Atlanta’s Arabs, Jews Share So Much
Local NewsCrossing an Ethnic Divide

Atlanta’s Arabs, Jews Share So Much

But the ripples of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict help keep the communities apart.

Dave Schechter

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The Atlanta Arab Festival provides an opportunity for Jews to experience Arab culture.
The Atlanta Arab Festival provides an opportunity for Jews to experience Arab culture.

Of the Jewish community, it can be said:

  • Immigrant forebears are spoken of reverently.
  • Education and family are prized.
  • Parents wish the children knew more about their people’s history.
  • Recipes handed down over generations never taste quite the same as when Grandma made them.
  • There are neighborhoods where many residents have a shared faith.
  • Some are fervently religious; many others, less so.
  • The politics are hardly monolithic.
  • News out of Israel and the Middle East receives extra attention.
  • Threats and vandalism based on religion are a concern.

Much of the above also applies to the local Arab community. With exceptions, though, contact between the Jewish and Arab communities is limited.

An opportunity for interaction is the 12th annual Atlanta Arab Festival, to be held April 22 (11 a.m. to 9 p.m.) and 23 (noon to 6 p.m.) at the ALIF Institute at 3288 Marjan Drive, off Interstate 85 south of Spaghetti Junction.

ALIF (as in the first letter of the Arabic alphabet) focuses on heritage and culture rather than politics and religion.

Alta Schwartz, who is Jewish, is ALIF’s director of outreach and development. “Culture is an expression of our humanity. Jewish and Arab cultures share much in common, and there are many individual relationships between Jews and Arabs,” Schwartz said. “Some Jews who know about the ALIF Institute come to enjoy these connections. I love ALIF because I feel so much at home. Everyone is welcome here. The ALIF community is so special because of its diversity. I see it as the model for what our world can become if we focus on our common humanity rather than what divides us.”

The festival will feature traditional foods, a souk with goods for sale, Arabic songs and dances, exhibits of crafts, booths from various organizations, and entertainment for children.

One attraction is a traveling exhibit from the Arab American National Museum called “What We Carried: Fragments From the Cradle of Civilization,” the work of a photographer who documented the items brought by immigrants from Iraq and Syria.

“This exhibit is something that all human beings, but especially Jews, can connect with because it explores what we lose when we leave through the lens of what we carry with us,” Schwartz said.

The festival, which began in 2006 as Arab American Family Day, last year attracted more than 5,000 people.

“The Atlanta Arab community is a growing and vibrant community, one that in many ways has been under the radar but that now finds itself very much visible, given the political tenor of the times. That’s why efforts such as the Arab Festival are so important, because they represent a concerted effort to reach out beyond our own circles to our ‘mainstream’ fellow Americans,” said Nidal Ibrahim, a community activist and former executive director of the Arab American Institute.

When an interviewer suggested that the Jewish community knows relatively little about the Arab community, ALIF Executive Director Angela Khoury replied, “And probably it’s true the other way around.”

Angela Khoury (left) and Alta Schwartz work together at ALIF as an example of Arab-Jewish cooperation.

More common are one-on-one relationships, often between colleagues in professions in which both groups are well represented.

Interfaith activists, primarily Jews, Christians and Muslims, break bread and engage in projects together and worship with each other’s communities along religious lines.

Members of the Arab community suggest that the proverbial elephant in the room, limiting interaction with the Jewish community, may be divergent perspectives on relations between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

The Arab population in Georgia, centered primarily in the Atlanta area, has grown steadily, perhaps by 20 percent between 2010 and 2015. Estimates now range from 31,000, based on Census Bureau data, to 81,000 or more.

The higher figure, cited by the Arab American Institute, assumes a census undercount, in part because Arabs are considered “white,” though a Middle East/North Africa classification is being considered for the 2020 census.

Based on the available data, sections of the metro area with the highest percentage of Arab residents include the Emory corridor, Clarkston (a refugee resettlement hub), DeKalb County near Perimeter Mall, Avondale Estates and Vinings.

By ancestral ties, the greatest representation in Atlanta is believed to be Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian. In the past several years, an influx has come from Syria and Iraq. Not all those newcomers are refugees, but they left their homelands because of conditions in both countries.

Arab-Americans, who can trace their lineage to any of 22 countries, can be Christian, Muslim, Druze or another faith (including a small number of Jews).

Estimates are that, by denomination, most Muslims of Arab descent in the United States are Sunnis, about three times as many as are Shias.

Arab Christian denominations include Maronite Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean Catholic, Roman Catholic, Antiochian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox and various types of Protestants.

Anecdotal estimates put the Arab community in Atlanta at 60 percent Christian and 40 percent Muslim, but the recent arrivals from Syria and Iraq may have narrowed those percentages.

Khoury, who immigrated to the United States with her husband from Lebanon in 1992, studied engineering in Beirut and worked for two decades for an international computer software company. When she left the private sector, she increased her volunteer work for ALIF, becoming the executive director in 2011.

She sees similarities between Jewish and Arab families.

“Family structure is very big” in the Arab community, she said. “To have three or four kids was the norm when I was growing up, and it’s still the norm now.”

The communities also both value academics, Khoury said, along with “being respectful to your elders, being respectful to your clerics, whoever they are, being respectful to your teachers and respect for your parents … for somebody senior in the community.”

Then there are the “special traditions and meals and sweets for religious holidays and maintaining and sharing them,” she said. “All of these, I see a lot of similarities.”

Among new immigrants and their offspring, there may be a greater need to learn English, at the expense of the mother tongue. “But when these kids are adults, they say, ‘I wish my parents had forced me to speak Arabic.’ I’ve heard this so many, many times,” Khoury said.

“We feel it’s a great asset to have English and Arabic,” she said, which is why some 80 families send their children to the ALIF Institute on Saturdays for language classes. “A common thread is they want their kids to learn the language and socialize with other Arab families.”

Khoury said her three children speak Arabic a lot at home. “We want to try to keep it alive. A lot of us complain that the kids understand but reply back in English.”

When she lived in St. Louis, one of her neighbors and close friends was Jewish. Before reaching the stage where their families shared meals and holiday traditions, they had to navigate a discussion of Israel and Middle East politics.

“We tiptoed that relationship,” each wanting to know what the other thought, Khoury said. “Slowly, we found a commonality. Slowly, we avoided the direct conversation. … But we agreed on a lot of things. And agreed that it was very sad.”

Khoury acknowledged the challenge. “It’s very difficult to agree on some aspects and disagree on some other major aspects and maintain a relationship and friendship. It takes a lot of effort and wisdom and understanding and communication to say, you know, ‘We can be friends, even if we disagree on this topic.’ ”

As with individuals, politics can keep communities apart.

“Well, these communities are minorities to begin with in this country, so I don’t think it’s an intentional avoidance all the time, but one can’t ignore the big elephant in the room when we are in fact present together,” said Asma Elhuni, who emigrated from Libya as a child and is a student in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University and a legislative aide to state Rep. Brenda Lopez (D-Norcross). “Though some people avoid talking about Israel, there is a sense of caution when dealing with Jews who actively promote the state of Israel. To many Arabs, when they hear that someone supports Israel, they oftentimes hear they support the mistreatment of Palestinians.”

Nidal Ibrahim is of Palestinian descent and immigrated about 40 years ago. “I think the obstacles to closer Jewish and Arab/Muslim (relations) remain primarily political — in other words, the Israel-Palestine issue and all of its associated complications with regards to Lebanon, Syria, etc. I think that continues to cloud all institutional relationships, and there is a pervasive sense of distrust on both sides,” he said. “There are plenty of personal and professional relationships. I myself count a few as among my strongest here in Atlanta. But at the same time, with very few exceptions, there is a steering away of any direct conversations on this underlying issue.”

Jamal Awad, a Palestinian immigrant, said: “I’ve been juggling the answer in my head, but the bitterness in my life that this (Arab-Israeli conflict) has caused cannot be sugarcoated. Many Jews cannot see the disaster that Israel’s creation has caused on my people, family and life.”

Lawyer Ibrahim Awad says both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can’t be right, although “it’s also possible that both sides are wrong.”

He spoke to his son, lawyer Ibrahim Awad, who holds degrees from Dalton State College, Kennesaw State University and Georgia State University, when he added, “In reality, I am considered as one of the fortunate and lucky ones since I made it to the U.S. I am ever grateful for making it here, but you will have a better chance of solving this conflict than I ever would.”

For his part, Ibrahim Awad said: “For any progress to be made, both parties have to step out of their comfort zone. This topic is not comfortable. That’s the impediment. It evokes deep passions on both sides. And both sides can’t be right. It’s also possible that both sides are wrong, but there is always one side more wrong than the other. What each side needs to know about the other is that with every person injured or killed, whole families are affected.”

As to organizational contact between the communities, Khoury said, “We want to see the steps come in both ways, but there is zero objection” to ALIF developing closer relationships with Jewish institutions.

Dov Wilker, the regional director for American Jewish Committee’s Atlanta Chapter, said he doesn’t believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is behind the limited contact between the Arab and Jewish communities.

“As the Jewish community has been involved with ethnic, religious and international communities, the priority has been on those communities who have been influential in the advancement of the city to date,” he said. “It’s not to say that we don’t want to engage with the Arab community. On the contrary, we have had many efforts through the religious angle, to connect with Muslims and even Christians. However, because of limited resources, connecting with the Arab community has not been at the top of the list.

“That being said, I cannot speak for the lack of outreach from the Arab community to the Jewish community. While the Jewish community often initiates these efforts, we are more than happy to be approached by leaders of the Arab community. Additionally, while it is difficult to engage with the Asian community, because they are so diverse, the same is true of the Arab community.”

AJC Atlanta’s Dov Wilker says the Jewish community has prioritized work with more influential groups than the Arab community.

“The Atlanta Arab community is religiously and nationally diverse. Not every Arab is affiliated with a religious institution or cultural institution,” said Ilise Cohen, a scholar whose doctorate is in social and cultural anthropology focused on Mizrahi Jews, whose origins are in the Middle East. “Arabs in the Atlanta community are involved in many personal and professional endeavors,” including cultural preservation, health education, social justice, civil and human rights, and philanthropy.

Cohen heads the Atlanta chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, which advocates “an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem,” with “security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians.”

Khoury is encouraged by Jews and Arabs who oppose efforts by the Trump administration to restrict immigration and travel to the United States by the residents of several primarily Muslim nations. “One of the good things that I think can come out of it is for more Jews and Arabs to see how much more in common we have,” she said. “How now we see that the persecution, quote-unquote, is toward Arabs, but this is still very fresh in the memory of the Jewish people.”

Ibrahim echoed that thought. “Divisions tend to, not necessarily disappear, but are temporarily shelved when you’re in the same foxhole as someone, and there is increasingly this feeling that both communities are being targeted and scapegoated by a resurgent, racially motivated political movement.”

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