Veteran American Arab congressman retires from his West Virginia congressional district after serving 38 years representing Americans and American Arabs. Rahall is the longest serving American Arab in politics and most admired in public life. His voice for principle and justice will be missed
By Ray Hanania
When I first got involved in politics in the early 1970s after serving in active duty during the Vietnam War, naturally I looked for American Arab role models to help me define my career goals and overcome challenges American Arabs face in this country.
I remember being inspired in 1977 when hearing that two American Arabs had won office in the U.S. Congress. It was a big deal back then because only one other American Arab held political office, Senator James Abourezk, who I worked with in the 1980s to build up the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), had won office in 1973. (Today ADC is feeble, overwhelmed by community extremism and a lack of leadership.)
That 1977 election is still a big deal today because so few American Arabs ever achieve elective office as anti-Arab racism and discrimination continues to grow almost unchallenged. But Abourezk was the first and he was joined four years later by two representatives and pioneers in American politics who I admired, Mary Rose Oakar and Nick Rahall.
Oakar (see video below) was not only a great congresswoman, but she was also a great president of ADC, which has since fallen hard onto ineffective times. Ironically as discrimination has increased against American Arabs, the community has polarized and we have a growing problem of extremist activists who care little about America and the important sacrifices that Arabs must make as Americans to change the inaccurate stereotypes and negative perceptions.
But I remember a day when Abourezk, Oakar and Rahall championed American Arab rights, and the American Arab community had a strong voice. There where so few in our community who would stand up as true Americans who not only lived in this country respecting the laws, but also served as I and many others did defending this country in the U.S. Military. Those American Arabs did more for American Arab rights than many of the activists today who are physically in this country but mentally “back home.”
When my dad, George, and his brother, Moses, fought in World War II to destroy the Nazi movement and ironically “free the Jews” so they could unfree the Palestinians, there were no political American Arab role models that they could look up to to guide them in building their own lives, families and careers. But they were Americans first and that’s what drove their success.
The greatest thing my generation had was Abourezk, Oakar and Rahall who fought so hard not only to represent America as best as they could, but to ensure that America lived by the fundamental principles of the U.S. Constitution which guaranteed free speech, supposedly protected civil rights and defended us against aggression.
Today, many American Arabs run for public office, but not all of them run because their first priority is to make America better. Many often run mainly because they want to fight the Middle East conflict in the halls of Congress, which is Israeli occupied territory.
Abourezk, Oakar and Rahall ran because they wanted to make America better and in doing so, by being great Americans, they did more than any to improve the image of Arabs in America. They were true role models.
I knew Abourzek back in the 1980s well, and later Oakar, too, when they fought hard to make ADC a better organization. It wasn’t easy, of course as extremism spread through our community. I only had the chance to meet Rahall once while engaged in political lobbying in Washington D.C. after spending 18 years covering Chicago City Hall and Illinois politics for several major newspapers.
What I remember most is his smile. His smile was his power. You could just look at him and know that it wouldn’t be easy for the challenges that face American Arabs to bring him down. He smiled through every challenge and even when he spoke about the strength of community engagement.
All politics is local. If you want to win the Middle East conflict you have to win the battle in the community for American politics. We needed to show Americans that we American Arabs were as much or more American than they were because we cared about defending the principles that made this community great as much as we cared about defending ourselves against the bigotry and racism and the hurdles placed against our engagement in government locally and nationally by extremists in the pro-Israel community.
Rahall was probably one of the most effective in terms of fighting the good fight, and he did it for 38 years. It’s not easy being American Arab in politics. Former Congressman Jim Moran once lamented to me in the 1990s that he was always so disappointed that American Arabs just didn’t understand the ins and outs of American politics and effective lobbying or even communications, which is my professional field. Moran would stand up and fight for American Arabs but American Arabs were just never there in the numbers needed to provide cover and support for him the way American Jews stand up and defend their own.
It was tough to be in Congress both as an American and as an American Arab standing up for principle and justice when it came to the Middle East.
It shouldn’t be a surprises that Moran also represented a district right near Rahall in Northern Virginia. After serving 25 years in Congress and standing up to discrimination and bigotry in this country for so many years, including against those who discriminated against American Arabs, Moran decided to retire this year. He’ll be missed, too.
Like Moran, Rahall stood up for principle in addressing the Middle East conflict, and that often caused him most of his troubles. He was often a lone voice in speaking against resolutions supporting Israel while those resolutions ignored the rights of the civilians oppressed by Israel. That he did that for 38 years is amazing. Few could stand up to Israel’s lobby which has both the mainstream American news media and the U.S. Congress in a repressive headlock of intimidation, bullying and deceit.
Rahall opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq at a time when it was difficult to even question the lies that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney fabricated to justify their personal vengeance against the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. There was no doubt Saddam Hussein was a brutal tyrant, but Iraq had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and any strategy to oust Saddam Hussein and free the Iraq people should have approached it from a more accurate strategy of embargoes and pressure, not an invasion that cost so many American lives.
But Rahall, who was forced out in this past election after 19 terms in office, served longer. He was a Democrat in a hard core, bright red Republican District, which demonstrated that he could win support even from those who might not be of the same party by doing the right thing. Again, it’s a lesson many American Arab activists just don’t understand. Do the right thing, be great American citizens, and stand up for the rights of others first, and you can win the support of mainstream Americans including for our cause of bringing justice to Palestinians and beating down the constant racism and discrimination directed at our community.
Rahall’s grandparents immigrated to America from Lebanon and his father and uncles started their own radio station, WWNR radio in Virginia, demonstrating they had a fundamental understanding of how important communications and the media is in America.
American Arabs will be saluting Rahall’s service in the coming weeks in Washington D.C. They should also recognize Moran, too. And maybe we should bring them all together to lead a public discussion about why they were so successful despite the intense opposition they faced.
Rahall will join the World Affairs Council serving on the International Affairs Council.
Congratulations on a great career Congress Rahall, and Congressman Jim Moran, too. You both deserve recognition and praise for rolling up your sleeves and fighting the good fight for truth, justice and the American way.
No one has done it better than you.
(Ray Hanania is an award winning former Chicago City Hall reporter and columnist. He is President/CEO of Urban Strategies Group media consulting and is managing editor of The Arab Daily News and the Illinois News Network. Reach him at email@example.com.)
Video of my standup comedy introduced by former ADC President Mary Rose Oakar, one of the great American Arab political activists and champions of justice and civil rights.