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The Legacy of King Hussein: Jordan’s Monarch Forged Special Ties with U.S. Jews

In 1964, Theodore Mann and other members of the American Jewish Congress were arrested for picketing the Jordanian pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York.

Two decades later Mann and a small group of AJCongress officers met with King Hussein in Amman for the first official visit by an American Jewish organization to Jordan.

“It was entirely friendly, social and friendly,” Mann recalled of that meeting. “However, it was peace that we were talking about.

“It was clear to us that he desperately wanted it, and it was clear to him that so did we,” said Mann, a Philadelphia attorney and veteran Jewish communal leader.

In the years since then — until Hussein’s death Sunday at the age of 63 after a prolonged battle with cancer — the Hashemite ruler met with representatives of dozens of Jewish organizations to promote Middle East peace and to bolster U.S. political and economic support for Jordan.

He received awards from numerous Jewish organizations such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League.

Today, Mann and other North American Jewish leaders remember Hussein with respect and true affection.

“One of the reasons I, and I think so many other people, have come to love the king,” Mann said last week as the king lay close to death, “is because he’s an illustration — just as Sadat was — that there are some people who are able to change deeply held views.

“It’s only when one believes that that one can have any hope for the future.”

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, after signing the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

Hussein, who had ordered his troops to fight against Israeli forces in 1967, eventually forged a similar treaty with the Jewish state in 1994.

The king was “a great man with a great vision,” said Steven Grossman of Boston, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“King Hussein will forever be known as one of the great heroes of the Jewish people,” said Grossman.

In written statements and personal reminiscences, American Jewish leaders noted Hussein’s friendship with former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, his partner in peace, whom he had eulogized as “brother.”

Some cited his arrival from treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota at the Wye River Plantation in Maryland in October as an example of Hussein’s humanity and courage. Many observers view his participation in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as having contributed significantly to their resolution.

The king’s secret meetings with Israeli leaders have become increasingly well known. Less well known is that in his campaign for regional peace, Hussein also reached out to the North American Jewish community.

“He had a keen interest in American Jewry,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group of 55 Jewish organizations.

Hussein’s ambassadors to the United States maintained ongoing communication with Jewish community leaders, Hoenlein said, recognizing “that American Jewry is an active community in the political process, and obviously has close ties to Israel.”

Part of what made the Jewish leaders so willing to cooperate with Hussein, it seems, was his warmth and personal charm.

During a Presidents Conference mission to Jordan several years ago, Hoenlein recalled, the king and Queen Noor invited the group to a reception at the palace in Amman.

“He bantered with everybody. He took each person aside individually,” Hoenlein said.

Hussein had an “incredible ability to focus on people and a sincerity which I think was genuine.”

When Grossman and his 14-year-old son, Ben, visited Jordan in 1994 on a United Jewish Appeal mission, they accepted the king’s invitation to lunch and missed the group tour of the ancient city of Petra.

At the end of their 45-minute meeting with the royal couple, Grossman remembered, the king approached the teen-ager and said, “I understand your friends left for Petra many hours ago” and then arranged for his American guests to fly to the site by Royal Jordanian Air Force helicopter for a private sunset tour.

One of Hussein’s strongest interests seemed to be creating open exchanges of ideas and opinions, an interest he exercised at every meeting with American Jews.

Gail Pressberg, a consultant for Americans for Peace Now, had her first of several audiences with the king in 1986. At a subsequent lunch with him and Queen Noor on the patio of his private residence, Pressberg recalled, they debated different aspects of Israeli society.

“He thanked me for engaging him in discussion,” said Pressberg.

“When you talked to him,” she added, “he wasn’t interested in there just being ideas. There had to be a practical basis for them.”

In January 1994, months before he signed a peace treaty with Israel, Hussein addressed a select group of 30 Jewish leaders in Washington at a meeting organized by Project Nishma, an educational project on Israeli security and the peace process.

Introduced by Mann, who then co-chaired Project Nishma, Hussein delivered some brief remarks stressing the leaders’ duty to think about future generations “to give them a better chance, to give them a better life, to give them what they deserve, long after we are gone.”

He then immediately opened the floor to questions “to start a dialogue.”

“It was a good exchange,” recalled Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chairman of the Jewish Public Affairs Council, an umbrella organization.

Coming on the heels of the the 1993 Oslo peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, Rubin said, it was “a period of optimism.”

“Obviously the principle was to move Jordan toward recognition of Israel,” and to discuss the decades-old Arab boycott of Israel.

Hussein’s role as peacemaker re-emerged with new vigor after the Gulf War, during which the king had remained neutral, failing to join the American-led coalition against Iraq, which was launching Scud missiles against Israel.

Phil Baum, the executive director of the AJCongress, was among the delegation that met with Hussein in 1986.

He met again with the king and queen shortly after the end of the Gulf War.

“We had lunch with him at the palace,” he said. “He took pains to make sure the food was kosher.

“It was haimish,” said Baum, using a Yiddish word meaning friendly and warm.

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