THE REQUEST CAME from the Boston Center for International Visitors.
A delegation of leading Muslims from six Arab nations would be visiting Boston in July as part of a monthlong tour of the United States. They were coming as guests of the United States Information Agency (a foreign-policy branch of the US government) for a program focusing on the role of religion in America.
"They are very interested . . . to learn more about your activities in promoting Jewish-Arab understanding here and in the Middle East," wrote the Boston center's program officer to the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee. Could the committee arrange a meeting with members of Boston's Jewish community?
It could, and gladly. Arab-Jewish outreach and bridge-building have long been priorities for the somehwat dovish American Jewish Committee; it welcomed the chance to bring the visiting Islamic delegation together with local Jews. On July 22, more than 40 people showed up for the meeting, which was billed as "an opportunity to dialogue" and cosponsored by the American Jewish Committee, the Boston Center for International Visitors, and the US Information Agency.
What occurred was no dialogue.
No sooner had the meeting begun than Mustapha El-Moutawakkel, a member of the Moroccan Parliament and a professor of Islamic studies, stood up and demanded: "Is anybody in this room a representative of the Israeli government?"
Sitting in the back of the room was Dan Kyram, the Israeli consul general to New England. An ardent advocate of improving Muslim-Jewish relations, Kyram had been invited to the forum by Lawrence Lowenthal, the AJC's regional director. "I was quite interested," Kyram said later, "to listen to an interchange of ideas on issues that are close to my heart."
But the moment Kyram identified himself, the Arab visitors refused to proceed. "I am not going to stay in the same room as this Israeli," announced Jordanian newspaper editor Samih Muslem Maitah, a member of Jordan's hard-line Islamic Action Front Party. "I will not stay in the same building." Equally adamant was Mohamed El-Tahlawy, head of the Religious Department of the Egyptian magazine October and former editor of the Cairo daily Al-Akhbar.
Members of the audience, shocked at the Arabs' hostility, pleaded with the visitors to reconsider. "One young woman got up practically in tears," says Lowenthal. "She said, 'I came here to listen and learn and hear what you think. Why won't you stay and talk with us?'" To no avail. Their position was, either the Israeli leaves or we do. Since no one was about to expel the consul general of Israel, the Arab delegation terminated the meeting. The evening was a catastrophe.
The affronts in this story are many.
It is astonishing that Maitah, El-Tahlawy, and the other Muslim visitors -- whose trip was arranged and paid for by the US government -- would behave so rudely toward their American hosts. It is even more astonishing that they would vent anti-Israeli bigotry in a meeting specifically convened so that they might "learn more about . . . promoting Jewish-Arab understanding here and in the Middle East."
But what really boggles the mind -- and what should give pause to enthusiasts of the Israel-Arab "peace process" -- is that Egyptian, Jordanian, and Moroccan dignitaries would refuse to sit in the same room as the representative of a country with which their own countries are at peace. The Israeli flag flies over embassies in Cairo and Amman. Diplomatic channels link Morocco and Israel. It is hard not to wonder just how much such ties are worth when prominent Arabs stalk out of "dialogues" in Boston because an Israeli official is in the room?
(There was one bright note. Sahar Mahayni, an English instructor from Syria -- and the only woman in the group -- seemed genuinely unwilling to leave and lingered for a while to talk with some of the guests. Ironic. Syria is the most militant and rejectionist of Israel's neighbors.)
Meanwhile, Kyram has received no word of apology or regret from either the Boston Center for International Visitors or from USIA. The director of the visitors center flatly refuses to comment on the fiasco. A spokesman at USIA tells me that "we don't condone" the way the Arabs behaved, but adds: "It's the participants' right to meet with whomever they want." I ask why USIA and the State Department are sponsoring trips to America for visitors who are so closed-minded and prejudiced. "Let's not read too much into this," the spokesman says.
Well, what happened in Boston may have been an anomaly. It was instructive all the same. Forty or more Jewish Americans have now discovered firsthand just how slight an imprint the "peace process" has left on some Arab minds. Their good will, they found, begot no good will. "I think maybe it was good that I stayed there," Kyram muses. "Because this way I saw their true colors. My presence seemed to pull out their real hostility."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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