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MAKING A NEW MIDDLE EAST : L.A.'s Arab and Jewish Communities Reach Out to Each Other--Again : Relations: As history was being made in Washington, local groups that have been communicating for years got together to share the moment.

September 14, 1993|PAUL FELDMAN and KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As President Clinton spoke of the dawn of an era of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, tears welled in the eyes of Rabbi Laura Geller, regional director in Los Angeles for the American Jewish Congress.

Taking note of Geller's emotion, Suad Cano, regional president of the National Assn. of Arab-Americans, reached into her handbag, pulled out a tissue and handed it to the rabbi.

She also pulled one out for herself.

Cascading feelings, instinctive reactions, communication and comfort. That's what it was all about Monday in Los Angeles as 30 prominent members of the Jewish and Arab communities shared breakfast and viewed the historic Israeli-Palestinian signing ceremony in Washington together on TV at the swank Four Seasons Hotel.

But as the community activists chatted over bagels, croissants and coffee, they pointed out, to a person, that the road to long-term peace in the Middle East is still filled with peril.

"I'm hopeful, but things have occurred too quickly to be much more specific," said Mark Spiegel, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles. "We have agreed to plant a tree. We haven't decided what kind of tree it's going to be. And we recognize that our children and grandchildren will be the ones who pick the fruits. (But) the tree is necessary to sustain us."

Cano agreed. "It's mixed emotions of sadness and happiness and laughter and tears," she said. "It's really very difficult to express because of all the people who have suffered through the years."

The hastily arranged breakfast marked the latest in series of contacts between the local Jewish and Arab communities that stretches back several years. Over time, initiatives brought forward by Los Angeles individuals and organizations may have, to at least some degree, helped influence larger events.

"The remarkable thing about Arabs and Jews getting together here is that people think it's remarkable," said Don Bustany, local president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "We've been in dialogue for years."

As members of minority groups, the breakfast-goers stressed, the two communities have long held some common interests--most specifically, opposition to the negative impact of racial and religious stereotyping.

During the Persian Gulf War, Southern California Jewish organizations joined with Arab groups in denouncing negative portrayals of Arabs and raised questions about FBI interviews of Arab community activists. More recently, mainstream Jewish organizations in Los Angeles have joined with Muslims to decry the mostly Serbian practice of "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Private discussion groups such as the Foundation for Mideast Communications have also brought Jews and Arabs together to discuss their differences and explore possible solutions to the conflict in the Holy Land.

"Many people told us how useless it all was at the beginning," said entertainment personality Casey Kasem, who helped Los Angeles attorney Michael Lame establish the foundation, which held more than 100 workshops in the United States and Israel between 1983 and 1991. "But I believe with all my heart that we made a difference.

"We reached out to one another's humanity," said Kasem, who was in Washington for the ceremony Monday.

But broader efforts by liberal Jewish organizations to bolster dialogue with Palestinian rights groups have sparked controversy even as they boosted the concept that communications can lead to understanding and peace.

In 1988, Los Angeles publisher and economist Stanley Sheinbaum drew the wrath of many mainstream Jewish organizations when he and other members of the International Center for Peace in the Middle East met in Sweden with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat. Sheinbaum was captured in photos with his arm around Arafat.

Sheinbaum, who was also in Washington on Monday, has already received calls "from people who were pretty nasty then . . . (saying), 'You were right and you ought to feel vindicated.' "

Local American Jewish Congress officials have also drawn scorn for reaching out to Palestinians, including the hosting of a 1990 discussion at the Jewish Federation Building in Los Angeles by Palestinian nationalist Faisal Husseini.

But Geller said Monday, "By talking, you begin to change stereotypes.

"I never thought I'd live to see this day," she added. "The emotion was an acknowledgment that this is a day I've worked for all my life."

The participants at the Four Seasons get-together, who intermingled at eight small tables, gave particularly loud applause to the first handshake between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and to the introduction of former President Jimmy Carter.

"Is that a picture, huh? Is that a picture?" Bustany, who arranged the breakfast with Steven Windmueller of the Jewish Federation, asked as he watched Clinton, Rabin and Arafat stride together toward the podium.

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