It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and the last day of Hanukkah, the Jewish feast of lights and dedication. At first glance the scene at the home of Valerie Griffin and Bob Roosth on a side street in Venice was typical: the living room decorated with a few streamers, the words "Happy Hanukkah" strung across the mantle, upon which rested a menorah, the traditional candelabrum, a table laden with fruit punch, wine, cookies and bowls of sour cream and applesauce--the latter two items awaiting the latkes, potato pancakes, which could be smelled frying in the kitchen . . . .
About 40 people gathered, embracing old friends, greeting a few invited guests, strangers.
Among the strangers who answered "Happy Hanukkah" to those who greeted him was Sami Odeh.
Odeh is a Palestinian from the West Bank who emigrated to this country in the 1970s, married and became a real estate broker in Orange County. His brother was Alex Odeh, who directed the Southern California chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee until he was killed in October after a bomb went off at the committee's office in Santa Ana.
His slaying remains unsolved, but it is widely assumed that it is connected to the tensions in the Middle East between Arabs and Jews that have spilled over into this country.
Alex Odeh has been memorialized by many people, including his brother, as a man of peace who believed in reaching out to people. It was for this reason that Odeh and several other Arab-Americans had been invited to the New Jewish Agenda's fourth annual Hanukkah party and for this reason that they had accepted.
The New Jewish Agenda is a 5,000-member national organization founded in 1980 that is committed to what it calls progressive human values. "It is dedicated to promoting values of peace and social justice from Jewish tradition," its Los Angeles director, Richard Silverstein, said. It supports national self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians. Its 400-member local chapter is an affiliate of the Jewish Federation-Council of Greater Los Angeles.
(Ted Kanner, executive vice-president of Jewish Federation, said in a later interview: "Federation has as part of its constituency those member organizations where we feel the program objectives are not in conflict with ours. They're (New Jewish Agenda) part of the mainstream of American Judaism. Of course, there are all kinds of shadings of opinion on the continuum. Just like anything else, the opinions go from left to right.")
Precedent of Sorts
The party on Sunday was the first time New Jewish Agenda had invited Arab-Americans, but there had been a precedent of sorts, according to Andy Rose, national co-chair. Three years ago, Alex Odeh attended a Hanukkah ceremony and lit candles.
Alliance for Survival's Jerry Rubin, a supporter of the New Jewish Agenda, had been there. Sunday, at the Venice gathering, he recalled it.
"It was the eve of Hanukkah, Dec. 10, 1982. The Alliance for Survival invited Dean Hensel from Jewish Peace Fellowship and Alex Odeh to come together and light the candles. Dean said the prayer and started to light the candle, but the flame went out. Alex spontaneously lit a match, but the candle wouldn't light. He was burning his fingers and all of a sudden it lit, and flared very high. They hugged each other and we were in tears."
In addition to Odeh, representatives of two Arab-American organizations had come Sunday, as well as radio announcer and disc jockey Casey Kasem with his wife, Jean. An American whose parents were from Lebanon and members of the Druze sect (an offshoot of Islam), Kasem is a supporter of the New Jewish Agenda, and has appeared at several functions with the group this past year.
Calling himself a moderate activist who because of his extensive Jewish acquaintances and friends could understand both sides of the issue, he said, "The only way somebody will listen to you, if you have an opposite viewpoint, is if you will listen to them."
He said he was delighted with the work this and other groups such as Peace Now in Israel were doing and was encouraged.
Fixing the Problem
"There are enough Jews in Israel and enough here who recognize we have to fix not the blame but the problem."
Souad Cano, an Iraqi-born Christian and president of the greater Los Angeles chapter of the National Assn. of Arab Americans, came, she said, because, "I like to see as many people as possible involved in honoring Alex. Also, New Jewish Agenda is working for peace and justice in the Middle East. I want to give them support and to give them respect.
Cheryl Faris, a local attorney and vice president of the local board of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, was there with her husband, Patrick King. Like Cano, it was her first Hanukkah party.
"I just think this is a very necessary and important part of what the Arab community is doing," she said. "We need to make connections with the other minority groups."