October 11, 1985.
The date has marked somber anniversaries of Alex Odeh’s unsolved murder for 34 years now. The Palestinian American civil rights activist served as West Coast regional director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) when he opened the door to his Santa Ana office that morning. Doing so detonated a rigged pipe bomb; Odeh didn’t survive the blast.
Beginning another weekend of remembrance, a noontime ADC ceremony will be held at the Odeh statue in front of Santa Ana Library on Friday. The annual Alex Odeh memorial banquet follows at the Sheraton Cerritos Hotel where it becomes a day-long conference on Saturday with panelists, guest speakers and award honorees.
Odeh’s legacy not only lives on decades after the bomb blast, but is becoming stronger.
Those responsible for taking his life could’ve never predicted as much. At the time, it seemed history would forget their victim. In 1985, ADC activists decried the imbalance of news coverage between Odeh’s death and that of Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish-American murdered and thrown overboard by Palestinian terrorists who hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship just days before.
That gap definitely existed, but a search of newspaper archives shows that articles about Odeh after October 11, 1985 seem like a torrent by comparison to finding any mention of the man before that date.
When Odeh joined the ADC in 1982, he set out to combat anti-Arab stereotypes in the media while offering his insights to better balance news coverage of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It didn’t take long for the activist to take newspapers to task. He wrote a stern March 21, 1982 letter published in the Los Angeles Times as ADC’s regional coordinator. Two weeks before, the Times published a cartoon that irked the civil rights activist who felt the responsibility of speaking out on behalf of those who complained to him as well as the 200,000 Arab Americans in the newspaper’s readership area.
“Every point of the cartoon is incorrect; the mode of dress, the notion of a harem, the realtor’s spiel, but above all, the idea that an Arab would trade women for property,” Odeh wrote. “I trust that once the media are sensitized to racism in the form of editorial cartoons, Arab Americans will no longer be subject to media defamation.”
Later that year, Odeh provided a counterbalance to the Anti-Defamation League in a row over the late Israeli human rights attorney Felicia Langer’s speaking appearance at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. “As an Israeli communist, her views on Israeli society and activities on the West Bank would be no more reliable than the views of an American communist on American society,” David A. Lehrer of the ADL told the Times. “Her ideology colors her entire view.”
Odeh proved less dismissive. “She has witnessed the clear violation of human rights of the Palestinians who live under occupation,” he said. “She is a courageous woman who is concerned about her people and concerned about peace for all as well as equality and justice. Without an independent Palestinian state, there can be no peace.”
Not all of Odeh’s activism centered around Palestine or media portrayals of Arabs. In 1984, he stood outside the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Santa Ana sporting a checkered coat for a press conference alongside Latino leaders like the late Amin David. He joined the activists in decrying the INS raid of 140 undocumented workers at an Anaheim shoe factory that January while supporting congressman Edward Roybal’s proposed immigration reform bill.
But having been denied the ability to visit his home village of Jifna by Israeli authorities following the Six-Day War, Odeh’s political heart always resided in Palestine. A year before his murder, Odeh had a “big bravo” for the Times’ editorial staff after they published an opinion critical of Israeli foreign policy.
Odeh deemed Israeli settlements as nothing more than “a form of cruel colonialist expansion” in his letter to the editor. He warned that if the U.S. Embassy in Israel should move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it would send a message that Washington blesses such policies.
Thirty-four years after Odeh’s death, his killers still haven’t faced justice. In 1988, Robert Friedman’s Village Voice exposé reported that police investigators soon suspected a trio of Jewish Defense League members–Keith Fuchs, Andy Green and Robert Manning–as being authors of the crime. The case remains open–and bitterly cold.
But the cause for a more just world that Odeh fought for seems just as evasive. President Donald Trump is advancing xenophobic immigration policies here at home and fulfilled the Israel lobby’s long-sought goal by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem last year after declaring the city Israel’s capital.
There’s still no Palestinian state, nor the peace Odeh promised it would bring.
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!