June 1994, Page 68

California Chronicle


Memorial Dedicated to Slain Activist Alex Odeh


By Pat McDonnell Twair

Midday motorists driving past Santa Ana's Main Library April 12 slowed down to stare as they caught sight of celebrity broadcaster Casey Kasem next to a nine foot-tall, white-shrouded object on the library lawn.

More than 500 spectators assembled for the unveiling of the Alex Odeh Memorial Statue, the creation of Khalil Bendib, an Arab-American sculptor and political cartoonist for the Gannett newspaper chain.

Kasem spearheaded a national campaign to finance the statue of the late West Coast regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who was killed in 1985 by a pipe bomb trip-wired to the door of his office.

Odeh's widow, Norma, daughters, Samya, Susan and Helena, and brother, Sami, were on hand to raise the statue's cover. Led by Kasem, who is world famous for his American Top 40 pop music countdowns, the crowd chanted "four, three, two, one" as UCLA ethnomusicologist Ali Jihad Racy played anoriginal composition on the nye during the unveiling.

With the statue revealed, artist Bendib told the crowd he wanted to sculpt a likeness of Odeh that is ageless and symbolic of his role in history. He therefore portrayed the martyred activist in neo-classical form, wearing a toga, one muscular arm supporting a dove, and the other a book.

While a student at USC in 1980, Bendib met Odeh and was impressed by his work in bringing Arabs and Jews together in dialogue. On the day Odeh was killed by a terrorist bomb, Bendib himself received death threats for his political cartoons in USC's Daily Trojan.

"Alex's brutal murder kept festering in my heart like a wound," Bendib stated. And so, a year and a half ago, he proposed his idea for a statue to Odeh's widow. She approved. The next step was to take his sketches of the sculpture to Kasem, who enthusiastically formed a steering committee. Bendib donated his time in creating the bronze statue and Kasem personally oversaw the national campaign to raise funds for the bronze and casting process.

After several meetings with Southern California contractor George Hanna, the committee met with the Santa Ana City Council and offered to give the bronze sculpture to the city. The council unanimously accepted and agreed to have the statue erected in front of the library in the civic center of the Orange County seat.

California Congressman Ed Royce headed the impressive roster of speakers including Santa Ana Mayor Daniel H. Young; ADC National President Albert Mokhiber; Rev. Darrell Meyers; Dr. Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California; Monsignor Jaime Soto; Norma Odeh, and Sami Odeh.

All described Alex Odeh as a man who had dedicated his life to the cause of peace. He was born in Jifna, Palestine, in 1944 and received a bachelor's degree in political science from Cairo University in 1967. Odeh emigrated to the United States in 1972 and studied for a master's degree at California State University at Fullerton. In 1975 he revisited Jifna, and met and married Norma. The couple settled in Fullerton and he became a U.S. citizen in 1977.

Odeh taught Arabic at Coastline College and joined the staff of the ADC in 1972. He also published a small book of poetry, entitled Whispers in Exile. Lines from one poem are engraved on the base of the pedestal: "Lies are like still ashes. When the wind of truth blows, they are dispersed like dust and disappear."

Library director Rob Richard said Alex Odeh's book, another volume on highlights of his life, and books dealing with peace among the peoples of the Middle East will be in a special section of the library.

At the unveiling ceremony, Kasem read aloud messages from California Senator Barbara Boxer, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and others.

Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of the synagogue of the University of California at Irvine told the assembled audience: "'Never Again' doesn't mean that the Jewish people have to be eternally vigilant only against anti-Semitism ... The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has not been good for Israel and, of course, it has been much worse for the Palestinians. It has hardened our hearts to those who cry out—in pain and in violence—for a country of their own. While we must reject their violence, we have to reject ours as well. When we declare the legitimacy of the national liberation struggle of the Jewish people, we also have to support that legitimacy for the Palestinians with whom we share the land."

Steering committee member Larry Agran, a former mayor of Irvine, stated: "This magnificent memorial allows us to do the hardest thing of all: It allows us to say to the advocates of terrorist violence that no matter what happens, we will not be like you. We will achieve our goals through strategies of nonviolence."

According to Julie Silliman, California project director of the Smithsonian-funded Save Our Statues, the sculpture is the only full-length outdoor statue honoring an Arab American in Southern California, and perhaps in, the entire country. One thing for certain, it is the only life-size or larger statue of a Palestinian American.

Bendib's closing words at the ceremony put Odeh's brutal death, which has left the Arab-American community traumatized since 1985, into the context of America's ongoing struggle for equal protection under the law for all of its citizens:

"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. It will remind us that an attack on any particular group is an attack on all groups. When an Arab American is assaulted, an African American should shudder, when a Latino is exploited and scapegoated, an Anglo should feel threatened, when a Catholic insulted, a Protestant should be offended. When a Japanese American is inter a concentration camp, an Irish American should feel shackled."

Two days after the dedication, Irv Rubin, national chairman of the Jewish Defense League, notified the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times that he would ask Santa Ana officials to give political balance to the Odeh statue by mounting one in honor of Leon Klingh offer, an American Jewish passenger who was murdered by members of a PLO linked fringe group who hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Eastern Mediterranean shortly before Odeh's murder in Santa Ana.

Santa Ana police advised the city council not to give the JDL a public forum. Rubin and a half-dozen of his supporters were not acknowledged at an April 18 city council meeting nor put on the agenda as they requested.


L.A. Eight Hearing Suspended

On April 11, Ninth Circuit Judge Stephen Wilson ordered Department of Justice attorneys to conduct a manual search of all active Immigration and Naturalization Service files used in New York, South Florida and Los Angeles from 1986 to 1987. The judge determined these documents will serve as a "control group" to test charges of selective prosecution by the government.

Attorneys for the L.A. 8 claim the government has not threatened deportation to foreign groups the Reagan administration tolerated or encouraged. These include anti-Castro Cubans, the Nicaraguan contras, other Central Americans, the Afghan Mujahideen and Mozambiqans.

Defense attorneys also are asking concerned people to write to Attorney General Janet Reno and stress that political events have superseded the case. At a time when U.S. government officials are seeking ways to support economic development of Palestinian communities in the Israeli occupied territories, attorneys say it is ludicrous to try to deport Palestinians for their political viewpoints.


AAPG Elects Board

Key speaker at the ninth annual convention of the Arab American Press Guild was Dr. Ghassan A. Barakat, publisher of the Chicago-based Arabic biweekly al-Bustan. Also appearing at the banquet podium in the Buena Park Holiday Inn was Dr. Abdullah Sbeih, ambassador of the Arab League to the United States.

The importance of AAPG scholarships granted to Arab-American journalism students was stressed by Samir Twair, scholarship chairman. More than $1,200 was raised for the scholarship fund, with $1,000 pledged by Dr. Raymond Jallow.

Dr. Jallow urged members of the audience to follow their own Ten Commandments in order to forge a return to Palestine. He said the first commandment should be to demand that the United Nations disarm Israeli settlers and turn over their settlements to Palestinians whose homes have either been demolished or confiscated by the Israelis.

Twair also moderated an afternoon panel in English entitled "Middle East Issues in the Mainstream Media: Objective or Biased?" Speakers were Patrick Flynn, author Anton Chaitkin and Mark Calney, a candidate for California's governorship on the Democratic ticket.

The AAPG elected Yusef Haddad to a second term as president. Serving on his board will be Moayadd Hilal, secretary; Hashem Sayegh, treasurer; Twair, Issa. Batarseh, Hikinat Attili, Yacob Khouri and Michel Shehade. National and international AAPG representatives include Abdullah Tahan, New Jersey; Abdullatif al-Rayan, Washington, DC; Gassan Barakat, Chicago; and Said al-Zahrani, Saudi Arabia.


Armenian Pope Visits L.A.

Just two days after the Jan. 17 Los Angeles earthquake, which measured 6.8 on the Richter scale, His Holiness Karekin II addressed the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on "The Challenge of Secularism in the Middle East." Shortly after he began to speak, the walls of the Biltmore Hotel began to shake, huge chandeliers started to swing and plaster fell from the ceiling as two 4-plus tremblors rocked the room. The Armenian pope continued his delivery, oblivious of the panicked expressions of his listeners.

The Syrian-born, Oxford-educated Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia was on his fifth pontifical visit to the United States from his headquarters in Beirut. He celebrated the Armenian Christmas in Los Angeles with many of the more than 300,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians who reside in Southern California.

The religious leader expressed concern that a new form of colonialism is entering the Middle East. Terming it cultural colonialism, Karekin II said that most young people in the region are attracted to Western and American culture because it represents easy ways of life, consumerism and high technology. Because the mass media glamorizes these things, he said, Middle Eastern populations gradually are losing their traditions.

"Middle Eastern societies are being alienated from their own cultures, historical heritage and spiritual, intellectual and moral richness," he said. "We see in our part of the world a large number of young people falling victim to the temptation of those superficial aspects. They then lose sight of and are cut off from their roots."

To rectify the situation, his holiness said secularism needs to be redefined. "Secularism started by making a sharp distinction between two realms of existence: the sacred, the mystical, the religious on the one hand, and the worldly, the temporal on the other."

Karekin 11 said the task ahead is to recognize the freedom of human creativity in all the realms of science and technology, while remaining conscious of spiritual and moral needs. "Without this spiritual welfare, science and technology may not serve the purpose of human life in its integrity, and would divorce life from the Creator, he stated.

To make his point, he quoted Albert Einstein: "Science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind."

"For us in the Middle East, religious faith and life in the world are not as disassociated as they so often have been in the West," he continued. "Religious faith is more existentially interwoven within the whole texture of our public life. Often it has been depicted by the Western secular press as being the major cause of political conflict and armed confrontation.

Religion is part of Middle Easterners' daily life. Therefore the reaction to extreme secularism is fundamentalism. Karekin predicted that the inner quality of human life will be threatened if modern secularism continues at its present pace.

To illustrate his point, he quoted the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn: "All the glorified technological achievements of progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the 20th century's moral poverty."

Commenting that he has been to former Soviet Armenia seven times since 1988, Karekin H said a new spirituality is emerging as the people return to the church after 70 years of religious repression. He also cited the phenomenon of 80,000 young people who gathered in Munich in January to hear an arresting new religious figure, Brother Roger Schultz, the prior of the Community of Taize in France.

The Catholicos called for the people of the Middle East to go through an inner perestroika by reinterpreting their traditions to meet the conditions of contemporary life.

"We in the West and in the Middle East have to develop a new methodology of fellowship, partnership and collaboration," he concluded. "Human life and destiny are at stake. The only way to overcome the dilemma and the trap of confrontation is real dialogue by sharing in one another's experiences and ways of life "

When the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, asked is opinion of the Vatican's decision to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, he replied:

"I welcome this as a first step in creating mutual understanding and contributing to the establishment of peace. The Vatican needs to interpret this new relationship in such a way that Islamic countries of the Middle East won't see this as any form of favoritism. It is not yet a final act as I understand it, and this new relationship must take into account the urgency of a solution to the Palestinian question. If it is rightly interpreted and rightly conducted, I believe the rights of Christians, Muslims and Jews will be fully respected and given the importance they deserve." 

Pat McDonnell Twair is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.

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