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toward EQUALITY : EXPLORING A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE : Arab-Americans : Khomeini, oil have provided misleading, disturbing fuel to those who would find Islam 'different' in our society

February 13, 1989|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

One Friday afternoon three years ago, French teacher Nadia Bettindorf came home to a ringing phone. "Did you hear the news?" a friend asked. "Alex has been killed."

Bettindorf, a founding member of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, had known its regional director, Alex Odeh, for 11 years during which both Palestinians spoke out for understanding, for dialogue and for an end to stereotyping of all Arabs as greedy, oil-rich terrorists.

The news brought tears for her friend, a gentle man who never raised his voice in anger. It also released an old anxiety.

"As a Palestinian, I knew I was not safe in Israel," said Bettindorf, who was 5 years old in 1948 when the state of Israel was created and her family confined to a ghetto in Jaffa. Now she felt "as a Palestinian, I was not safe even in the United States."

Odeh's suspected killer has been traced to the West Bank of Israel but not arrested on charges of throwing the fatal bomb into the committee's West Coast office in Santa Ana.

At the time, Bettindorf said some Orange County Arabs wanted to move to a place that would be safer or camouflage their heritage, stop identifying themselves as Arabs, change their names. Many still do.

But Bettindorf picked up Odeh's speaking engagements because, she said, "the truth has to be heard. I refuse to be silenced."

She smiled wryly. "My husband says, 'Go get 'em, Don Quixote.' "

Bettindorf, a teacher at St. Paul's Catholic High School in Santa Fe Springs, married an American she met at the University of Minnesota where she was studying French and classics.

Because of his German-derived name and because she is Christian, not Moslem, she said she and her two children have been spared the blatant name-calling or job and rental discrimination reported by some of the 75,000 Orange County immigrants from among the 23 Arabic countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

Bettindorf saw prejudice turn to emotional bias and bigotry spread by stereotypes of Arabs in cartoons, television news and drama. "They show the stereotype of the greedy Arab, rich, controlling money. It dehumanizes a whole section of society--then it's easy to do bad things to them.

"In the 80s, of course, we added the religious dimension with (Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini and Islam, and you got all of this misinformation and disinformation about what Arabs and Muslims are. This wave of bigotry came and aggravated the situation altogether. Because Arabs are considered different and evil, then you did not want them to work for you and all of that."

When emotions flared after a wave of Arab kidnapings, she said an Arab bakery in Garden Grove burned down. But the owner did not want to report it. "He said, 'Don't do anything.' He was afraid they would come to his house and burn it, too."

One Palestinian accountant who asked not to be identified said his boss refused to let him handle checks because "I would steal it and give it to the PLO."

The man, whose wife has a master's degree in psychology, said he was also told he could not supervise women because of "the way your culture treats women."

An Orange County resident for 15 years, he said he has been thinking of changing his name to Robert Higgins, "a complete Anglo name." A friend of his changed his name from Nadiem to Ned. "At least when you send your resume, they don't know who you are," he said.

Bettindorf's son Eric said his eighth-grade social studies teacher was explaining stereotypes to the class one day. "He said one that's not a stereotype is that the Arabs all have 15 children so they can drive the Jews into the sea," he said. "I knew it was wrong." But rather than make an issue of it in class, he told his mother who later explained to the teacher that she is an Arab who does not fit that description. She received a noncommittal response without an apology and chose not to pursue it.

"As a mother, I don't want to do anything so the teacher would take it out on my child," she said.

But the experience left her son frustrated and feeling his teacher was "stupid," she said.

He also told her about another teacher, annoyed with an Egyptian boy in class, who said, "Why don't you go buy a Mercedes?" and on another occasion, "Go pump some more oil."

"People don't think how that affects a 14-year-old child. He knows not all Arabs pump oil and have Mercedes," Bettindorf said.

Similar complaints were reported about Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine professors, she said. When students try to contradict the professor, they receive an answer such as, "Who's the teacher here?"

Despite the brutal, petty and insensitive acts of some, Bettindorf can still say, "I do believe in the goodness of the individual."

Both Bettindorf and the man who would be Robert Higgins have joined the Orange County Cousins Club, a group of about 30 Jews and Palestinians who meet to talk over current events in the Middle East.

"The more we talk, the more human we become to each other," she said.

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