Behind the Headlines: Peace Accord Having an Impact on Arab-jewish Relations in U.S.

It all started the day Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn.

That night, Jewish and Arab Americans — rabbis, Palestine Liberation Organization officials, organizational leaders from both sides — gathered in a hotel ballroom here for a reception awash in positive emotion.

And since that day, when the dam burst and Jewish and Arab Americans reached out to one another, the two communities have been involved in a rush of joint activities that have shattered longstanding taboos.

Leaders from both communities now say that whatever lurks around the corner in the Middle East, things here can never return to the bad old days.

The two sides are starting to get to know each other as people, they say, not as symbols of evil.

And now that Israel and the Palestinians have signed a joint accord, leaders hope the two communities here can cooperate on a range of issues, not only those related to the Middle East, on which they share common concerns.

“In the past, there would be Jewish-Arab dialogue, and people would say, ‘Let’s talk about everything except the Middle East,’ because it was so divisive,” said Tom Smerling, executive director of Project Nishma, a group that seeks to educate about the peace process.

“Now, it’s turned on its head. Cooperation on the Middle East has spilled over onto other issues” on which the two communities have always had common ground, Smerling added.

Project Nishma, along with the National Association of Arab Americans and the American Jewish Congress, were the co-sponsors of that first reception Sept. 13.

Since last year, Jews and Arab Americans have cooperated in lobbying the U.S. government to act more forcefully on the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where both communities share a common concern about the “ethnic cleansing” facing Bosnia’s Muslims.

PEOPLE ‘TRIPPING OVER EACH OTHER’

But since Sept. 13, Jews and Arabs envision cooperating on issues ranging from civil rights and health care to Palestinian economic development and educating Americans about the still-rocky peace process.

The Arab American Association and AJ-Congress have been working together to create a framework for Jewish and Arab American cooperation in communities across the United States.

The two groups are submitting their tentative proposals for joint activities to their respective agencies and will invite other groups to join them in their efforts.

Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab American Association, said this week that some sort of organization was necessary because the enthusiasm generated across the country by the agreement proved to be somewhat overwhelming.

“It’s like the Wild West out there. People are tripping over each other,” Jahshan said. “It’s good. It’s a positive development. But we want to make sure people do not hug each other to death.”

Henry Siegman, executive vice president of AJCongress, said his organization, like other Jewish groups, has long had a history of coalition-building on a wide range of topics, with other ethnic groups.

“There’s no reason why Arab Americans should not be a part” of such a coalition, Siegman said.

The enthusiasm for joint activities also has been taken up by the Clinton administration, which has called for a task force of Jewish and Arab Americans to work together to encourage investment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

And earlier this month, the Democratic National Committee’s national party meeting was the site of one of the more extraordinary gatherings of this new process.

During the meeting, Jewish and Arab American Democrats held a joint late-evening reception to inaugurate what they hopefully called a new era of cooperation.

‘WALLS CAN COME DOWN’

For years now, the two groups have been battling over Middle East policy planks at Democratic party conventions.

But now, while they admit their disputes will not disappear entirely, they say they are looking forward to working together on domestic issues as well as on the Middle East.

A dozen Jewish and Arab American Democratic activists stood together on the platform in the reception room Oct. 7 with DNC Chairman David Wilhelm, under signs reading “National Jewish Democratic Council” and “Arab American Democrats.”

Top-40 radio personality Casey Kasem, one of the Arab American officials on the podium, was eagerly hailed by Jewish baby-boomers on the platform as one of the formative influences in their lives.

The speakers told the crowd of about 100 that the majority of both Jewish and Arab Americans are Democrats, and that the two communities, as minorities in America, have a lot to talk about.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, spoke of how quickly the two communities had forged links after the famous handshake between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.

“It’s interesting how walls can come down,” Zogby said. “When those hands touched, we turned to each other.”

The signing enabled the two groups to “see each other as human beings, not as devils,” said Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Democratic group.

The positive emotions emanating from the DNC reception were also evident at other recent events.

For example, the day before the DNC event, AJCongress and the National Association of Arab Americans joined for a symbolic tree-planting ceremony on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.

While there were many more Jewish than Arab Americans at the ceremony, members of Congress and other speakers expressed their hopes that the tree symbolized the blossoming of peace between Arabs and Jews.

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