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Arab-Americans caught in cross-fire

The conflict in the Middle East plays out on a battleground thousands of miles away from America, but the tensions between Arabs and Jews overseas deeply resonate in U.S. communities.
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A few weeks ago at a hospital in suburban New Jersey, Dena Fahmy, an Arab-American who wears a head scarf and a robe to her ankles, saw a group of Orthodox Jews in the hallway. “They saw me and I saw them, and they got quiet and we just passed each other,” recalls Fahmy.

The conflict in the Middle East is playing out on a battleground thousands of miles away, but the tensions and prejudices between Arabs and Jews deeply resonate in communities in the United States.

Paterson, once populated largely by Jewish, Irish and German working-class immigrants, is now home to a large Arab and Hispanic population. In downtown Paterson — now called Little Palestine for the many Palestinians who have settled there — shop signs are in Arabic and English, and Islamic-clothing stores replace the GAPs and Banana Republics in other urban areas.

For those with relatives in the West Bank and Gaza, the Mideast conflict hits particularly close to home. But a broader concern for fellow Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East permeates the community as a whole, dominating coffee shop televisions, daily conversations and Arab newspapers.

“Each day we feel with the Palestinians and Muslims there,” said Hyveen Saad, 28, a Jordanian immigrant whose parents and grandparents left Israel after the 1948 war of Independence.

Guilty that they are living an easy life in America, Saad and her husband, Mustafa, a resident at St. Joseph’s hospital, have limited their social activities over the past few weeks as a means of identifying with what they call the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in the territories.

“It’s very difficult to eat and drink and live a normal life when you know that other people are not eating and not drinking,” said Saad, who also wears a head scarf and robe.

Jews versus Israelis
In the minds of many Arabs, Jews and Israelis are not one and the same — only Israelis are wrongly occupying Palestinian land, they say.

“There is willingness for tolerance” with Jews in America, said Nabil Abbassi, president of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, who passionately speaks out against the “Israeli occupiers.”

After Sept. 11, the center participated in meetings among Christian, Jewish and Muslim youth that attempted to improve cultural understanding. “We should meet with the level-minded people of both sides to facilitate meetings where we have exchange,” said Abbassi.

In general, however, there is little dialogue between Arab-Americans and the American Jewish community, whose strong feelings about violence against Israelis mirror Arab beliefs of a David-versus-Goliath situation in the territories.

“Arabs and Jews tend not to interact as Arabs and Jews,” said Leslie McCall, a sociology professor at Rutgers and a Lebanese-American involved in the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

“Nine-eleven has prompted dialogue, and I am more likely to talk to my Jewish friends about the issues. Nine-eleven has given us an opportunity and a chance to talk about perspectives.”

‘As foreign as anyone else’
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not generated the nervousness and fear that gripped Paterson after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Then, leaders of the Paterson community met with local police to prevent hate crimes and cultural misunderstandings. And as the FBI questioned Arab immigrants in connection with the investigation, members of the Islamic Center met with federal agents to teach them about Arab customs, Abbassi said.

Though there is widespread sentiment that the media and the Bush administration are pro-Israel, Arab-Americans do not fear being labeled terrorists or anti-American as a result of the violence in Israel.

“Certainly we do feel welcome; nobody can change that view unless they change [the] Constitution,” said Sami Masra, an executive with HELP, the Human Rights Education and Law Project, an organization that provides legal protection to Muslim detainees.

Masra blames intense scrutiny of Arab-Americans by the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service on the Justice Department — and Attorney General John Ashcroft in particular — and feels it is not the sentiment of the American public.

“With the uneducated there is a great need to be more outspoken and have more outreach to let them know that they and us are all ‘hyphenated Americans,’” said Ghazi Khankan, the executive director of the Council of American Islamic Relations in New York. “We are not foreigners; we are as foreign as anyone else.”

Showing support
Until recently, political apathy has ruled in a community that feels it can do little against what it perceives as an administration biased toward Israel and the Jewish-American vote. But since Israel’s military offensive in the West Bank began, community leaders are encouraging a greater Arab-American voice and more participation in the political process.

“People are outraged,” said Abassi, whose family is from Jerusalem. “They feel they want to do something but don’t know what to do. We arrange demonstrations to vent feelings and focus on issues of peace.”

Since the conflict began, Arab Americans often stop by the Islamic Center of Passaic County to see how they can help Palestinians in the territories, and to express frustration with media coverage they feel is inaccurate.

“There are a lot of high emotions. People come in very upset with what they see,” said Abbassi. “Conflicts unite people.”

Battle scars
As the conflict in Israel and the territories intensifies, opinions in each community harden and move toward the extreme.

There is little willingness in the Arab community to condemn suicide bombings against Israelis, and the deaths of Israeli civilians are said to be the result, not the cause, of Israeli actions.

“This war, it will leave a deep affect not only in the Palestinian people,” said Mouaffaq Banyalmarjeh, a Syrian immigrant who publishes a local Arabic newspaper. “It will affect the hearts of all the Arabs and maybe all Muslims for a long, long time.”

Rachel Elbaum is an associate producer for, based in New York.