Arab-Americans Display Unity at Memorial Dinner : Patriotic Spirit Also Evident Among Those Honoring Alex Odeh

Times Staff Writer

“I’m an Arab-American and I’m Proud of It” was to have been the annual fund-raiser for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee of Los Angeles. It became instead a memorial dinner and means of raising funds for the widow and three children of the man who had been organizing it, Alex Odeh.

On Saturday night more than 750 people, the majority of them Arab-Americans, filled the Cocoanut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel to capacity. Cheryl Faris, a member of the ADC Executive Committee, had put the event together and emceed it.

Those gathered memorialized Odeh, who was killed last month when a bomb went off as he opened the door to the ADC office in Santa Ana. They dedicated themselves to finding his murderers. They raised funds for the family--upwards of $35,000 pledged from the floor plus contributions sent beforehand to the Alex Odeh Trust Fund at ADC headquarters in Washington.

Ethnic Pride

And they celebrated the original theme of the banquet, their ethnic pride and American patriotism, as numerous speakers urged them to rededicate themselves, taking example from Odeh and the spirit of his family.

Odeh, 41, was a Palestinian from the West Bank who emigrated to the United States in 1972. Several of his eight brothers and sisters who also emigrated were at the banquet: His brother Sami, the family’s spokesman now, was there with his wife, Lisa, and sister Angela. Another sister, Ellen Nassab, was there with her husband, David, and daughter, Joyce.

Earlier, there was a small reception hosted by the ADC founder and national chairman, former Sen. James Abourezk of South Dakota, for the family, board members and representatives of the diplomatic community. Norma Odeh sat quietly at a table, unsuccessfully fighting back tears.

Later, at a press conference, a first for her, she was introduced by Abourezk and then stood at the podium, speaking with difficulty, gasping several times for breath, and again fighting tears.

Tribute to Husband

After paying tribute to her husband as a peaceful and loving man who worked to bring people together, including Arabs, Jews, Christians and Muslims, the 28-year-old woman said that what was important to her now was to see the police arrest “the guy or guys responsible for this.”

She and her daughters, ages 7, 5 and 18 months, were getting by with help from family and the community, she said.

“As soon as my kids are old enough, I’ll go to school and try to learn something to support them.”

Abourezk deplored the reaction of the government and press to the killing of Odeh. “Nobody in the U.S. government seemed to care very much,” he said, and went on to cite a recent survey by Claremont Research in New York that had compared the amount of coverage Odeh’s death had received, a small fraction, in comparison with that of Leon Klinghoffer’s, the passenger shot and thrown overboard by the hijackers of the Achille Lauro last month.

“Arab-Americans feel the lives of people of Arab descent are undervalued and demeaned,” he said, by the attitudes such reactions reveal. He related this directly to the work of ADC in combating discrimination, negative stereotyping and any instances of racism toward Arabs, saying: “When we’ve complained in the past about stereotyping, people did not take us seriously. But the next step after dehumanization is annihilation.”

During the banquet, keynote speaker Jack Shaheen, author of “The T.V. Arab,” spoke to the same theme, saying: “It’s still fashionable to be anti-Semitic, provided the Semites are Arabs.” The combined message of the stereotyping presented to children of Arab descent, from comic books, to television programs, to textbooks, to the remarks of government leaders was, he said, “Your heritage stinks.”

Optimistic Mood

He, and the other speakers, however, were optimistic that they could turn the situation around. “Perceptions change, stereotypes go away,” Shaheen said, mentioning changing images and attitudes toward blacks and women.

That things were changing was evident, said David Habib, president of the greater Los Angeles ADC chapter, by the mix of people at the banquet. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Brotherhood Crusade, the Los Angeles and Orange Counties’ Commissions on Human Rights were represented. There were corporate sponsors and numerous people from the political, religious and civic communities. One group that received much applause was the New Jewish Agenda. Richard Silverstein, director of the Los Angeles chapter, was there with several members, including Sarah Jacobus and Steve Aftergood.

Describing the group later as a national Jewish organization “dedicated to promoting the values of peace and social justice from Jewish tradition,” Silverstein said, “We’re here to express our solidarity with members of the Arab community in the aftermath of the murder of Alex Odeh and to let them know we want to work toward creating and improving the dialogue between our communities.”

During the fund raising the New Jewish Agenda donated $155 that had been collected at its last meeting and promised more to come. Radio announcer and disc jockey Casey Kasem, an Arab-American, donated an additional $1,000 in New Jewish Agenda’s name, out of recognition of its efforts, he said.

Calling Odeh’s murder “a very significant event in the life of America,” ADC board member Dr. Sabri El-Farra read 17th-Century English poet John Donne’s poem, “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions,” which ends: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” El-Farra warned, “The bell tolls for America if it allows a group to commit an act like this against a beloved American and then turns its face to what happened. . . . We stand to tell America what happened to Alex is a symbol of what can happen to any American.”