intifada in the late '80s.
But since Oslo, he'd taken seriously the peace process as the best path to Palestinian statehood. He'd risen swiftly to become a colonel in the Palestinian security services and a deputy interior minister in the Palestinian Authority.
Only recently, he'd left politics for business, in part to support his growing family but also because of a perhaps na?ve but practical sensibility that we'd come to share -- the belief that commerce could best align regional interests to create a constituency for peace, not terrorism and war.
Abed at 36 was a beacon of hope for an emerging, local and young post-Arafat Palestinian leadership -- many of whom died with him in Amman -- seeking peace and trying to bring the two nations in conflict closer together. This new guard was far different from the corrupt "Tunisians" who'd returned with Arafat and the backward-looking Hamas terrorists, both of whom would never stop fighting their version of 1948 war long enough to allow Palestinians to join the community of independent nations in the 21st century. Abed wanted to move on.
Since the Nov. 9 tragedy in Amman, when three men blew themselves up at three hotels, killing 57 innocent Arabs and wounding many more, more than one Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli I've since spoken with have expressed a suspicion that the victims of terror at the Days Inn Hotel in Amman were not just in the wrong place and the wrong time, but rather had been targeted by Hamas or Islamic Jihad, who were working with Al Qaeda.
At the dinner that beautiful evening in April, there was some confusion about dietary diplomacy, and the hostess had asked me to straighten it out. It took a while to get everyone's attention and get hands raised at the long table to answer "who was kosher and who was hallal?" Most were neither, but it was Abed who helped me record the count, and we both laughed, recognizing the irony and appreciation that our respective religious observances could bring us together and not tear us asunder.
It was a rare moment, demonstrating Ben-Gurion's hard but profound simplicity that "you make peace with your enemies." You could see, feel and believe how things could change for our respective homelands.
As the evening wore on and the wine flowed, toasts and personal tales were swapped around the table. Abed rose to thank the hosts and tell a story:
During the closing days of Israel's Defensive Shield offensive into the West Bank in the spring of 2002, Abed represented the Palestinian Authority in negotiations for the disengagement of forces in Jenin. He had witnessed much fighting, bloodshed and shared human misery as he shuttled between Israeli and Palestinian troops to help implement the cease-fire. It had been a long and difficult week, and he candidly recalled his ambivalence about his assignment.
He'd come home to Beit Hanina from that battlefield to find his young daughter glued to inciting Palestinian National Television programming that was amplifying the now long-since disproved charges of Israeli massacres in Jenin. He turned the TV off. His distraught daughter asked him why he was not out fighting the Israelis and that they needed to go kill Jews.
"OK," he said, "but first, I must spend some time with your mom this weekend, and I want you to go for a sleepover with some of our friends. Then, if you still feel we must, we'll go get some guns and kill Jews if that's what you insist."
He called the Israeli who was his military liaison and counterpart in implementing the cease-fire. They'd become friends, and the Israeli and his wife were happy to take Abed's daughter to share Shabbat with their children, who were the same age.
After the weekend was over, he picked his daughter up. The weekend had passed too quickly for her, and she did not want to leave her new "Uncle" Haim and "Aunt" Sara and her new friends, Motti and Mor.
She played happily in the back of the car as they drove back to Jerusalem. Then Abed reminded her, "Oh yes, didn't we need to stop somewhere and get a gun to go kill some Jews as you'd said before?"
"Well," was her uncommitted response, "I guess."
"Good," Abed said, "we'll stop here at the next exit, buy a gun and then go back and start with killing Haim and Sara and their kids -- you know they are Jews, don't you -- they are Israelis."
"No, Babba no! They are my friends. What are you talking about," she cried.
"Good, my dearest," Abed said, "now you understand something very important."
With that story, I learned how profoundly Abed believed that the path to progress in the Middle East was through nonviolence and the rejection of hatred. His children lost a very good father and his people an important patriot and leader. The Palestinians couldn't afford to lose Abed -- nor could we.
Tax-deductible contributions to the Funds for Abed Alloun Peace Through Education Scholarship Fund at the American International School in Gaza can be made c/o the Democracy Council, 11040 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 320, Los Angeles, CA 90025 or donations can be made online with a credit card at www.democracycouncil.org/support.cfm.
Glenn Yago is a Los Angeles economist at the Milken Institute who frequently works in Israel.