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Arabs, Jews Hoping Peace Will Blossom

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Times Staff Writer

A Jewish woman leaned forward eagerly, grasped the arm of the Arab man who stood amid a friendly gathering of 60 people at Los Angeles City Hall and murmured warmly, “I agree with you.”

With Palestinians and Jews clashing violently in the Mideast in recent weeks, it seemed an unlikely scene: The man, whose family has lived in the Gaza Strip for 800 years, smiling and chatting publicly about the strife with the woman, a Zionist who hopes the Jews will one day sit down and talk with their bitter foes.

As the couple talked, Leonard Beerman, founding rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in Bel-Air, joined Arab-American radio personality Casey Kasem and others to plant two olive trees in the garden on City Hall’s south lawn.

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The two men are among a small but growing community of activists who advocate “dialogue groups,” in which Los Angeles-area Jews and Arabs sit down to discuss their differences. Thursday’s tree-planting ceremony was held to symbolize their hopes for peace and understanding between Arabs and Jews.

“Side by side, we plant these trees, and side by side, our peoples will flourish,” Kasem’s familiar voice boomed into the microphone.

“The urgency of the historical moment has called us together,” Beerman said. “It no longer matters whose fault it is. The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is not acceptable to 1.5 million Palestinians.”

Fighting words, in some parts of the world. But under the warm Los Angeles afternoon sun, only a single heckler attempted to disrupt the Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders who spoke of their dreams for peace.

The protester, Mordechai Levy of the militant, New York-based Jewish Defense tried to disrupt news crews by walking in front of their cameras as they filmed the trees being planted. Police officers quickly escorted him away.

“There’s a lot of different kinds of vegetables in the stew pot, and a lot of Jews and Arabs out there don’t agree with what we’re asking them to do,” said Robert Eshman, one organizer of the event.

But most of the crowd was not there to place blame. They are members of half a dozen local Arab-Jewish organizations who, describing themselves as an ad hoc coalition of Arabs and Jews for dialogue and negotiation, meet regularly to exchange opinions on the long and violent relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Many signed a petition distributed by Eshman that urged the United States to press for immediate talks between parties in the Mideast conflict.

While some of the groups support talks between the PLO and Israel, others take no stand and simply encourage frank talk between local Arabs and Jews.

“Los Angeles has the second-largest Arab community and the second-largest Jewish community in the United States, and this is a fertile ground to plant the seeds of peace,” Kasem said after the ceremony. “I’m thrilled that I’m playing a small role.”

Awni Rayyis, a member of the first local discussion group that began meeting in private homes in 1984, said members of the various groups have had to overcome ingrained distrust.

“Now, we are calm, we exchange information, we respect one another,” he said. “It’s really a very fine experience.”

Don Bustany, a founding member of the Middle East Cousins Club of America, the largest of the groups, said its membership has swelled from a handful of people to 100 in the 1 1/2 years since it was founded, “because people in this city are discovering that they want to talk.”

“Can you imagine this tree-planting happening a year ago?” Bustany asked. “I can’t.”

But Bustany and others who joined him Thursday said they hope to reach beyond the mostly liberal-leaning Jews and Arabs who made up the initial wave of people in discussion groups.

“We need the middle of the road to join us--the majority,” Bustany said.


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