Renewed push for answers in Odeh murder, 28 years later

Activists demand accountability in the assassination of Arab-American Alex Odeh, killed in a 1985 bombing in California

Alex Odeh, pictured with his three young daughters, shortly before he was assassinated on Oct. 11, 1985.

On Oct. 11, 1985, Alex Odeh opened his office door at the Santa Ana, Calif. Branch of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) – a civil-rights organization where he worked as regional director – when a pipe bomb exploded, killing him and injuring several others.

The FBI initially suspected the radical Jewish Defense League (JDL) was behind the attack – and an investigative report by journalist Robert Friedman later leaked names of members the bureau suspected – but no one was ever indicted. Details about the investigation remain scant, almost three decades later.

Shortly after Odeh's assassination, a grieving corps of “shocked and outraged” ADC members dedicated the regularly scheduled 1985 ADC banquet to the slain activist. The annual Alex Odeh banquet became a tradition for some time, drawing high-profile keynote speakers like academic Edward Said over the years, but eventually fell by the wayside as hopes dwindled that Odeh’s killers would ever be brought to justice.

Warren David, current president of the ADC, visited Alex's widow, Norma, and brother, Sami, two years ago. He told Al Jazeera that the Odeh family hadn’t been apprised of any developments in the investigation for years.

“It was pathetic that nothing was being done,” said David, who met Odeh back in the 1980s. 

But when Sami – long considered the Odeh family’s point man with the ongoing FBI investigation – passed away in June before justice could be delivered in his brother’s death, the ADC decided to take up the mantle and pump some life into the campaign for justice, now 28 years-old.

“Time goes on, and people just get back involved in their own lives,” said Richard Habib, who served with Odeh on the Los Angeles board of the ADC in the 80s. “But I think it came to a sense that this has been long enough and nothing has come of it.”

On Saturday, the first Alex Odeh Memorial Banquet in years will take place in Newport Beach, Calif., where emboldened ADC members will have a little more spring in their step because the campaign to bring Odeh's killers to justice is alive again.

The ADC has joined forces and phone lists with the NAACP, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and several other civil-rights groups to pressure the Department of Justice (DOJ) for a more robust, renewed investigation. Together they launched an online petition campaign asking the DOJ to further investigate the attack. To date, they have garnered over 10,000 signatures.

The NAACP signed onto the initiative in June after NAACP President Ben Jealous spoke at the ADC annual convention, where he offered the full support of his organization.

"Whenever a leader for a civil rights organization is killed, it is the responsibility of our country as a whole – and a civil rights community as a whole – to stand up and demand that their killers be brought to justice," Jealous said during a conference call Monday with David of the ADC, the executive director of JVP, and two members of Congress who are backing the initiative.

A cautionary tale

Alex Odeh

Born into a Christian family in the West Bank town of Jifna, Alex Odeh immigrated to the United States in 1972 and became a citizen 5 years later.

Odeh, a poet who also lectured at a local university, was 41 years old when he died in 1985. He left behind a wife and three daughters, all of whom were younger than seven years old.

His family was not available for comment, but activists who worked alongside Odeh described him as a kind and understated man willing to reach across barriers in his mission to combat anti-Arab sentiment in the United States.

With the ADC, Odeh worked to erode pervasive stereotypes against Arabs in the media and promote a more Arab-friendly dialogue on the Israel-Palestine conflict within the U.S.

But his assassination, which happened the same day Odeh was scheduled to participate in an event at a local Jewish community center, disrupted the ADC’s operation in California and shook the Palestinian community there to its core.

Palestinian-American activists say Odeh’s murder – and the fact that his killers remain at large – still looms today as a reminder of the ultimate price to be paid for speaking out against injustice, hence the nationwide campaign.

“My mom regularly reminded me of what happened to Alex as a way of forewarning me about being active on social justice issues, in particular the Palestinian movement,” said Andrew Kadi, a steering committee member of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation whose family were friends with Sami Odeh.

“His assassination played a major role in my awareness about my own identity," he said.

Cold case

Almost three decades have passed since Alex Odeh opened his office door and tripped the bomb that ended his life, and yet the FBI has not closed the door on his case.

In 2010, a quarter-century after the assassination, the FBI commented that it still considered the case "an active, ongoing priority investigation" with a $1 million reward for any information leading to the arrest of those responsible.

"The squad investigating this matter is conducting a proactive investigation to generate new leads," said FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller with the Los Angeles field office. "It's a challenging case, and obviously by now you can call it a cold case, but we'll never give up in the case of murder," Eimiller told Al Jazeera.

With no one to hold accountable for what President Ronald Reagan called a “heinous” killing, Odeh’s family and friends can only speculate as to why the soft-spoken activist was targeted, even though there is a consensus about who did it.

At the time of the attack, which destroyed the ADC office, the FBI said it believed the bombing was carried out by the JDL, a radical Brooklyn-based extremist group designated in the U.S. as a terrorist organization – though largely defunct nowadays.

Comments from the JDL chairman the day after the bombing fuelled rumors that the radical Jewish group was behind the attack.

“No Jew or American should shed one tear for the demise of Mr. Odeh,” Irv Rubin said. “Unfortunate as it may be, as they say, ‘What goes around comes around.'"

A lawyer for the JDL, however, denied charges that his group was involved and demanded a retraction from the FBI.

The night before he died, Odeh had appeared on a local TV station, KABC, where he addressed the Achille Lauro cruise ship hijacking by Palestinian terrorists who shot and killed Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish American tourist in a wheelchair.

At one point during his television appearance, Odeh called PLO leader Yasser Arafat – who some alleged approved the attack – a “man of peace.”

The media connected the dots in the aftermath of the bombing and concluded that Odeh had likely been assassinated for his comments about the PLO leader or as a sort of twisted retaliation for the Klinghoffer murder.

“The media just tried to give an explanation for why he was killed, when it really has nothing to do with it,” Habib said. “It’s just a complete red herring.”

A closer investigation of the evidence suggested that Odeh’s assassination appeared to be a sophisticated, well-planned attack that went off without a hitch.

In 1990, Robert Friedman at the Village Voice uncovered the names of three JDL members implicated in the Odeh assassination and cast a new light on the killing.

FBI officials told Friedman they were “impressed” by the sophistication of the pipe bomb, and also linked the bombers to separate attacks in New Jersey, New York and Israel.

Friedman also said Israeli officials had not cooperated with the FBI's investigation of the suspects, all believed to be residing in Israel. He quoted a confidential FBI memorandum he had obtained that said Israel's response to FBI requests had been "untimely, incomplete and in certain cases no response was rendered."

"Israel's apparent lack of cooperation with the FBI in the JDL investigation calls into question its sincerity in prosecuting the war against terrorism when the terrorism emanates from Israel itself," Friedman wrote.

But the petition's backers are confident more can be done. Pointing to the apparent mountain of evidence exposed by reporters, such as Friedman, as to who killed Alex Odeh, the ADC says a revived investigation is in order and could prove fruitful in bringing the perpetrators to justice.

If naming suspects is out of the question, ADC members ask the FBI to at least name persons of interest. Justice is the goal, they say, but some accountability would be a good first step.

An American duty

The ADC faces an uphill battle. But a broad coalition of support means it won't be going at it alone.

In addition to the NAACP and JVP, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which includes several mainstream Jewish advocacy groups, told the Jewish Daily Forward that it, too, supports the ADC campaign.

The initiative has also found allies in Congress, including Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., who represents the district where Odeh was killed. The Congresswoman sent a letter to the DOJ in June and is seeking other lawmakers to sign a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.

The DOJ responded on July 11 with a curt letter saying that it could not comment further on an open investigation, a response Congresswoman Sanchez called “unacceptable.”

“Given that the FBI has deemed this case a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the public needs reassurance that all necessary efforts have been dedicated to addressing such a breach of our national security,” Sanchez said.

The DOJ did not immediately provide Al Jazeera with a statement on the matter.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., added during the Monday conference call that he wants the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations to convene a hearing on the bombing.

"We're going to pursue it vigorously and we're not going to let any more time lapse," Conyers said, adding that the assassination had “been put on the back burner for far too long.”

Activists and ADC members say that the situation for Arab-Americans has improved dramatically since Alex's time. One even called the Odeh assassination a “turning point” for Arab-Americans and noted that a terrorist attack directed at an Arab community leader in the U.S. would probably not happen in 2013.

Still, they believe that, despite the resources and effort required to drag the Odeh assassination back into the national spotlight after all these years, the nationwide campaign is worthwhile.

While Odeh made strides during his brief tenure as regional director, Andrew Kadi says there is still work to be done for Arab-American equality – and particularly for Palestinian-Americans, who he feels are unfairly portrayed in American media.

“The closure of this case would be a statement of change in the way this country views Palestinians," he said. "It would represent the closure of a very difficult period in the history of Palestinian-Americans trying to speak out about these issues."

Others say it's a matter of national duty.

“In this country of freedom and democracy, to have something like this happen and not be solved is not right,” said Warren David. “It’s our duty, not just as Arab-Americans but as Americans to bring those responsible to justice."

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