On March 7, 2014 a one-day National Summit will bring together in Washington, DC, a group of Americans concerned about the plight of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. None of the people organising the event have Arab ancestry, but for many years all have focused their time and energy working on behalf of cordial relations and mutual understanding between the Arab people of the Middle East and the citizens of the United States. For most of them, this devotion has been sustained for half a century.
The sponsoring organisations are the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, a superb bimonthly magazine founded in 1982 by two retired US Foreign Service Officers, Ambassador Andrew Killgore and Richard H. Curtiss, and three activist organisations: the Council for the National Interest [CNI], which I helped organise in 1985; If Americans Knew, founded in 2001 and led by Alison Weir, an investigative journalist who now also directs CNI; and the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy (IRmep).
My involvement with the Middle East began in constituent service. In April 1976, as a US congressman from Illinois, I decided I had to travel to South Yemen to seek the release of a young constituent, Ed Franklin, who was serving a five-year prison sentence on a trumped-up charge of spying. At that time, I could not recall meeting a single Arab in my constituency.
While preparing for the trip, Dr. John Duke Anthony (later to found and direct the National Council on USArab Relations) came to my office on Capitol Hill to brief me on life in South Yemen. He was an established expert on the Middle East and one of the few Americans to have visited South Yemen in the past decade. He eased my concern on several points. For example, the State Department had warned me that South Yemen was the most radical of Arab states.
Anthony predicted the warm reception I later experienced. I secured Franklin’s release and departed South Yemen with him in my custody. Changing planes at Beirut, I met Richard H. Curtiss for the first time. He was on the staff of the US Embassy there and arranged a press interview to discuss my rescue of Franklin.
The trip was an eye-opener. For the first time, I discovered that Arabs are normal human beings, not terrorists. I listened to their grievances against America and Israel.
Ten years later, Anthony re-entered my life when he decided to establish the National Council on US-Arab Relations. I sat with him and his close associates who formed the council. We remain good friends.
Curtiss became one of my most cherished friends as the editor of the Washington Report magazine. His passing in 2013 was also a hard blow to Killgore, who once told me, “I could always think better when Dick sat with me.”
Curtiss’s daughter, Delinda Hanley, already a veteran on the Washington Report staff, picked up her father’s editorial reins and now shares them with Janet McMahon, also a veteran staff member.
McMahon began her career with the Washington Report 25 years ago, after an unusual personal pilgrimage that began with her decision to quit smoking. She decided to invest the money she previously had spent on cigarettes in the Save the Children Fund. This led her to an acquaintance with the challenges faced by a young Arab girl in South Lebanon named Renee. That experience caused her to learn more about Arabs and rethink her views on Zionism. While studying Arabic in Portland, Oregon, prior to attending the American University in Cairo, she learned about the Washington Report and signed on when a staff opening occurred upon her return from Cairo.
My friendship with Ambassador Killgore began in 1984, when my book, They Dare to Speak Out, was ready for publication and the Killgore-Curtiss publication, founded two years earlier, had progressed from a modest eightpage monthly newsletter to a splendid full-colour magazine.
From a flurry of mail, I soon sensed the need for an activist organisation, the Council for the National Interest, which would reach beyond the American Arab community. The Killgore-Curtiss partnership helped CNI through its birth pangs.
Curtiss lived to see the magazine reach full throttle, by any test the finest US magazine on Middle East affairs. Since Curtiss’s death, Killgore - now 94 - remains at work in the magazine’s offices, busy full time as publisher. He had a major role in organising the National Summit.
Former US Senator James G. Abourezk was distressed that a long-standing obligation keeps him from attending the March 7 event. He and I became closely acquainted while we were both in Congress. As founder and first leader of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, he invited me to speak at its initial convention in Detroit in 1980. ADC sponsored my principal nationwide book promotion schedule in 1986. Abourezk remains on the National Board of Directors of CNI and ADC.
IRmep’s Grant Smith, one of the planners of the National Summit, is deeply committed to Arab human rights, and became a friend and colleague during my drafting of Arab-related books beginning in 2000.
Attending the summit will be my longtime friend, Eugene Bird, who ably headed CNI for years. His wife, Jerri Bird, now deceased, organised Partners for Peace in Washington, a busy umbrella group that served a dozen separate organisations.
Among my friends who continue to campaign for Arab human rights are many citizens in Arab countries, notably Dr. Khalaf (Ahmad) Al Habtoor, philanthropist and businessman in Dubai. I am certain my acquaintances are but a tiny fraction of people of all nationalities and religious affiliations who proudly and bravely carry the flag for universal human rights.