When James Abourezk moved to Washington more than three decades ago — serving first as a congressman and then as the first Arab American to be elected to the United States Senate — his knowledge of what was going on in he Middle East was modest. “It wasn’t an issue that anyone talked about very much back home in South Dakota,” he explains. Raised by his Lebanese immigrant parents on a Sioux Indian reservation there, he was in fact far more concerned with the welfare of American Indians than he was with the problems of his fellow Arab Americans or with Middle East affairs.
Isolated in the West all his life, Abourezk decided it was time to journey back to his father’s birthplace, and eventually took a tour of multiple Arab nations. “What I heard there about the problems of the Middle East didn’t seem to fit in at all with what I had been hearing in Washington,” he says. “I discovered I had been hearing just one side of the story. There was really no debate going on in Congress, because just about everyone had already taken the position that Israel was always in the right, and that was that.”
With his new consciousness of Middle East affairs, Senator Abourezk remained loyal to a variety of previous causes. He continued trying to reform the laws governing Indians, fighting deregulation of fuel, pushing anti-trust legislation and supporting environmental safeguards, to name just a few. He was also a severe critic of the Vietnam War and a proponent of U.S. recognition of the People’s Republic of China. But to many Americans he became best known for his fierce advocacy of a more balanced and fair U.S. government policy on Arab-Israeli problems.
“It was tough going,” he says. “The supporters of Israel tried just about everything they could think of to get rid of me. Naturally, they accused me of selling out to the Arabs. You know, if you were pro-Israeli, well, that was a matter of conscience. But if you were pro-Arab, it had to be because you got paid for it.”
After serving one term, Abourezk voluntarily walked away from the Senate, but his battle to influence government policy and public opinion on the matter of Arabs and Arab-Israeli issues was now a primary focus.
In a letter to the Israeli lobby in Washington, Abourezk writes, “I can tell you from personal experience that, at least in the Congress, the support Israel has in that body is based completely on political fear — fear of defeat by anyone who does not do what Israel wants done. I can also tell you that very few members of Congress — at least when I served there — have any affection for Israel or for its lobby. What they have is contempt, but it is silenced by their fear that how they actually feel will be discovered. I’ve heard too many cloakroom conversations in which members of the Senate will voice their bitter feelings about how they’re pushed around by the lobby to think otherwise. In private one hears the dislike of Israel and the tactics of the lobby, but not one of them is willing to risk the lobby’s animosity by making their feelings public.”
In May, 1980, Abourezk founded the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), primarily to combat the unfair stereotyping of Arabs in the media. After the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, ADC expanded its scope by playing the major role in organizing demonstrations and marches. Abourezk believes the organization is making a big impact. “When we started up,” he says, “people used to ask us why we started. Now they ask us for our opinion on things.”
ADC’s Advisory Committee is made up of an impressive group of people that includes: former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali; JOrdan’s Queen Noor; U.S. Congressmen John Conyers (D-MI), Darrell Issa (R-CA), and Nick Joe Rahall (D-WV); former congressman Paul Findley; Ambassador Clovis Maksoud; Casey Kasem; and Archbishop Philip Saliba.