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United by Tragedy : Arabs and Jews Form Speakers Bureau to Support Peace in the West Bank


Only hours after the massacre of dozens of Muslim worshipers in a mosque in Hebron, Jewish and Arab leaders in Los Angeles got together to decry the violence.

Now, undaunted by the lack of communication between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, local representatives are taking their dialogue one step further with the establishment of a joint speakers bureau.

The idea was born at a joint dinner of Jewish and Arab groups in December, but it took on urgency after the Feb. 25 Hebron shooting.

Volunteers--Arabs and Jews--will appear as a team before audiences at churches, synagogues, mosques, schools and community groups, said Monir Deeb, a board member of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

"If there are arguments, let it be," said Deeb, a Palestinian who works with an Israeli partner in a San Fernando Valley general contracting business. "This is a dialogue that people should be able to initiate, hopefully toward peace."

Organizing the effort are groups including the Anti-Discrimination Committee and local chapters of the National Assn. of Arab Americans, the American Jewish Congress and Americans for Peace Now, a support group for the Israeli peace movement.

"It's very important to build a consensus to support the peace process in the United States, and that's the goal of (the) speakers bureau," said Rabbi Laura Geller, regional executive director of the Congress, a Westside-based organization that calls itself "the progressive voice in the Jewish community."

"Jews support the government of Israel, and Arab Americans support the initiatives of the Palestinian people, and therefore our involvement makes sense," she said. "We don't make policy, but our support is not an insignificant factor in the whole equation."

Not everyone supports the effort. David Lehrer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that his Jewish-sponsored organization has been sued by Deeb's group over allegations of spying by an ADL operative in San Francisco.

"Given the statements and actions against the ADL, one must wonder about the seriousness of their commitment to dialogue with the Jewish community," Lehrer said.

Rabbi Julian White, regional director of Americans for a Safe Israel, said he thought that joint appearances would send a misleading message about the position of American Jews. A significant number of Jews, he pointed out, oppose the surrender of any territory to Palestinian control--a key component of the Middle East peace accord proposed in Washington in September.

"It reflects a total self-identification of those two Jewish organizations with the Arab position, and the Arab position is the same position as the PLO," he said. "We are certainly at the opposite pole in terms of the accord."

At a meeting sponsored by White's group Tuesday, West Bank settlers' spokesman Elyakim Ha'etzni told a friendly crowd of about 200 at the Beth Jacob synagogue in Beverly Hills that the peace process was "a sinister plan for the destruction of Israel by itself."

Saying that 33 Israeli Jews have been killed since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in September, he urged American Jews to "use your influence on the American Administration, on the Israeli Embassy and the Israeli consulates. Don't let them get away with this. Help 150,000 Jews whose safety is imperiled. We are holding the fort for all of you."

Ha'etzni's call was the sort of thing that organizers of the speakers bureau hope to counteract.

"I don't think he's going to be part of our discussion group," joked Gerald Bubis, the local chair of Americans for Peace Now.

Bubis said the goal of the speakers bureau is to help people understand their differences on the extent of Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the final resolution of Jerusalem, among other issues, and to try to identify areas of agreement.

"We're not engaged in diplomacy but trying to sensitize," Bubis said. "What I'm afraid of is that each community is bleeding, metaphorically and literally, and each community is feeling more despair, and the Ha'etznis of the world can get many more people out and exercised than moderating speakers and moderate voices."

After a series of meetings to identify speakers within their own groups, the four sponsoring organizations have scheduled a joint session in April, with hopes of completing their training and taking their act on the road by September.

"Anybody who invites them, they will go," said Tony Amsih, a Sherman Oaks real estate broker who is president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Assn. of Arab Americans.

In the aftermath of the killings in Hebron, he said, "We feel the need to push forward and the sooner the better, not to give a chance to the opportunists to target the whole effort."


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