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Cousins Club of Palestinians, Jews Seeks Peace

February 04, 1991|JOHN PENNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — Some local Jews and Palestinians are sipping tea and coffee around a living room table, briskly discussing Middle East events during the past three weeks and in the decades preceding.

Palestinian-born Sami Odeh, expressing indignation at the U.S.'s role in the Gulf War and its historic support of Israel, was answered by a Jewish member of the group, who pointed to reports of Palestinians celebrating recent missile attacks on Israel.

"That's not really the way to make friends to solve the problem. . . . So there are wrongs on both sides here," she said.

The exchange reflected the nature of the Cousins Club of Orange County, a group of about 100 disparate, opinionated members, chiefly Jewish and Palestinian-Americans.

The Gulf War has galvanized the Cousins Club, a 3-year-old group devoted to often-scholarly research and discussion, political action and, most of all, peace and friendship between their rival cultures.

While similar organizations throughout the country--including the Cousins Club of Los Angeles--are dedicated mostly to dialogue, the Orange County group has emphasized action. And with the outset of the war, which the group formally opposes, members are stepping up those efforts.

The group has begun meeting twice a month rather than monthly to discuss the latest developments in the Gulf. Members are writing more letters to newspapers, making more frequent speaking engagements at universities, schools, churches and synagogues and have set up a steady schedule of TV and radio interviews.

In their dealings with each other, members are careful to maintain an approach that is equally balanced by both ethnicity and sex. The group's two rotating co-chairpersons always include a woman and a man, one Jewish and the other Palestinian. They similarly attend speaking engagements and interviews in egalitarian teams of two or more.

During discussions of the issues, each point made is typically challenged with a counterpoint. Debates among members often grow heated. But even in disagreement, they remain respectful, apparently bound by their shared vision for lasting peace in the Middle East.

"Most remarkable to me is how the members of our group have, in my judgment, developed and unusual capacity of compassion to honestly understand and empathize with the pain and suffering of the other party, and through it, arrive at a solution which will lessen the pain on both parties," Odeh said.

"And that has fostered a sense of deep love and respect for the opinions of the other party, whether you agree with it or you don't agree with it."

Although members say they welcome all dissenting views, the group officially advocates an international regional peace conference that would seek to establish a permanent Palestinian state. That position was outlined in three statements the group adopted in 1988, the culmination of six months of debate, "both heated and more rational," Odeh recalls.

Since its inception, the group's activism--whether through public appearances or lobbying of local congressmen--has sought to achieve those goals. And their continual dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, members say, is a two-way avenue of education: Just as they seek to educate others, they are continually studying the history, current events and potential future of the conflict.

Differences between the two sides linger, they argue, only because of ignorance and distrust, breeding hostility. And through education, members aim to overcome the stereotypes and misconceptions they believe exist about Jews and Arabs.

Jewish member Leslie Rabine, for example, says she believes that "the American media seems to depict Arabs as less than human."

Nabil Dajani, a Palestinian native and founding member of the Cousins Club, said that he has met many Jews, both in the United States and Israel, who do not support the Israeli government's rigid policy on the Palestinian issue, although he contends that their views are rarely portrayed through the media.

"Whenever I go and visit Israel and sit down and talk to people, I find that they do want peace and settlement," he said.

Members challenge the notion of many Jews and others that the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian homeland opposes the interests of Israel. "Both sides win if both settle," member Ted Shapin said. Adds fellow "cousin" Murray Rabine: "Israel cannot be secure until the question is settled."

Recently, the group has been concentrating its efforts into a concerted protest against the Gulf War. The club recently approved a formal statement decrying the war--with one voting member dissenting.

"We're a peace group that has been working for peace in the Middle East for three years now," Leslie Rabine said. "So this (the Gulf War protest) is just an extension of that."

The group contends that the goals of the war do not justify the loss of lives and that the war may cripple efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which they say had been progressing before war broke out.

"I'm very pessimistic. I don't know what's going to happen," said Dajani, who lived in the region until 1967. Depending on the outcome of the war, he said, "I could see the Palestinians being pushed out of their homes. That's what scares me the most. . . . This war has definitely put us back."

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