I was brought up in a liberal atmosphere which allowed for contact
with Jews and Israelis even when the heat of nationalistic passions
rendered such communications questionable and dangerous. This
tolerance, inherited from my parents, and which has never left me,
goes back to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Unfortunately, my continued commitment to this open-mindedness, and
the fact that it has withstood the test of time, leaves unanswered
the question of its rightness; and the recent Israeli conduct in
being less than honest in applying the spirit of the various peace
accords has forced me into reviewing my position as a
caught-in-the-middle liberal. Sadly, all I have to show for my
belief that my undoubted Arabness and Palestinianism do not mean
hating Jews, Israelis or standing in the way of peace, is two dead
uncles and a third paralyzed as a result of his war wounds, the
psychological scars of my refugee position and more recently, the
expropriation of family land and the detention of sixteen of my
My father, who for most of his life was a committed Arab
nationalist, a loyal follower of the radical Mufti of Jerusalem,
Haj Amin Al-Husseini, rose from being an odd job man to the status
of a celebrated news correspondent for the Daily Mail, The New York
Times and Time magazine. This meant contact with foreigners and
Jews, an exposure which led him to develop his own brand of
humanitarianism which separated nationalistic commitment from blind
hate. His record of achievement in the 1936 anti-British
Palestinian rebellion and his subsequent contribution during the
1948 war afforded him the luxury of a highly individual attitude
without suffering for it. He saw Zionism as a political movement
which should be fought in accordance with a code of honor
precluding the use of the mildest pejorative to describe
My mother, though typically subservient, also followed a
down-to-earth humanistic line while praying for an Arab victory.
She claimed that "if the British left us alone, we would be
And so, the 1940s found us aware of an enemy with a very human
My father's accomplishments as an organizer of Arab resistance
groups and propagandist for the Mufti did not prevent him from
taking time out in 1948, to conspire with Israeli journalist David
Sarafin to get people from both sides out of harm's way (documented
by Collins and Lapierre in O Jerusalem!).
So we were brought up free from the racial prejudice which usually
goes with political commitment.
Following the Arab defeat in the 1948 war, we moved to Beirut as
Palestinian refugees, and in 1949, I was sent to the International
College of the American University of Beirut (IC) as a boarding
student. It was my first time away from my parents, the first test
of whether what I had learned at home would withstand the
overwhelming pressures of the outside world.
The leading topic of discussion among students at the IC was
politics ¬mainly the Palestinian problem. Occasionally our
passions carried us beyond words and we rioted and threw stones at
the police, went on hunger strikes and, when these actions bore no
fruit, formed super-secret societies whose purpose was always the
same: "to free the Arab world from colonialism and Zionism and to
restore Araby to its former glory."
I joined a group which called itself Al-Khalas (the salvation) and
proceeded to participate fully in its hot-air activities.
Three months and million of angry words later, my good friend Ahmad
Zu'bi broke the group's rules and put his personal loyalty to me
ahead of the cause. He told me that there was a movement afoot to
oust me from Al-Khalas: I had been seen in the company of one
Yussuf Kalabi and had gone to the cinema with him. Yussuf Kalabi
and his brother, the only Jews at the IC, were from Baghdad but had
moved to Beirut due to anti-Jewish feelings in Iraq. Like me, they
were refugees. Yussuf was a good student with an outgoing
personality, and what had brought us together was our mutual
affection for Lana Turner. She was our ultimate sex symbol and we
had gone to the cinema together to see her.
But suddenly the sexual fantasies I was sharing with Yussuf Kalabi
stood between me and my being a good Arab, belonging to Al-Khalas.
The decision confronting me was a big one: it was a simple case of
either following my instincts, indeed knowledge, which said Yussuf
Kalabi was a nice chap and companion, or I had to drop him because
of a religious affiliation which supposedly contained evil
I thought about my father's proud record and the very essential
fact that I was a simple Palestinian refugee whose only sin was to
like Lana Turner, but it was of no use. What mattered was that a
bunch of well-meaning, hot¬headed young Arabs thought
Al-Khalas was important. Undermining that would have amounted to
declaring them disloyal Arabs who accommodated the notions of a
naturally iconoclastic refugee with an inherent belief that
goodness had nothing to do with racial origins.
I decided to keep Yussuf Kalabi for a friend. Something in my
stubborn fallah make-up refused to accept the dictates of
A year later, on my way to Westtown School in Pennsylvania, Yussuf
Kalabi was the only schoolmate who came to Beirut's airport to bid
me a fond and tearful farewell.
The six Jewish students attending Westtown in 1952 were as easily
identifiable as the Kalabis at the IC in Beirut - the all-white
student body singled them out through whispers and secret gestures.
My lack of heavy involvement at this stage didn't mean my Jewish
problem wasn't there; indeed, a new aspect of it showed in the
person of ED., a French Jew with attractive Continental manners and
a cute accent. ED. simply refused to accept the idea of an Arab, a
Palestinian at that, outshining him. His first move against me was
to nickname me Squish, an unattractive epithet which stuck despite
my protestations. This was followed by another one attributing my
loss of weight to the fact that I missed eating sheep's eyeballs.
The accusation was sophisticated enough to be bearable. The third
disparagement missed the mark: ED. told everybody that my sisters
wore chastity belts. My Arab pride was injured, and I feared the
whole affair might prejudice my prospects with girls, and finally
my confrontation climaxed in a fight, much to the delight of the
Later at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, I
joined Psi Upsilon fraternity only to discover that most of the
active, current members of the old venerable place were Jewish. Not
only that, but they were having their problems with the old
graduates who were monied and WASP and didn't want to surrender the
old redoubt to Jews. As they subsidized the fraternity house, they
were threatening to end their much-needed donations unless the
situation was rectified.
My decision to participate in the confrontation that ensued was a
simple one: I believed that a person opposed to Jews is naturally
opposed to Arabs, and I liked my fraternity brothers. But, to my
amazement, Jewish members of the fraternity reacted to my attitude
in varying ways. Most of them saw it as the stance of a liberal and
didn't give it a second thought, but a small minority resented it
openly. I am totally convinced that my stance exposed an innate
prejudice in them against me and that they didn't want to be
reminded of it.
Years later in New York (I returned to the U.S. in 1961), I was to
face the real test in relationships. I got a job with Ted Bates
Advertising which had a heavy Jewish element in it. Not to get
along with a Westtownian or a member of Psi Upsilon was manageable,
but not getting along with business colleagues would have meant the
loss of employment.
As usual, what I was and how I should be treated eluded people and
the Ted Bates Jewish contingent divided into two distinct groups.
There were those who were partial to me as a first-generation
American - people who lived up to the ideal of the United States
being a nation of immigrants. And there was the other side, those
whose sympathy for Zionism and Israel precluded the acceptance of
an immigrant if he was Palestinian. Luckily the second group were
few in number.
But the way people behaved within these two general definitions
differed considerably. Win Levine, the then-creative director of
Ted Bates and an irreverent old school liberal, decided to adopt
me. He took time to brief me on the intrigues of the business and
tried to educate me into making sound advertising judgment. I
returned the favor by regaling him with Middle Eastern stories. On
the other side was a set of minor characters who always treated me
as if I had a cold or a more serious infectious disease. They
limited their exchanges with me to monosyllabic utterances which
they kept to an irreducible minimum.
Two incidents from this period deserve recalling. The first
involves Murray Lehrman, a creative supervisor who reported to my
friend Win Levine. Murray had a typical advertising copywriter's
temperament and he was solidly pro-Israeli. He resented my account
supervisor's power to veto the copy he produced. All this natural
confrontation needed to make it worse was my Palestinianism.
In 1967, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza focused
attention on my lonely position. My hometown of Bethany, where many
members of my family still lived, was overrun by the Israeli army;
the Aburish exiles lost all contact with the Bethany branch and
were desperate to hear what had become of them. Upon hearing of my
problem, Murray came to see me. He stood in the doorway of my
office and offered to have some of his friends in Israel look my
family up. Voice quivering, all I could muster was, "It's alright
Murray, someone from Time magazine is on his way to them." I walked
over to where he was and shook his hand silently. The second
incident has to do with Mike Stem, then an account executive
unknown to me, but someone I grew to admire. When Bates decided to
transfer me to the Los Angeles branch, one of the persons I
selected to take with me, in spite of Bates's misgivings, was a
young account executive with a reputation for considerable cool and
a real hip handlebar mustache.
In Los Angeles, Mike performed his duties admirably. The clients
who were supposed to oppose him loved him. Soon, in one of those
bitter twists which test one's faith, I began to develop problems
with a client who objected to everything I did. It was Mike Stem
who painfully admitted that the Jewish client was a "bigoted
racist," and he was always there to render support and
understanding. When, after much deliberation, I had to concede
defeat and resigned, Mike offered to resign with me. I talked him
out of it; I needed him to stay there, a living symbol of what I
believed in, a reproach to the small minds who have sponsored the
march of folly throughout history.
To say that this unhappy experience didn't hurt would be untrue,
and it prompted me to review my ways. But every time my hurt psyche
told me to give up, something happened to restore my faith. I
returned to New York to find Win Levine ready to render all help,
to receive a distraught call from Murray Lehrman, to have Lynn
Epstein offer me a room in her apartment and, above all, to receive
a heart-warming letter from Mike Stem telling how much working with
me had meant to him. It all made me feel that I was winning, and I
decided against giving up.
A year later I moved to London. I wasn't escaping; it was a
promotion and I had always liked London and its easy ways. In
London, for a long time, very little happened which has bearing on
this theme, and I generously attributed this to English maturity,
only to have this opinion shattered with a vengeance.
It all happened during the Watergate hearings in 1973, in a small
Chinese restaurant. An old-fashioned, middle-aged English couple
sat across the room from me discussing events in Washington. At one
point the woman shouted, "He [Nixon] is a good president, and I am
sure the American people loved him. It's the Jews, the awful New
York Jews who control the press who don't like him."
Despite my companion's appeals to me to refrain from interfering, I
found myself responding openly, "Madam, please, I'm a Jew and I am
from New York, and I wish you'd take it easy on me in a public
This incident aside, my own experiences with Jews while in London
are happier than those in America. Among my fondest memories during
my long years in London came out of my first meeting with Mark
Kravitz, the then-foreign editor of the Paris daily Liberation.
Mark came to London especially to meet me. I gave him a brief of
some articles I wanted to write for his newspaper. Though
fascinated, he expressed concern over the fact that the articles
might get me into trouble because my intention was to criticize the
Arabs and Israelis equally vehemently. I accepted that possibility
but insisted that calling a spade a spade was a proper journalistic
enterprise. Mark agreed reluctantly, and when we separated he
instinctively reached for me, embraced me and whispered, "For God's
sake, do be careful, please." My friendship with Mark is still
ongoing, as is my friendship with two half-Jewish South African
sisters I met eleven years ago. Recently, I suffered a severe
internal hemorrhage and experienced five minutes of terror during
which I was unable to reach the phone to dial. Near death, my mind
was clear long enough for me to call Shelley Borkum. "I need an
ambulance; I'll keep the door open for you to get in, but I am
passing out every two minutes". Shelley and the ambulance were
there in no time at all and I am alive to tell the story.
This article, my recollections and reflections on being an Arab
among Jews, was prompted by the recent Palestinian-Israeli
agreements and what they mean to all of us. These welcome
developments have reinforced my attitude and placed me under an
obligation to make an open statement: my life-long ability to see
Jews as individuals has not stopped me from being a loyal and
committed Arab, and the two are reconcilable.
Traditionally, my view of Israel has been separate from my view of
the Jews as a people, though I am not foolish enough to deny that
they are related, and I would like to address a letter to my Jewish
friends, Yussuf Kalabi, Armand Matussen, Win Levine, Lynn Epstein,
Mike Stem, Mark Kravitz and the Borkum family.
You have been named. Whatever opinion you have of the peace
agreements and the Israeli position and the governments behind them
must be judged against what you know of me and about me. You have a
moral obligation which you cannot escape. I firmly believe that
you, as Jews, are the only people capable of influencing how Israel
interprets and accepts the principles which have been agreed
The agreements cannot work unless there is goodwill behind them and
unless Israel's undoubted position of strength is subordinated to a
wish to live in permanent peace with its neighbors. Don't believe
it when it is said that the Arabs' wish for peace is nothing but a
hiatus in a long cycle of violence. This is a true opportunity
which can be given substance through generosity to the
You and I have held different opinions on many aspects of the
Arab-Israeli conflict and have argued heatedly and may it continue.
The generosity which is needed goes beyond these arguments and it
will affect the future of all of our children.
I trust that you will continue to speak out against one-sided
enforcement of what the agreements mean, the same way you have done
on all aspects of one-sidedness for all the years I have known you.
I wait to hear from you.