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James Abourezk: A Tribute to The First Arab American Senator

posted on: Mar 1, 2023

James Abourezk: A Tribute to The First Arab American Senator
Picture of Senator Abourezk. Photo: RMF

By: Adam Abdel-Qader / Arab America Contributing Writer

On Friday, the 24th, the remarkable US Senator James Abourezk passed away at 92 on his birthday. Abourezk died in his home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after being admitted to hospice care earlier in the week. Loved ones surrounded the former Senator in his final days. 

James Abourezk was a vital figure in the Arab American community. During and after his career in Congress, his activism for the Arab American community was undoubtedly courageous and far ahead of his time.

Arab America commemorates the incredible achievements of the former Senator and his groundbreaking work that bolstered the lives of so many.

James Abourezk: A Tribute to The First Arab American Senator
Picture of Senator Abourezk and Rep. Nick Rahall reviewing a document together. Photo: Washington Report

The First Arab American US Senator

Senator Abourezk was born in Wood, South Dakota, in 1931, initially a part of the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation. His Arab heritage stemmed from his two parents, Charles and Lena Abourezk, who came from Kfeir, Lebanon, before Abourezk was born. 

Before his rise to the Senate in 1973, Abourezk was a congressman in the House of Representatives representing South Dakota’s second district from 1971-1973. Winning the Senate election in 1973 marked the first time in US history that an Arab American was elected to the Senate, making Abourezk the first Arab American Senator.

Growing up on Sioux Indian Reservation meant a lot of his early development revolved around the well-being of his community and the reservation he resided on. This notion led him to become a reputable leader and trailblazer for the Native-American community early on in his political career on the grounds of fighting for their welfare and civil rights in Congress. Throughout his childhood, he was not particularly invested or involved in the foreign affairs of the middle east. His determined advocacy for the Arab American community would come a little later. 

Regarding his political career, he was revered for his contributions to passing the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Indian Child Welfare Act, and the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. Notably, he was also the founder of what became the US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and an active member of the Judiciary Committee.

Abourezk came out with two books throughout his career, Advise and Dissent: Memoirs of South Dakota and the US Senate and Through Different Eyes

Abourezk displayed courage frequently throughout his political career as he advocated for the rights of many Native American tribes in South Dakota. At one point during the American Indian Movement in 1973, Senator Abourezk and South Dakota Senator George McGovern traveled to Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where a standoff between Native American activists and federal law enforcement was occurring. The two senators negotiated terms between both sides.

Soon after he took his role in the Senate, he traveled to the Middle East to indulge in his familial origins. He was curious to discover more about his heritage while also searching for his perspective on what the media and Congress had been discussing for some time, the Arab-Israeli conflict. To his surprise, as he proclaimed, “I discovered I had been hearing 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.”

From then on, Senator Abourezk added another front to his advocacy work, eventually traveling around the country and advocating for the Palestinian cause. He became an orator of the unprocessed and undeniable reality in the middle east and a proponent of the “more even-handed” policy outlook on the Palestine-Israel conflict. This notion ended up losing him many allies on the Senate floor. 

Abourezk in 1977. Photo: Wikipedia

Abscam and the ADC

Although the Senator retired from Congress in 1978, that did not mark his official retirement from activism due in part to the controversial Abscam operation in the late 70s. Abscam was a term coined to describe an FBI sting operation that used methods of bribery and impersonation to convict corrupt politicians. What some people may not know about Abscam are the discriminating and ethically questionable methods used to convict these politicians. 

FBI employees impersonated Arab sheiks under a fake organization called Abdul Enterprises. The public noticed the operation’s controversial methods as courts put the charged politicians on trial. Many Arab Americans found themselves offended by the demeaning portrayal of Arab people. However, they felt voiceless in the matter. Fortunately, one man saw an opportunity to speak up about the injustice that pressures Arab Americans, and the blatant and often discriminating image of Arabs and Muslims advertised throughout the US. That man was no other than James Abourezk. Abourezk grabbed the opportunity with a sense of urgency and officially formed the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), gathering Arab Americans together for a righteous and progressive cause. This civil rights organization has committed itself to defend the rights of people of Arab descent. 

Warren David, the President of Arab America, Co-Founder of the Arab America Foundation, and former President of ADC, described Abourezk as a source of inspiration. 

“As a young activist in Detroit in 1980, during the formation of the organization (ADC, James Abourezk served as a source of inspiration to me and many Arab Americans. I distinctly recall a spur-of-the-moment gathering at Abdeen Jabara’s residence, during which (Jabara) informed me about a newly created organization dedicated to combatting the adverse portrayl of Arab Americans following the ‘Abscam’ debacle. Soon after, Abourezk traveled to Detroit to deliver a speech at the Book Cadillac Hotel and mobilized the community. During a time when discourse regarding the negative portrayal of Arabs and the injustice faced by Palestinians were scarce, he acted as a pioneer who instilled a sense of immediacy in the Arab American community. He was a trailblazer in this regard.”

– Warren David, 10th President of ADC and Co-Founder of the Arab America Foundation

An Eternal Impact

Senator Abourezk has touched the hearts of many Arab Americans. His legacy lives on through the continuing contributions of organizations that uplift Arabs today. As a tribute to his everlasting impact, the text below provides statements from President Joe Biden, leaders in the Arab-American community, and Abourezk’s organization, the ADC. 

Attorney and Founder of the Arab-American Civil Rights League (ACRL), Nabih Ayad, had much to say in the wake of the Senator’s passing: 

“Senator Abourezk showed that he will speak truth to power and move to level the playing field for Arab Americans when he founded the ADC. I have had the great privilege of meeting and speeking at a number of events in DC with the Senator. We will always remember those that have given so much of their life to help secure a brighter future for ours.”

– Nabih Ayad

When President Joe Biden heard that Senator Abourezk was placed in hospice care at his home, he immediately called his family, offering his support and prayers:

“We were seatmates on the Senate floor our first two years. We argued like hell a lot, but he was my buddy.”

– President of the United States, Joseph Biden

A statement released from the ADC on the Senator’s passing: 

“James has played an essential role in leading the Arab American community for many years, significantly contributing to our role and history in this country. He has paved the way for others through his work and trailblazing leadership.”

– Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee

Former committee Chairman of the ADC, Attorney Albert Mokheiber, had sincere words upon hearing about the Senator:

“Jim was unique in many ways, from his firm commitment to civil and human rights, to his faithful representation of his constituents in Congress. His vision in founding the ADC served not only to protect the Arab American, but also to empower the generations that followed. He was tenacious for the truth, and merciful to the underpriviledged, whether they were Native Americans or Palestinian refugees. He was proud of his Lebanese roots as he was of his upbringing in South Dakota.”

Attorney Albert Mokheiber

Political activist, author, attorney, and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader had some reminiscent and uplifting words about the Senator’s ambition and accomplishments:

“We found him to be the ‘go-to’ person in the Senate when time was of the essence. He took up consumer, labor, and family farmer causes as a matter of duty. With knowledge and intuition, he rose to the occasion, often with his close collaborator, Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH), to challenge big business lobbies.”

– Ralph Nader

Senator Abourezk was the embodiment of an honest and outstanding public servant. As a seeker of activism early on, when most Arab Americans felt they lacked representation, Abourezk sought to empower his colleagues and those under subjugation. No matter the situation, he projected toward the future and betterment of society by planning, achieving, informing, advocating, and caring for his communities. 

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