Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

James G. Abourezk

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

James G. Abourezk

Article excerpt

Former Senator James Abourezk, founder and national chairman of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), can be found these days in his home state of South Dakota, practicing law and, temporarily at least, fending off pressure to run again for elective office.

This is not to say that Abourezk has abandoned his lifelong concern -- or his style. He and ADC are "raising hell with the FBI" for its continuous investigation of Arab Americans, as targets, witnesses or, ideally, potential informers.

Clearly angered that this kind of harassment has not long since ceased, Abourezk is only too aware of the impact of the current Gulf crisis on Arab Americans: Once again, he says, those Americans who "don't know the difference between Saddam Hussain and King Hussein" are using the weapon of negative stereotyping against their fellow citizens of Arab descent.

While such defamatory attacks, unintended or otherwise, have not ceased, and while Abourezk will continue as national chair of ADC, he says that because "ADC's board and staff are now very experienced," this is an appropriate time for him to pull back, geographically and organizationally. There is no pulling back, however, from his commitment to the cause.

The Fight Against Racism

When he describes racism as "one of the major dangers of society -- and one that's still unresolved," it is apparent that the fight against racism is one of the motivating forces in Abourezk's personal and professional life. The son of Lebanese immigrants, his identification with the victims of racism -- Arab Americans, Palestinians, Native and African Americans -- stems from a passionate belief in justice and fair play.

Born on the Rosebud (Sioux) Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Abourezk writes in his autobiography, Advise and Dissent, that, "Until I left the reservation, I never understood the damage my own racism was doing as I joined the community in its uniformly bad treatment of Indians."

Today, he describes the situation of Native Americans and Palestinians as "virtually identical," Israel being a "white settler movement" which, like the one in this country, "displaced, killed, maimed and imprisoned" the indigenous population. The solution for the Palestinians is for the US to do "what it should do: stop paying Israel." Then, unlike Native Americans, Palestinians will have their own state.

Abourezk understands how racism operates on a multitude of levels, from generalized stereotyping to more formal legal barriers, and he directs his efforts accordingly.

The impetus for his founding ADC in 1980 was the federal government's "Abscam" sting operation, with FBI agents masquerading as "wealthy Arab sheikhs" to ensnare corrupt congressmen. A decade later, still sensitive to the importance of public perceptions, Abourezk accepted an offer to serve as chief adviser and researcher on a series of 13 original one-hour dramatizations commissioned by Turner Network Television on the history of American Indians.

On the legal front, in addition to his private practice, Abourezk has overseen ADC's many legal initiatives and, in 1982, accepted an offer by the Navajo Indian Nation to serve as its first attorney general. Typically, he refused to accept any pay, and, once he felt the new legal department was solidly established, turned it over to the Navajos. …

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