Tours Provide Close Look, and Mixed Views, of Mideast Strife
Worried about Israel’s public image after nine months of violence on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Jewish community of Los Angeles is sending dozens of public officials and other prominent non-Jews to the Holy Land to see for themselves.
The idea has even won grudging admiration from Arab-American spokesmen. “This has been one of the most effective tactics that pro-Israeli groups in America have developed to gain support for their position,” said James Zogby, executive director of the Washington-based Arab American Institute.
But the results have been mixed. Despite their positive impressions, several recent visitors came home sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
“It just causes a great heartache that the issue of a place for the Palestinian people can’t be resolved. It’s just clear that an occupying army in the territories is not a permanent answer,” said Herbert Carter, 55, executive vice chancellor of the California State University system.
“I came back a strong supporter of Israel, but also . . . I know that somehow we have to support a Palestinian state,” said Msgr. R. David Cousineau, 41, head of Catholic charities for the Los Angeles archdiocese.
The delegates also found mixed feelings among the Israeli politicians, farmers, soldiers and academics they spoke with during a 10-day trip.
“We met with some people who believe they should trade some of the occupied territory for peace, and others didn’t want to trade anything,” said Marcela Howell, 39, chief deputy to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter.
Not There for Answers
“We weren’t there to come up with answers as to what Israel is supposed to do,” she said. “We were exposed to different points of view you don’t get from reading papers in the United States or talking to people here, and I probably came back with a stronger conviction that there will be some peace there than I had before.”
Carter, Cousineau and Howell were among 18 officials, professionals and business people in their late 30s to early 50s who went to Israel and the occupied territories in July.
Despite the complexity of the situation, Jewish and Israeli officials said that giving opinion-makers a look behind the headlines would pay off in the long run.
“Our goal was to offer an honest look at the reality of Israel to these people who were our guests and to allow them to draw their own conclusions,” said Rabbi Marvin Gross, a staff member of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.
Rising to the challenge, Arab groups, including Zogby’s Arab American Institute, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and Roots, a Palestinian-American youth group, have organized similar excursions to the occupied territories.
Unlike the Jewish excursions, however, delegates on the Arab-sponsored groups are drawn from all over the United States, pay their own way and spend their time living with individual Arab families.
“It makes a real difference to look into their faces and sit with their families in their homes . . . to have it confirmed that these are human beings that want the same thing every human being wants, which is freedom and the ability to control their own lives,” said Deborah Byron, 35, of San Diego. She paid $500 to take part in a trip organized by the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Byron, a psychology student, spent two weeks on the West Bank and two weeks in the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in June and July. She remembers it as a time of constant tension, with frequent searches and interrogations of the people she was staying with.
All the Bills Paid
By contrast, the Jewish Federation Council picks up the tab for its highly structured excursions, which generally include long days of meetings and bus travel to various parts of the country. The cost for air fare and hotel accommodations was about $3,600 each, a spokeswoman for the organization said.
The Federation Council, an umbrella organization made up of more than 500 Jewish organizations, picked representatives from the city’s black, Latino and Asian communities to make up the roster for its July trip. The federation sends about 50 delegates a year.
Another delegation made up largely of Latino union leaders is now in Israel. A group of administrative assistants to state, county and city officials is scheduled to leave later in the year.
“We’re interested in doing it on an ongoing basis, and we expect the numbers to pick up,” said Ron Rieder, director of public affairs for the federation.
While violence between Israeli forces and Palestinians in the occupied territories has been an almost daily occurrence since Dec. 9, delegates from the July excursion said they saw no actual confrontations.
L.A. Violence Noted
In fact, they said, they were surprised to learn that many Israelis believe Los Angeles, with its gang violence and freeway shootings, to be rougher than their own country, where armed soldiers are a daily sight.
“Could you imagine what would happen in L.A. if everybody carried guns like that?” marveled Henry Lozano, 54, administrative assistant to Rep. Edward Roybal (D-Los Angeles).
“We didn’t see any violence, but I understood how L.A. is reported to the rest of the world,” said Los Angeles City Atty. James K. Hahn, 38.
The visitors spoke with Israeli politicians, scholars and military men and met separately with Arab members of the Israeli Parliament and university professors.
Although they did not meet officially with representatives of the more than 1 million Arabs living in the occupied territories, “we feel like we got a real balanced perspective,” said John Kobara, 33, director of alumni relations at UCLA.
“The high-level (Israeli) Arabs we met were talking about the PLO with great candor,” Kobara said. “They all identified Arafat as their leader, spokesman and negotiator, even though they were Israeli Arabs. They did not agree with the terrorism aspects (of the Palestinian movement) but they agreed he was the person to be dealt with.”
Members of Delegation
Others in the delegation included City Councilman Michael Woo, 36; Johnnie Cochran Jr., 50, a Los Angeles attorney; John Murray, 42, vice president of First Nationwide Savings and Loan; Dennis Luna, 42, attorney and Los Angeles city parks commissioner, and Dai Lee, 42, owner of an auto leasing firm.
Woo, Hahn, Luna and Lee took their spouses along at their own expense, while Cochran paid the way for his mother and father as well as his wife.
None of the delegates said they had any compunction about using the air fare and hotel lodgings underwritten by the Jewish community.
“A public figure wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t do this,” Luna said. “If I’d have gone to Israel by myself, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet the individuals I did in this organized manner.”