If Martin Buber was right that ''all real living is meeting,'' life's sacredness had a rare moment last week when Norma Odeh met Hyman Bookbinder. Odeh, 29, is an Arab-American who is raising three children by herself in Orange County, Calif. Bookbinder, an American Jew, is the Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee. The two were introduced by James Abourezk, chairman of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington.
Those are the core facts. Beyond them, in the outer circle of reality where symbolic meaning often tells the better story, Odeh and Bookbinder play invaluable and once unthought-of roles in Arabic-Jewish relations. The two met during a morning break at hearings held by the House subcommittee on criminal justice, where the issue was ethnically motivated attacks on Arab-Americans. Congress had never held hearings on this subject before, an omission which itself reflects the country's disinclination to see Arab-American problems as worth a drop of sweat.
Odeh's expertise is that of the victim. On Oct. 11, 1985, her husband Alex, the Southern California director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, was murdered by a bomb trip-wired to explode when he opened the door to his office. The couple, married for 10 years, had three daughters. English and Arabic were spoken at home. Norma Odeh told the subcommittee that her husband ''was a gentle man, a poet and teacher who believed passionately in the dignity and rights of all human beings. . . . He dedicated his life to peace and justice. It is therefore all the more tragic that a man who believed so strongly in the principles of nonviolence, like Martin Luther King, was assassinated in the prime of his life.''
One of the first to call Norma Odeh to offer condolences was Hyman Bookbinder. He also contacted Abourezk, to condemn the attack. At the hearings, the two men, though long entrenched as political opponents in the Arab-Israel debate, sat at the same witness table to agree that anti-Arab violence should be opposed as terrorism. They shared a microphone and a goal: to end the conditions of hate that promote violence and discrimination against the nation's 2.5 million Arab-Americans.
How bad is it? The unsolved Odeh murder leads the list of abuses. Abourezk, a former member of the House and Senate from South Dakota, cited some of the others: suspected arson last November of his Washington office, a pipe bomb planted outside the organization's Boston office, an attempted break-in at the New York office, followed by three months of vandalism and threatening phone calls. In all, Abourezk's ADC has a ''harassment and violence log'' with 51 incidents in the past two years.
Because these attacks have tended to pass unnoticed, Abourezk's claim that ''the existing anti-Arab hysteria has spiraled to new heights'' sounds somewhat overwrought. In context, it isn't. It was presidential hysteria that saw the United States wage an overnight war last April against Libya, an Arab state. Except for an early run of stories on the effects of the bombing raids, plus an occasional account of how Moammar Gadhafi allegedly has been weakened, America has walked away from its assault. They were only Arabs, after all.
Anti-Arab sentiment had its domestic venting. Abourezk recalls that the day after the Libyan bombing, ''three people were arrested for throwing rocks and shooting BB guns at Arab-owned restaurants, cafes and stores in Dearborn, Mich., which holds the largest Arab community in the United States. Also on the 15th, an Arab individual was attacked and beaten by eight individuals in broad daylight on a Chicago street. On April 16, five Arab students were severely beaten by 10 non-Arab students outside a pub in Syracuse, N.Y.''
Increasingly, our philosophical unity with Israel is based on a shared fixation on military retaliation. When Israel bombed Tunis, Reagan praised the strike. Its occupations of Palestine and South Lebanon are not seen as human-rights violations, but, like the U.S. funding of contra terrorists, as exercises in national security.
Arab-Americans who are being bombed or beaten remain uncertain about when the attacks will end and whether or not their assailants will be caught. For Norma Odeh, the support of Hyman Bookbinder is an unexpected comfort. Both people, Arab and Jew, are the stronger for it.