Posted on October 09, 2000 in Washington Watch

My life’s work has been an effort to build bridges between my two worlds: the world of my Arab heritage and that of my American citizenship and culture.

I have wanted Americans to understand Arabs, to respect their humanity and their rights. I’ve wanted Americans to know the history of the Arabs, to celebrate their marvelous contributions to civilization and to empathize with their traumatic losses.

At the same time I’ve wanted the Arab world to understand the fundamental goodness of the American people, and to understand that the policies that emerge from America’s frequently mysterious and maddening political process often times do not reflect the values and culture of the people.

In this context, I have struggled to change American policy toward the Arab people–working so that U.S. policy would both recognize the human needs of the Arab people and project the true values of the American people.

This has not always been an easy job–and in the past week it has been particularly difficult.

As Jerusalem exploded with horrific violence, spilling over into the rest of Palestine and Israel, I was on a plane to Damascus to begin a four-day speaking tour in Syria and Lebanon sponsored by the U.S. embassies of both countries.

I went in response to an invitation from an old friend, Ryan Crocker, U.S. Ambassador to Syria. He and the public affairs officers in Syria and Lebanon asked if I would come to the region to speak to officials, the media and public audiences about the upcoming U.S. presidential contest, the impact of politics on U.S. foreign policy and the role that Arab Americans will play in this year’s election.

Despite my preoccupation with the elections, I accepted for many reasons.

Changes underway in Syria and the pending formation of a new government in Lebanon meant that it would be a fascinating time to visit both countries and learn. At the same time, I knew that many in the region are following the U.S. elections and are concerned about how its outcome would effect them. The visit, therefore, also presented me with an opportunity to teach.

Another reason that led me to go was the fact that it is always hard for me to resist an opportunity to visit Lebanon. I truly love the country. My grandfather is buried there. My father grew to manhood there and I still have a wonderful family and many old friends there.

Finally, I must say that it was hard to turn down a call from Ambassador Crocker. We’ve known each other and been friends for many years. His career in government and mine as an Arab American advocate have spanned difficult decades. We’ve not always agreed, but he has cared deeply for the Arab people and their suffering. He is a friend whom I respect and if he thought that my visit would be useful, I felt that it was certainly worth considering.

Four hectic event filled and emotion-filled days later, I am back in the United States, reflecting on my visit, on what I’ve come back to and on what I’ve left behind.

My calculation had been right. It was a fascinating time to go to both countries. There is a changing environment in Syria. One can feel it. Damascus’ quiet aged beauty is being contested by new growth. The businessmen with whom I met are planning initiatives to attract investment and the intellectuals I met are discussing new ideas and alternative visions for Syria’s future.

In Beirut, too, there is vibrant discussion about the new government and the country’s future. I met the President, ministers and members of parliament, young and old. The new ones, many elected as part of Rafiq Hariri’s slate of candidates, are seeking ways to bring their talents and energy to revitalizing Lebanon’s economy. At the same time, the nations’ established leadership is engaged in the never-ending, but consequential, discussion about Lebanon’s social compact and self-definition.

I learned a great deal in all of these conversations, much of which will be useful in my Washington work.My public appearances were focused on the U.S. elections, how U.S. policy is formed and on the role Arab Americans are currently playing in this process.

I brought to my listeners the same promising and real portrait of Arab American progress that I sometimes convey in this column. The essence of my message was that U.S. policy is, in fact shaped by domestic political considerations, in addition to national interests and regional realities. For too many decades only pro-Israel forces impacted U.S. politics and, as a result, U.S. policy became skewed and one-sided. These are still serious problems and a dangerous double standard in the U.S. approach to the Middle East, but Arab Americans are both organized and, for the first time, playing a role in the effort to create some balance. The road to change will be a long one, but now at least we are traveling on it.

In all of the conversations that followed either my speeches or my press events, two main topics emerged.

First and foremost were the bloody events that began with Sharon’s provocation in Jerusalem. Pent-up Palestinian desperation and anger at the continued reality of Israel’s occupation exploded in rage. The excessive and disproportionate use of force by Israel so gruesomely captured in film has shaken Arabs and brought out anger against Israel and the United States.

The second focus of concern was the recent news of Ambassador Martin Indyk’s current problems, which are resulting from a U.S. Department of State investigation into claims that he violated security procedures. While some U.S. Jewish organizations have charged anti-Semitism, Arabs fear espionage. Neither, I have evidence to believe, are true, but are more a reflection of the deep gap in perceptions that continue to divide us.

In the same context, many questioners also brought up what is still mistakenly referred to as “the firing” of my son Joseph from the State Department following protests from Jewish groups who charged that he had written anti-Israel articles.

The fact is that while these groups did demand that Joseph be fired, in fact, the Administration supported him and even offered him a promotion. Joseph left the State Department on his own because he had applied for and was given a position he preferred as a civil rights attorney at the Department of Justice and because he was dissatisfied with the environment at the State Department.

What is most troubling to me about all of this is that what the Jewish community did in its campaign against Joseph continues to play itself out in the Arab world. Their effort to remove the only Arab American in the Department has continuing repercussions and accentuates the feelings of a double standard and the asymmetry of power that produced it.

Two high points of my trip were the luncheon hosted in my honor by Ambassador Crocker at his Damascus residence and the dinner in my honor hosted by the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Satterfield at his residence.

Crocker was proud of the renovation work recently completed at the residence. The building had been damaged when demonstrators assaulted it, trapping Mrs. Crocker inside. During lunch, Crocker spoke movingly of his deep concern over the Palestinian loss of life and expressed his hope that the violence would end.

The dinner in Lebanon was an emotional high point. As I stood before the assembled dignitaries after being introduced by both the Ambassador and the Public Affairs Officer Ann O’Leary, I was moved, reflecting on the sweep of history that had brought me to this point. The son of a Lebanese immigrant to the United States was now a guest of honor at a dinner attended by Lebanese leaders. I was proud and filled with a sense of the bridge building that was possible.

There were low points as well. As I was leaving Beirut I learned that Ambassador Crocker’s residence had once again been assaulted by demonstrations and in response to security concerns, U.S. embassies in the region were to be closed. I felt a deep sadness that friends and fine public servants who care deeply, as I do, about the U.S.-Arab relationship are trapped in this cycle of mistrust and anger. I feel deeply for the Palestinian victims of violence and for the frustrations of those in the Arab world who are outraged by the horrible scenes of violence coming out of the occupied lands. I also worry for my fellow Americans who I pray will be safe and not be scapegoated and made victims of misdirected rage.

The second incident that cast a shadow on my trip occurred in transit. In the Paris airport, I was a victim of profiling. When the security personnel looked at my Arab face and saw that I had been to Syria and Lebanon I was pulled aside for a humiliating search and questioning.

I am home now, reflecting on the work that remains before us. At times it appears to be never ending. We have made progress–but we have so much still to do. And do it we must, because, as Arab Americans these two worlds are ours and they must come together, not in a collision, but in understanding.

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