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Squabbling Cousins Keep the Lines Open

April 12, 1987|KATHLEEN HENDRIX

The scene was a no-frills storefront on Fairfax Avenue. It was night, and a freewheeling discussion was under way among the 50 or so Arabs, Jews and others interested in the problems of the Middle East.

George Irani was moderating, and the meeting had reached the boil. Joel Gayman, an American Jew active in New Jewish Agenda and other Jewish groups, was accusing Irani of commandeering the meeting, holding the floor, dismissing people with different views.

Irani, a Lebanese Christian on the faculty at USC, dismissed Gayman's complaint disparagingly, only half-joking it was his prerogative, that this was just one more instance of people shutting off Arab opinion.

On to another outburst over a chance remark of Zev Putterman, a television producer and lifelong Zionist, which led Irani to say, "Arabs don't need your patronizing." And on it went.

'We're a Wild Bunch'

Several days later, a calmer, genial Irani walked across the USC campus, recalling the meeting: "Joel called me last night. We're OK now. We talked and talked, and finally I said, 'Joel, we're not going to discuss the West Bank at midnight.' Everything's fine with Zev, too. He's a dear friend."

Chuckling and shaking his head, Irani said fondly, "We're a wild bunch."

Welcome to the Cousins, a name referring to the supposed lineage Arabs and Jews share as children of Abraham, the Arabs tracing their descent to Ishmael, the Jews to Isaac. The name has stuck, even though meeting notices go out titled "Unofficial Notice of the Still Un-Named Non-Organization of Arabs and Jews of Greater Los Angeles."

The Cousins have been meeting monthly since last June, an outgrowth of a weekend workshop. Many thought it had brought together a unique group of people who should stay in touch.

Within a week, about two dozen of them met to figure out where they could go as a group. In the ensuing months, the Cousins have never decided whether they are a study, action or social group. There are many who think their strength lies in their lack of focus or position. It is a place, however, where people with specific projects are likely to find a few like-minded people to join them.

To date, they have avoided ground rules, such as requiring mutual recognition of Arab and Israeli rights. Don Bustany, an Arab-American television producer, said, "We want to draw those in who don't recognize the others' rights."

Agreed on Protest Letter

Most of them, however, did agree at the February meeting to sign a letter Harriet Katz had drafted deploring the arrests of Palestinian nationals by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It was sent to politicians and the media.

Different people show up every month, and new ones come constantly, but one problem remains: not enough Arabs. The March meeting, for example, drew about 40 Jews and 10 Arabs. Alyne Bat Haim, the regular moderator, said the steering committee is trying to attract more Arabs.

Several Arab members have urged a more political direction. One suggested at the first meeting that a joint delegation visit Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) to "urge a just resolution of the Palestinian problem."

That did not sit well with one young man who works for a mainstream Jewish organization. He spoke candidly, his voice shaking with emotion.

A Two-Way Street

"We're afraid," he said of Jews like himself. "Joint action has to be a two-way street. We fear we're being conned." He preferred they come up with an agenda of domestic issues. He would not be going to Cranston's office.

But for all his reservations, he has never stopped coming.

"God only knows why," he said recently. "Although, you know, I feel great that I'm doing it. And almost every time I leave, I go away thinking it's been an exciting evening."

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