Only hours after the historic Israeli-Palestinian peace accord was signed at the White House, Jewish and Arab American leaders were breaking bread together and warmly chatting about economic development projects for the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In a scene no less revolutionary than the handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, Jaweed al-Ghusin, treasurer of the PLO, could be seen Monday night chatting and exchanging business cards with Steven Grossman, president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The two were among 700 people at a Washington reception sponsored by the American Jewish Congress, the National Association of Arab Americans and Project Nishma.
The reception culminated a day in which leaders of both the Jewish and Arab communities shared a numbing mixture of euphoria and caution at events both would have viewed as unthinkable and perhaps undesirable only weeks ago.
It was a day which also began the possibility of a shared agenda, as both groups can now be expected to push for American support for the nascent peace and the Palestinian economic development necessary to maintain it.
They also shared their first day of joint public appearances, beginning at the signing on the White House lawn, concluding with the reception, and featuring in the middle a special briefing for the two communities by President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
At the briefing, Clinton was said by participants to have set a tone of reconciliation and, in effect, an agenda of joint American Jewish-Arab action.
He asked that Congress be pressed to maintain its engagement with foreign affairs; suggested individual and collective support for projects aiding autonomy; and asked that those with contacts in the Middle East use them to be supportive of the peace process.
CLINTON’S REMARKS ‘TILTED’ TO ISRAEL
The president’s remarks, said Henry Siegman, president of the AJCongress, showed “that he understands above all that America must worry about the security risks Israel is taking.
“To that extent, his approach was not a balanced one, but tilted very much to Israel, for good and necessary reasons. Because only Israelis have something tangible to give up. I think he showed extraordinary sensitivity and insight,” said Siegman.
If the American Jews felt comforted by Clinton’s approach, so did the Palestinian Americans, for whom the public recognition of Arafat was a vindication of their identity.
One stood up and told Clinton, “I noticed that when I used to be introduced to people, and would say ‘I’m a Palestinian,’ people would take two steps backward. So I would say I was Lebanese.
“After today, I don’t have to do that,” the man said. “Thank you.”
Another man, standing up and introducing himself as a Palestinian from Gaza via Los Angeles, turned away from the president and toward the other people in the room, and said, “To my Jewish friends, shalom,” to loud applause.
Jews and Arabs sat interspersed during the briefing. Sitting next to Lester Pollack, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was Najat Arafat Khelil, president of the Arab Women’s Council.
Khelil’s description of her emotions of “reserved happiness” echoed those of many American Jews.
“Things have developed too fast for me to digest and see the reality of it. I think I will express my happy feelings once I see the steps on the grounds and things are fulfilled. I don’t want to be euphoric and then be disappointed,” Khelil said.
Yet, despite this rational reserve, at the joint Jewish-Arab reception the mood was one of hugging and celebration. Jews crowded around to talk with senior PLO official Nabil Sha’ath, while Arabs did the same around Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Gad Yaacobi and New York Consul General Colette Avital.
MAINSTREAM JEWISH LEADERS IN ATTENDANCE
The Jewish leaders present included not only those who had sought out Palestinians for dialogue in the past, but quite mainstream representatives of such organizations as the Anti-Defamation League and Hadassah. Several former chairmen of the Conference of Presidents were in attendance, as well.
Similarly, top leadership of several Arab American organizations were present.
With a backdrop of Israeli and Palestinian folksingers, and before a buffet of Middle Eastern food, Jews and Arabs peered at each other’s name tags and introduced themselves to strangers they had long seen as enemies.
At one point, the singers broke into a rendition of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
The crowd, including one elderly Jewish couple standing on a table, began swaying and singing along, according to participants.
“There’s always been this hunger to reach out to the other side, and the floodgates opened,” said Project Nishma Executive Director Tom Smerling.
“A lot of these people are wealthy businessmen on both sides,” he said. “They’re talking about setting up an advisory body, to advise on raising the money and how to get private funds for economic development” in the administered territories.
“It was interesting and exciting to see people mixing and exchange cards, talking about mutual projects, helping build the infrastructure in Gaza and Jericho,” said Khelil of the Arab Women’s Council.
“And at the same time, what was important to me, that I could see the sincerity, that people were serious that they wanted to do something,” she added.
AIPAC’s Grossman cautioned that it is far too soon to say that joint agendas have been developed.
Nonetheless, describing the day as an “extraordinary, out-of-body experience,” he said there was “some discussion of the possibility of private business enterprises, of opportunities for joint venturing.
“Sometimes agendas can overlap. As people get to know each other, those relationships will build,” Grossman said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.