End of Conversation

I visited Los Angeles recently and learned thattwo of those dialogues, in which I had been active, had expiredwithout ceremony. The Cousin’s Club, which survived eight years oftension, argument and even, on occasion, genuine dialogue, was nomore. And the Arab-Jewish Speakers Bureau, born of the famoushandshake joining Rabin and Arafat in the White House Rose Garden,has likewise departed from the scene.

This last closure caused me particular regretbecause it grew from a dog-and-pony act that Don Bustany, a localspokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and Ideveloped over the years. Whenever a university audience or asynagogue (rarely a church, never a mosque) wanted to hear Arabs andJews argue, we would pile into Don’s car — it being far morereliable than mine — and drive to Santa Barbara or another center ofcuriosity about the Middle East. It was all quite friendly andcollegial, but underneath ran a vein of deep and serious purpose. Onthe way back home, particularly whenever the debate got hot, we oftencompared notes. Although our efforts had no appreciable effect on thepoliticians and warriors of the region, they certainly gave ussatisfaction.

I discussed the fate of dialogue between me andBustany with Alfred Stern, who replaced me as Don’s opponent; andwith Carol Levy, director of the local office of the American JewishCongress, which, with the Jewish Federation Council of Greater LosAngeles, was instrumental in getting the speaker’s bureau under way.(The bureau, I was told, is not dead but in a state of suspension,pending the finding of a new Arab partner.)

The bureau was first announced with much fanfarebefore 200 people at a dinner at the El Amir restaurant. From thebeginning, the plan was to maintain equal numbers between Arabs andJews. (One of the problems with the Cousin’s Club and similar groupswas that they tended to include three or four Jews for every Arab.)The bureau’s initial board consisted of 15 Jews and 15 Arabs, andeach side enrolled two organizations. The AJCongress and the AmericanFriends of Peace Now represented the Jewish side; the American-ArabAnti-Discrimination Committee (AADC) and the National Association ofArab Americans (NAAA) spoke for the others.

At first, everything went well. Four people fromeach camp were the debaters, a training program was organized forothers, and the opportunities to speak were legion.

But with the election of Netanyahu as Israel’sprime minister, problems began to develop. Younger Arabs, some ofthem recent immigrants from the territories, reacted angrily at thethought that Arabs should speak publicly with the “enemy.” Finally,AADC headquarters in Washington ordered its people in Los Angeles towithdraw from participation. According to Bustany, they had to besensitive to the needs of their members who were, in Bustany’s words,”the direct victims of Zionism.”

An attempt was made to restore the balance withthe Association of Arab University Graduates, but the group declined,on the grounds that it is an academic association not given toengaging in rough-and-tumble debate.

The reasons for the demise of the Cousin’s Clubare more complex. After emerging from a strange amalgam of est andother New Age aberrations of the 1970s and 1980s, it later droppedthose trappings to become a place of genuine debate, meeting inprivate homes and public rooms long before such dialogues wouldbecome fashionable.

But from the beginning, the outnumbered Arabs werealways on the offensive, the Jews on the defensive. Carol Levy toldme that, in the end, the dialogues foundered on the Jews becomingtired of having to deal with the same accusations and never beingable to move into substantive discussion and a useful exchange ofideas.

I had a taste of this myself during my recent LosAngeles visit. Bustany invited me to appear on his KPFK radioprogram, “Middle East Focus.” He began by asking for my ideas for aMiddle East peace, but they never got heard. Almost immediately, heswitched to demanding an apology from Israel for the “wrongs done tothe Palestinians”; I was never able to get back to the originalquestion. One could see where that formula, endlessly repeated, couldstifle any debate.

Yet the Cousin’s Club lasted for eight years, soit must have met needs on both sides. People participated in it formany reasons, and there were different motivations for Jews andArabs.

Some Jews were defensive about Israel and refusedto concede that it had any faults. Others were purging the guilt theyfelt about what they saw as Jewish persecution of Arabs. And a smallminority came to learn the points of view of the other side, forwhatever reason.

Among the Arabs, there was also a variety ofmotivations. Some came to vent their anger, while others expressed,in a more restrained way, their resentments. As the intifada grew,newly arrived Palestinians who were more angry began to appear, anddialogue became more difficult.

In the end, everyone I met with agreed that therewas burnout on both sides. The Jews who felt guilty came to thinkthat they had paid their dues. Enough already. Some of thePalestinians thought that they were being used and that dialogue withthe enemy merely legitimized unacceptable positions. And the generaldiscouragement of hopes for peace that followed Rabin’s assassinationand then Netanyahu’s election seemed to make the entire enterprise afutile one.

Judging by what I heard and read, Jewish-Arabdialogues are out. And the posturing parties in the Middle Eastcouldn’t care less.


Contributing writer Yehuda Lev writes fromProvidence, R.I. Marlene Adler Marks is on vacation thisweek.

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