Jewish, Arab-American leaders hold joint party 300 celebrate peace pact signing

September 14, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Jewish nurse from Baltimore and the Palestinian publicist from East Jerusalem met at a hunger strike in 1982.

They had come to Lafayette Park across from the White House to protest the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. They left fast friends, comrades in a struggle to bring together Jews and Palestinians.

Last night, Ellen Siegel and Aida Abuzayyad met again in a hotel ballroom, embracing only hours after Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO, shook hands to seal a historic peace agreement.

"Now, the Palestine Liberation Organization has become kosher," Ms. Siegel said. "I think Nordstrom's will come out with a line of PLO merchandise."

"The feeling now is so euphoric," Ms. Abuzayyad said. "It's like we're in the Twilight Zone. We're just numb, so numb."

It was a strange and emotional cocktail party. There they were, 300 Jewish and Arab-American leaders jointly celebrating the Israeli-Palestinian agreement inside the Hotel Washington ballroom.

They dined on hummus, pita bread and chickpea delicacies. They listened to speeches. They sang "We Shall Overcome," danced the hora and chanted Middle Eastern folk songs. And they toasted one another with glasses filled with soft drinks.

In keeping with Muslim law, the event was alcohol-free.

"The toast is in the spirit, not in the spirits," said Thomas Smerling, executive director of Project Nishma.

Diplomats mixed with activists. Politicians made cameo appearances. Jews and Arabs embraced.

It was the largest gathering of Jewish and Arab-American leaders in the history of the United States, they said, bringing together the National Association of Arab Americans and the American Jewish Congress.

"I can't help but think that all of this is amazing," said Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the NAAA.

"Two weeks ago, I would have said that all of this is impossible," he added. "To tell you the truth, everyone has mixed feelings of happiness and joy and fear. There are a lot of forces that have to be overcome. I think it will take a lot of effort. It will take lots of courage. But --"

For a moment, Mr. Saffuri had to pause and compose himself, as he remembered the image of the day, the sight of Mr. Arafat and Mr. Rabin shaking hands at the White House.

"That image has been going in my mind," he said. "That will be with me the rest of my life."

For the members of the Seeds of Peace, a group of Palestinian, Egyptian and Israeli schoolchildren, there were other images to remember. This was the day when the campers went to the White House to see the political leaders sign documents and to hear speeches. But it was also the day when this 3 1/2 -week camp came to an end, when new friends from Israel went home.

Fadi, a 14-year-old Palestinian who lives in East Jerusalem, said he cried at the airport when he saw his playmates leave the

United States. "Somehow, we became close to each other," he (( said. "And when they left, we all cried. Before I came to this country, I thought that something like that would not be possible. But you know, we are human beings."

Those older than Fadi were struck by the symbolism of the day.

Gad Yaacobi, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, spoke of a coming agreement with Jordan, of establishing diplomatic relations with "five to eight" Arab and Muslim states in the coming year.

Bob Lifton, national president of the American Jewish Congress, cautioned that peace may remain elusive. "We are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "But it is a long tunnel."

Still, it was a night for hope and song and dreams. It was a night when two old friends, Ms. Siegel and Ms. Abuzayyad, could come together and talk of old fights and new opportunities.

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