More than 500 people gathered outside the city's main library Sunday to witness the unveiling of a nine-foot bronze statue of Alex Odeh, a prominent Palestinian American activist slain in a 1985 bomb attack.
There have been no arrests for Odeh's death since the booby-trap bombing of the Santa Ana offices of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, where he was head of the group's western region.
"Alex Odeh . . . was an advocate for justice for his people," said Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of the University Synagogue of Irvine, one of several speakers representing a cross-section of the Orange County community who gathered at the Civic Center. "He championed Palestinian rights, not because he wished to deny those of others, but because he wanted his people's voice to be heard."
The statue, created by political cartoonist and sculptor Khalil Bendib of Diamond Bar, is the only full-length outdoor statue honoring an Arab American in Southern California and perhaps in the entire country, said Julie Silliman, the California project director of Save Our Statues, a Smithsonian-funded organization that tracks 52,000 statues nationwide.
The unveiling, which was performed by Odeh's widow, Norma, his brother Sami Odeh and other members of the Odeh family, was greeted with applause by the hundreds who came to pay tribute, including members of the Jewish and Muslim communities, local politicians and community activists.
Bendib was among those who praised Odeh as a courageous peacemaker, respectful of those who disagreed with him while steadfastly outspoken for the cause of Palestinians.
"To me . . . erecting this statue has been a cathartic experience, a way of coming to terms with our pain and tragic loss," Bendib said.
"Alex Odeh was a tireless worker for peace and harmony," said the Paris-born Bendib, who came to California in 1977 at age 20 after living in Morocco and Algeria.
"In the current climate of rising acrimony and xenophobia toward immigrants, this statue will remind the world what America has always stood for: peace, tolerance and harmony," Bendib said. "It will remind us that an attack on any particular group is an attack on all groups."
The statue features what Bendib termed a romanticized rendering of Odeh in an Arabic robe holding a book and a dove of peace. A plaque at the base reads in part: "He taught the gentle wisdom of his land and sang the beauty of God's creation. To him Jews, Christians, Muslims, all were the children of Abraham."
Although the succession of speakers each lauded Odeh's memory, Albert Mokhiber, president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, also called for the arrest and conviction of Odeh's assassin.
"It's one thing to have a statue of Alex, it's another thing to have justice for Alex," Mokhiber said.
At one point Mokhiber referred to the Jewish Defense League as "the group that is suspected of taking Alex's life." After the ceremony, Mokhiber said he was referring to Robert Manning, an Israeli and former JDL activist, and two other men. Manning was recently sentenced to life in prison for an unrelated mail-bomb killing of a Manhattan Beach computer company secretary in 1980.
Manning, whom federal authorities have described as the prime suspect, has never been charged in the Odeh killing. Manning had fought extradition from Israel for two years before he was brought to California to be tried for the 1980 bombing.
The JDL could not be reached for comment late Sunday.
Mokhiber also was critical Sunday of the White House for reportedly failing to send a letter paying tribute to Odeh, as did other political figures, ranging from U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to California Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy.
All speakers, however, praised Odeh as a gentle but courageous leader of the Arab American community.
Odeh, born in Jifna, Palestine, arrived in the United States in 1972 and obtained a master's degree at Cal State Fullerton, where he later taught Arabic for free. In 1975, he and his bride settled in Fullerton and two years later he became a naturalized citizen.
While participating in dialogues with the Jewish community as an advocate for a just peace in the Middle East, Odeh joined the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in 1982 and was named as its West Coast regional director a year later.
In a rare public appearance to speak about her husband, Norma Odeh's voice cracked with emotion as she noted that his memory "will be preserved with the honor and dignity he deserved."
Sami Odeh told the gathered crowd that his brother "was not a coward. Alex always functioned in the sunlight. Alex believed that only cowards, like his assassins, will seek darkness to cover their evil."