There were three acts to the small luncheon held last Sunday in a private dining room at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The first act was the only pleasant one.
Ten Los Angeles Jews gathered at the invitation of philanthropists and activists Stanley Sheinbaum and Alan Gleitsman to share a meal and views with Syrian Minister of Expatriots Dr. Buthaina Shaaban, an adviser to President Bashir Assad, and Dr. Imad Moustapha, Syria's acting ambassador to the United States, on what was their first official visit to Los Angeles.
The meeting was arranged at the initiative of Dr. Hazem Chehabi, a nuclear medicine specialist who also serves as Syria's honorary consul general in Southern California. The doctor attended the lunch along with his wife and two aides. The idea was to have a frank, cordial and completely on-the-record interchange of views between two groups who rarely, if ever, interact: American Jews and Syrian Muslims.
The frank part turned out not to be a problem.
First came lunch, Act One. There was chitchat about Syrian Jews in Brooklyn, California politics, air travel. British Airways had mislaid the Syrian party's luggage. The minister said it always does so, but she nevertheless adores British Airways. The Jews couldn't fathom her loyalty. I sensed things could only go south from there.
The Jewish participants, along with Gleitsman and Sheinbaum, were Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Jewish Federation President John Fishel, Rabbi Gary Greenebaum of the American Jewish Committee, Wiesenthal Center founder Rabbi Marvin Hier, Rabbi Kenneth Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple, Radio Sawa founder Norm Pattiz, Daniel Sokatch of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and myself.
Shaaban is an elegant and courteous woman who speaks, as does Ambassador Moustapha, fluent British-inflected English. Cooper mentioned that he had seen her frequently as a guest on BBC and CNN International, and that was her cue to begin Act Two, her analysis of the Mideast problem.
Immediately following Sept. 11, 2001, she said, her government joined the United States in its war against terror.
"We have also suffered from extremists," she said. As noted by various American officials, Syria cooperated with the United States in providing intelligence on terror networks. Moreover, she said, the Syrian government has always been a force for comprehensive Mideast peace, and it fully supports the Arab League proposal that recognizes Israel's right to exist. But, she went on, American Mideast policy since those early, post-Sept. 11 days has been a slap in the face to Syrian sympathy and cooperation. The war in Iraq, coupled with the Bush administration's unwavering support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has outraged Arabs throughout the world, and made it difficult for moderate and peace-loving voices like her own to be heard. Their actions, she said, weaken the voices of moderates like herself and others, and create a common feeling of inequity across the Arab world. She appealed to the group: "We moderates must support one another."
There was a moment of silence as the Jews around the table took in the minister's words. I could sense in many of us the urge to blurt out "You can't be serious" competed with the civility of the surroundings, and the general sense that one must be diplomatic around diplomats.
Then came Act Three.
It began when Gleitsman, a strong supporter of the Israeli left, asked the minister how her government's pursuit of peace squared with its approval of the recent broadcast of a television series "Diaspora," which depicts an evil worldwide Jewish conspiracy. The minister said the series was broadcast from Lebanon and "was produced without our knowledge."
Hier then reached into a manila folder and pulled out a reproduction of the cover of a book, written by Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas, which depicts a gaggle of Der Sturmer-style Jews severing the head of an innocent Arab. The book, a "true" report on the infamous Damascus blood libel, was recently republished.
"Do you think it's right to publish this book?" Hier asked.
The minister bristled.
"Israelis call Palestinians ants," she countered, and she cited the killing by Israeli troops of a 9-year-old Palestinian boy outside his home on the last day of Ramadan.
"Let us not go there," she said, having gone there, "it will not get us anywhere."
Hier said that Israelis want peace, and elected Sharon after Arab governments rejected the Oslo agreements and began a campaign of terror.
"The Arab governments elected Sharon," he said.
Arabs, said the minister, want to live in dignity.
"We are well aware of the problems of the Arab world," she said, but the West can't solve them by underestimating or humiliating the Arabs. That is what Bush is doing in Iraq, and what Sharon is doing to the Palestinians, she added.
"For everything you say about Sharon," Hier said, "I will cite you something about Assad."
The Arab nations need another leader like the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, he said, who was not afraid to make peace.
"If Sadat made peace," said the minister, "we wouldn't be here."
Pattiz jumped into the awkward silence that followed. He said his station, Radio Sawa, broadcasts pop music and independent news in order to strengthen the voices of moderation. The Syrian government won't allow it to transmit from within the country, so it reaches Damascus via transmitters in Jordan. He invited the minister to appear on a new satellite Arabic television station he's starting. She didn't leap at the offer.
As for the Mideast conflict, Pattiz said, "My sense is if the radical factions put down their weapons there would be peace, but if Israelis put down their weapons, there would be no Israel."
With varying degrees of heat or diplomacy, Jews around the table pressed the Syrians on anti-Semitic images in Syrian media and educational materials ("We all have children and grandchildren," Fishel said, "you need to build forces of moderation."); on Syrian support for terror sponsors like Hamas and Islamic Jihad ("If the Arab world found a way to get rid of four terror organizations," Hier said, "60 days later you'd have a comprehensive peace treaty."); on why a campaign of terror followed Israeli peace-making attempts at Oslo ("It is hard to understand why that was a sensible peace-directed response," Chasen said.); and on democracy in the Arab world ("Say what you want about Sharon," Greenebaum said, "but this is a democratically elected government that can be brought down at any time.").
To which the minister responded, "I hope so."
Greenebaum accused the minister of not expressing enough sympathy for murdered Israeli children, a charge that seemed to both horrify and offend the minister and the other Syrians.
"I hate any child being killed or I would not be here," she said.
It would be wrong to give the impression that any charge or counter-charge went unanswered. The Syrians asserted their government's position, dating back to the current leader's father, that Israel is to blame for all the tension between Syria and the United States and that the only peace treaty Syria could support is one that includes Syria.
"As the West is lumping all Arabs and Muslims together, the Arabs are lumping all Westerners together," she said. "Our image is so bad and it is so undeserved."
When Greenebaum began to say what the root of the Mideast problem is, Hier jumped in, "It's terrorism," and Shabeen interjected, "It's the occupation."
The table fell silent. Because there it was: the gap. It was the Arab poverty of dignity confronting the Jewish wealth of insecurity. Behind the Jewish questions was a sense that compromise is a capitulation to terror, and behind the Syrian responses was a feeling that compromise only added to a sense of humiliation.
"What I take from this is that we have a long way to go," Greenebaum said three hours after the meal began. "The tendency is to be very clear in our own minds where the blame lies, and until we can look beyond that to the future, we are not able to have lunch, and we are not able to make peace."