Jewish and Arab leaders in major American cities are working quietly to forestall confrontations during the current tension in the Middle East.
The efforts are most fully developed in Detroit, Los Angeles and New York, cities with the largest Arab and Muslim populations.
“We started establishing contacts with the Arab community after the signing of the Oslo accords seven years ago,” said Allan Gale, assistant director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit. The area holds some 200,000 Arab Americans, twice the number of Jewish residents.
“We’ve had some incidents and some vociferous Arab spokesmen, but on the whole relations are good,” Gale said.
In Los Angeles, some 10 Jews and five Arabs met Tuesday in the sukkah of one participant. Although all were aware of the Mideast tensions, the meeting had been scheduled some time ago as one in a series of monthly dialogue group meetings.
The group was established more than a year ago, when representatives of the two communities signed a code of ethics in a public ceremony.
“We try to keep open our lines of communications open and learn about each other’s culture and faith,” said Elaine Albert, the urban affairs director for the city’s Jewish Community Relations Committee.
One member of the dialogue group is attorney Gideon Kracov of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.
“We have a joint interest in dealing with hate crimes and maintaining an attitude of mutual respect,” he said.
Douglas Mirell, the alliance’s president, said, “We’re in a period when it is easy to be carried away by emotions and to say things that we may come regret later. We need to curtail the level of rhetoric here and the level of violence in the Mideast.”
One leading Arab voice within the dialogue group – Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee – tends to attract controversy.
A year ago, his appointment to the U.S. National Commission on Terrorism was rescinded under pressure from national Jewish organizations, which described him as an apologist for terrorists.
Many Los Angeles Jews who have worked with Al-Marayati took issue with this description. Al-Marayati’s organization strongly condemned the recent destruction of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus by rampaging Palestinians.
“Our dialogue with the Jewish community is working,” said Al-Marayati. “We are both free communities, and if we can’t talk to each other, how can you expect Palestinians and Israelis to talk to each other? At all times, we must show zero tolerance for violence and hate crimes.”
In New York, Michael Miller, executive vice president of the city’s Jewish Community Relations Council, is one of the key figures in the Coalition of Concerned Arab-Christians, Jews and Muslim New Yorkers.
The coalition is scheduled to meet next Monday and recently released a statement noting that “although the tensions that currently exist in the Middle East can intensify emotions here in New York, we can not allow these events to divide our city.”
In addition, “isolated incidents must not be used as an excuse for scapegoating or reason to condemn entire communities,” the statement said.
Efforts at Jewish-Arab dialogue are marked by some common guidelines:
Don’t try to solve – or even discuss – the basic issues roiling the Middle East. Acknowledge deeply felt differences and go on from there;
Condemn any act of violence by their co-religionists in the United States;
Build on the trust established in previous years in joint battles against discrimination.