Reversing injustice: on Utopian activism

Reversing injustice: on Utopian activism

Elaine C. Hagopian


IT WAS MAY 1967. I HAD JUST SAID goodbye to Janet and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and their four children in Northampton, MA. They were to depart later in the summer for Evanston, Illinois, where Ibrahim was to take up his new academic position at Northwestern University. I was leaving that day for Cambridge, MA to prepare for my new position at Simmons College in Boston. We had both completed five years at Smith College. It was during those five years that I developed a warm and wonderful kin-like relationship with the Abu-Lughod family. Little did I know then our lives would become more intensely intertwined as a result of war, the June 1967 War.

As soon as the war broke out, I began looking for an organization in the Boston area concerned with justice in the Middle East. I became aware of the American Arabic Association (AMARA), itself a break-off from the defunct Syrian-Lebanese Federation (a federation of mostly social groups). It was Dr. Frank Maria, a Syrian-American, who salvaged the Federation’s foreign relations committee and turned it into the politically oriented AMARA. While AMARA sponsored programs and produced a newsletter, it remained a very local and limited organization. I was outraged by the war and the anti-Arab racism that came pouring out of television, print media and radio. I was looking for something on a national scale, better informed and definitely more active.

Later in the summer, I got a call from Ibrahim from Evanston. He informed me that a group of academics and professionals were discussing the need to form a national organization to confront Zionist misinformation regarding Palestine and the Arab world and to protect the Arab-American community from the increased racism and overt acts of discrimination against them. Subsequently, the Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG) was founded in Chicago in October 1967.

The publications and general educational programs of AAUG are well discussed in this collection of essays and need no further elaboration. In this essay, I will discuss why the founders decided on the name they gave the Association, a name that became increasingly controversial as the years passed. Thereafter, I will share with you a number of my experiences which affected my perception of what the Association could accomplish. While these experiences forced me to lessen my expectations, they never lessened my commitment to reversing injustice. Embodied in the discussion of my experiences is an analysis of why the Association failed to sustain itself over time. Yet, I will argue that AAUG was a successful undertaking, and its accomplishments continue to have an impact on Middle East Studies. I will conclude with a few observations which I hope will be helpful to present and future Arab-American activists.


The Association was regularly criticized for the elitist nature of its name. Some felt it should have a different name and be a grassroots popular movement aimed at organizing the Arab-American community for political action. There were two reasons why the name Association of Arab-American University Graduates was chosen. First, it was a deliberate effort to convey to the American (and Arab) public that there are Americans of Arab origin who hold university degrees and who aim to challenge, by scholarly production and example, the Orientalist image of Arabs and Muslims as ignorant, conniving, lecherous and bloodthirsty peoples. Second, according to one of the major founders, Attorney Abdeen Jabara, it was decided at the initial meeting of several scholars (Summer 1967) in Ann Arbor

… that the name should be descriptive of the type of member

we wanted to attract (and organize). Since all of the

individuals present at that meeting were academics except for

myself, there was discussion about how the organization

should be of some intellectual standard which we tried to

capture by including the words ‘university graduates.’ It must

be remembered that the principal audience for the AAUG

membership would be those Arabs who came [primarily in the

1950s and thereafter] to the U.S. to study, and for one reason

or another, chose to remain here…. [Also], we wanted to

project [the fact] that the caliber of the materials and

discussions of what became AAUG would be of a level that

non-Arab-Americans … might find more credible. (1) [In fact,

the majority of AAUG members were born abroad. Those of

us born in the U.S. were much fewer initially.]

The name should have automatically conveyed that the Association was not and could not be a grassroots organization. The founders and leaders did envision AAUG as protecting the Arab-American community from discrimination and of educating the new and earlier immigrants about events in the Middle East. The assumption was that this would enable the community later to become informed grassroots activists locally and nationally. Given the fact that the broader Arab-American community was itself ill-informed, even if emotionally engaged, and given the lack of solid literature on the issues that could challenge and displace Zionist ideological tracts, it was crucial that a national organization have the brain power and talent to establish the credibility of the Arab perspective through substantial academic writings and educational programs. Hence, a grassroots organization was not seen as the first step to take in Arab-American organizational efforts. Providing knowledge was. Nonetheless, various members and later leaders continued to have differing ideas about what they expected AAUG to be and to do. Some attempted to transform AAUG into either an Arab-American community service and assimilation facilitator or into a radical grassroots movement engaged directly in seeking redress for Palestine and the Arab world. Neither succeeded, but elements of both orientations could be found in the Association’s work. In any case, the Association’s name became controversial and often embarrassing. Some saw it as exclusivist; others as rather silly. Nonetheless, no AAUG Board ever contemplated changing its name. It had become established and associated with progressive political thinking.


My AAUG experience started out with great expectations. After all, we Arab-origin academics were embarked on a worthy enterprise of seeking to promote justice. We did not expect to solve all or most of the problems we faced as Arab-Americans nor those in the Arab world. Nonetheless, we did expect we would lay the foundation for sustained efforts to redress wrongs, and we would see actual progress being made with each year of our work. My experiences over the AAUG’s first decade and beyond began to whittle away my copious optimism. While I never wavered in my determination to seek redress for the horrific injustice imposed on Palestinians and to engage in, and encourage knowledge-based alternative perspectives on Arab societies, my experiences abroad and with Arab-Americans peeled away the outer layers of my idealism. Considering so many of us in AAUG were social scientists who understood political realities and the complexities of organizing a whole community on a volunteer basis, our idealism was incredibly disproportionate. AAUG was founded on a mythical belief that all Arab-Americans and Arabs abroad were highly motivated to pursue justice and Arab World political and economic independence from the West at any cost. In the end, however, reality developed the contours of the possible.

I served on the Board of Directors five times, two of them as an officer of the Association: 1968 (at large), 1969 (Secretary), 1972 (at large),

1976 (President), 1977 (ex- officio). In between I served in a variety of roles such as Acting Treasurer, Acting and Convention Program Chairperson, and Planning Committee Member for the joint conference with the Kuwait Council for Culture, Arts, and Letters (December 1975/January 1976). I also served on the Palestine Open University Feasibility Study Team (1979-1980). The latter was not an AAUG project as such. It was a UNESCO project in collaboration with the PLO Ministry of Education and the Kuwait Fund. It was headed by Ibrahim Abu-Lughod who selected his personnel from among AAUG members as well as Arab counterparts abroad. Nonetheless, it was understood as part of the AAUG endeavor to contribute to the development of Arab peoples.

During the first years, we were all imbued with a “can do” attitude which was inspired by the charismatic leadership of Ibrahim Abu-Lughod. Ibrahim’s constant assurance that “we will win” motivated everyone to work beyond their human limits for justice in Palestine and the Arab homeland. These were unbelievably productive years. AAUG initiated a comprehensive set of activities, described early on as “a finger in the dike” that would become a permanent bulwark against Zionist and Western imperialist machinations, leading eventually to a reversal of injustice. Clearly, we were not simply overambitious, but utopian.


After an exhausting but empowering and productive three years of engaged efforts, I interrupted my work with AAUG to take up my first Fulbright Faculty Research Grant (1971). I had seen AAUG grow and become a major public voice challenging the given “wisdom” on M.E. conflicts. We knew we were making some headway because the Zionists made every effort to suppress our voice. However, I wanted grounded experience in the area. I wanted to identify how we could relate to alleviating the problems in the Arab World–be they political and/or developmental. I was based in Lebanon with extended visits to Syria, Egypt and Jordan. This period served to inform, clarify, and further engage me in the goals of the AAUG. It would greatly enhance my understanding of the issues. It certainly reinforced my motivation, but it was also a period in which the signs of Arab disunity and conflict emerged.

In Lebanon, the Palestinian fedayeen (guerrilla fighters) were everywhere, buoyed by their Arab world popularity and goal of liberating Palestine from Israeli colonialism, in spite of the bashing they suffered in Jordan (Fall 1970) with the tacit support of the U.S. and Israel. I was further inspired by the dedication of the fighters, the Palestinian women’s auxiliary, and the children. I observed fedayeen training in Syria, walked to the south of Lebanon with Americans resident in Lebanon to witness Israeli bombings, and met with Palestinian camp refugees in Lebanon. [I remain grateful to Nuhad Kanawati and Rima Husseini who introduced me to camp families.] In short, I thought I was witnessing another Algerian Revolution.

However, I grew increasingly concerned that the PLO was flaunting its power in weak Lebanon and thereby, alienating the Lebanese. Nonetheless, my Lebanon experience convinced me that AAUG had an important role to play in the Arab world in buttressing Arab intellectuals and professionals who were seeking to liberate their societies from Western machinations in the region. The AAUG was already exposing Arab intellectuals politically involved in their societies to American society and foreign policy by inviting them to the annual conventions where they also met with other third world thinkers and leaders. Soon, the AAUG began to hold seminars in the Arab world, primarily in Beirut.

Well into my stay, I decided to return to the States, fulfill my immediate obligations to Simmons College, resign and return to Lebanon permanently where I felt I could play a constructive educational role in the refugee camps and work directly with Arab colleagues. It was during this period that I was at the height of my idealism even as cracks were surfacing. For a variety of reasons, my intention to resettle in Lebanon did not work out. I returned to the States and was immediately re-immersed in AAUG activities.

In the summer of 1972, Ghassan Kanafani, novelist, poet, artist, and spokesperson for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was blown up in his car in Beirut along with his niece, Lamis. I had interviewed Kanafani in 1971 as part of my research project. I met with him in his office off the Corniche al-Mazra’a in the late evening. He insisted on driving me back to where I was staying. As we approached his car, he said to me “look at those guys playing backgammon and smoking. They are supposed to be watching my car, but they can’t seem to pair the task to the schedule.” It was in that car that Kanafani, age 36, was blown up–the work of Israeli agents. His assassination jarred me considerably and brought back his observation on that evening in 1971. It convinced me that there was so much work to be done which included transforming cultural habits. I was more determined than ever that the cruel injustice heaped on Palestinians had to be reversed but it appeared more daunting with each day. I, like so many of my colleagues in AAUG and in the academy in general, continued to believe knowledge was the basis for justice. The purity of this belief was naive in the large when it came to power interests. Nonetheless, reinforced by my AAUG colleagues, I was convinced then that our mission was not only righteous, but doable.


I did return to Lebanon in 1973-74 as a visiting professor at the American University of Beirut. No sooner had classes gotten underway when the 1973 war, initiated by Egypt and Syria against the Israeli occupation of Arab lands, commenced. It was a turbulent year. Progressive students immediately sensed that Egyptian President Sadat was about to pursue purely Egyptian goals, move into the American political orbit and settle with Israel, thus breaking the Arab nationalist front. The students occupied the AUB buildings for several weeks in protest to American policy and the intelligence cooperation they alleged the AUB administration offered to the American Embassy regarding radical students. After weeks, the Lebanese Government bivouacked army units on campus (West Hall) to force students back to class.

During the campus occupation, I met with students on their “breaks” from their occupation roles. They had somehow found their way to my apartment in the Fallaha Building across from the lower gate of AUB. They provided me with analyses of the war and the situation in Lebanon, and I provided them with food. What they had to say about the political situation in the Arab world led me to approach my colleague, Halim Barakat, a sociology professor then in Beirut, to do a chapter on the new Arab generation based on interviews with the students. The chapter was for the AAUG book edited by Naseer Aruri entitled Middle East Crucible: The Arab-Israeli October War of 1973. I also sent back communiques to AAUG colleagues on what I was witnessing.

In the spring of 1974, I did a series of lectures at the American University in Cairo, my second visit to Egypt. [I made a third trip to Egypt in 1988 when I headed a Simmons College six-week summer program in that country.] By this time, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made it clear he was pursuing Egyptian goals and had abandoned the late Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab Nationalist goals. Egyptians were temporarily swayed by Sadat’s policies, but later returned to their Arab nationalist roots. Egypt was human capital wealthy but resource poor and overpopulated. Its embrace of the U.S. and American aid–designated for projects that would support and facilitate U.S. business and military interests–was later rejected by populist parties. The struggle within continues.

In the summer of 1974, I accepted a special appointment with UNICEF to evaluate a project it had in process in the United Arab Emirates. That experience gave me a broader understanding of the political and economic divisions in the Arab region. Unlike Egypt, the UAE was financially wealthy due to oil, but human capital poor. The UAE became a country with a significant non-UAE-Arab and non-Arab population. I wondered if this would create social problems in the future. Both Egypt and the UAE depressed me for different reasons. I thought if there was a real Arab Nation, neither would have the problems they presently face. Still my idealism did not wane, but it was challenged by what I saw in Egypt and the UAE.

When I returned to the States, AAUG remained the only venue for analyzing the events and providing clear understanding of them in the larger regional and global contexts. Even after the war and the westward movement of Sadat, the Association still assumed that the members would hang together on the basis of their Arabism and common goal to re-invigorate the Arab world with principles of peace and justice. Alas, some members reverted to championing their homelands regardless of whether the particular Regimes were progressive or not. These were the first clear signs of fragmentation in AAUG, but they didn’t appear to be quite as stark as they were to become later.

After the 1973 war, the Arab States pressured the PLO to accept a two-state solution in fact, not just words, and to prevent factions within the PLO from criticizing those same Arab states. In return, the Regimes got the U.N. to invite Arafat to speak before the General Assembly on 13 November 1974 and to give the PLO observer status. Ibrahim invited me to meet with the newly arrived PLO delegation in New York, especially Shafiq El-Hout whom I had already met in Lebanon and respected as a friend and intellectual. He was and remains, though retired now, the Palestinians’ best spokesperson and analyst. The delegation was staying at the Plaza Hotel adjacent to Central Park. I won’t ever forget my first experience with the delegation. Clearly most of the delegates were euphoric to be in New York and to have the first glimmers of recognition. There were a number of them running around gleefully on their designated hotel floor. Black Label was flowing liberally. After my initial reaction to the overly celebratory behavior, I realized the behavior was not unique to Palestinians; rather it was my expectation of demeanor matching the Palestinian catastrophe (nakbah) that was unique. I wanted them to be dignified, but they were just normal human beings indulging themselves.


One of AAUG’s often forgotten major goals was to contribute to the development of the Arab World. AAUG made a number of attempts to convince the Arab political and business leaders that “brain drain” Arab expatriate professionals were better than Western professionals because they were not only skilled but also concerned about freeing the Arab world from Western neocolonialism. (2) Unfortunately, AAUG leadership was unjustifiably optimistic. Having accepted the post-World War I colonial territorial dismemberment of the Arab region and having developed vested interests in their newly born states, Arab Regimes, particularly those with oil resources, favored Western professionals, mainly those associated with American companies. By contracting the latter, the Regimes reinforced U.S. Government interest in maintaining and protecting them from various Arab nationalist liberation movements in the region. Such contractual agreements also fostered a dependency on the U.S. Arab-American professionals associated with Western Companies were basically acceptable, however.

The assumption that Arabs–even some allegedly progressive Arab Regimes–would welcome their politically progressive expatriates to help free them from Western neo-colonialism was utopian. This discovered reality reinforced the AAUG leaders’ belief that there was no point to an Arab-American lobby group in the early organizational stage. Only when the Arab world itself wanted and pursued transformation to real sovereignty over its land and resources, and only when the Arab-American and American publics were educated enough about Arab issues, could pressure and support for a just American foreign policy be brought to bear. AAUG saw itself as being instrumental in facilitating the transformative stage. While Arab Regimes, particularly the wealthy Gulf States, did speak on behalf of Palestinian Rights over the years, they did so in a compromised manner and within the context of remaining within the American protective political orbit.

Our first attempt to promote Arab development emerged in 1975 when AAUG was commissioned by the Kuwait Council for Culture, Arts and Letters to plan and hold a conference in Kuwait on “Issues in Human Resource Development in the Arab World.” Professor Naseer Antri had spent a year teaching at Kuwait University in 1973-1974. He had made a number of contacts with various Arab nationals there and informed his new colleagues about AAUG. The Association had a non-voting category of membership for such colleagues. Many joined. The idea for a conference developed. Former AAUG presidents, Naseer Aruri and Baha Abu-Laban, and I were appointed as the AAUG Planning Committee. We engaged some of the best minds to present comprehensive studies on the difficulties of developing sufficient human resources, within local, regional and global politico-economic contexts. Indeed, we had an agreement with the Council that the papers would be assembled after the conference, edited, and published in English and Arabic for general distribution to development agencies and individual scholars and for future follow-up.

My experience serving on the Planning Committee provided me with in depth understanding of just how difficult it would be to contribute anything to the Arab world. The wealthy Gulf States in particular, but not exclusively, were culturally distorted and very class conscious. I recall the Committee’s pre-conference meeting in Kuwait. We were invited the first evening to the home of a Kuwaiti banker associated with the Council. I entered the opulent home where several Kuwaiti men were awaiting us. They were surprised to see me, having assumed my name was the male name, Elian. The host lamely offered “my wife would be here except she is pregnant and not feeling well.” The host poured scotch for my colleagues and offered me juice. He noted that liquor is not allowed in Kuwait, but he understood that my colleagues were westernized and would prefer it. The hypocrisy was transparent.

The next evening, we were invited to the lavish home of a Kuwaiti anthropologist with a progressive reputation. Interestingly, my colleagues were ushered into the men’s living room, and I was ushered into the “women’s living room.” My colleagues objected and felt embarrassed. They were born in the Arab world (both Palestinians) and were aware of the fact that these gender practices were yet alive in the Gulf Arab countries, but they were still surprised when they were applied to me. I assured them it was okay as I was interested in understanding the women’s world. It was totally disheartening. These women of wealth did not object to being separated from male discussions. They were interested in all the new gadgets they were planning for their sumptuous homes. [Gratefully, there is a women’s movement in Kuwait these days striving for equal rights and supported by some male MPs. Women also now occupy responsible professional positions there.] Even the women of the earlier Harems were engaged in more interesting conversations and activities than were these wealthy showpieces. I thought, “Given such decadence, what makes us AAUGers believe we can help lay foundations for building the new Arab person?” This meaningless facade of separation seemed to me not to have anything to do with Islam. The 1950s stereotype of the dumb but pretty American housewife who catered to her husband came to mind.

At the end of December 1975 and the first days of 1976, we held our conference in Kuwait. A fairly large contingent of AAUG members attended along with Kuwaitis and other Arabs. From the inception of the conference, it was clear the Kuwaiti organizers were not serious. The Kuwait Council did not live up to its agreement with AAUG. It took all the papers, translated them into poor Arabic and quickly published them. The conference was a show–a false symbol that Kuwait–as contrasted to individual Kuwaitis–cared about promoting Arab development. There was no follow up.


I assumed my elected role of President in 1976 along with a number of new Board members. One of the new Board Members was from the Washington D.C. area. She complained AAUG was not concerned with gender issues. In fact, AAUG regularly issued resolutions calling for gender equality and human rights of Arab-origin women. While indeed there were a number of male chauvinists in the Association, the main problem was the fact that it was difficult in the early days to convince female members to serve on the Board and in positions of authority. Faith Zeadey (Lebanese-American), Margaret Pennar (Egyptian origin) and I (Syrian-American) stood out as the females in leadership positions during the early years. Others soon came to the fore. Among them were Mary Bisharat, Nazik Kazimi, Martine Loutfi, Nabila Mango, Ghada Talhami, Hala Maksoud, and Nadia Hijab. Of course Janice Terry was already an AAUG “institution” having contributed so much to the Association’s publication and educational efforts, and later becoming the dedicated editor of the Arab Studies Quarterly for many years. When Chapters formed, women most often headed them, especially in Detroit, Minnesota and Ohio. In any case, I asked the complaining new female Board member to head a committee on the status of Arab-American and Arab women and to make recommendations to the Board. Unfortunately, she never undertook any activities as head of the committee or as a Board member. Regrettably, over time, individuals who enthusiastically ran for the Board contributed nothing. This became problematic as so much of the work of the Association was ordinarily done by Board members. It, and differing views on the mission of AAUG, caused intense friction at times.

During my year as President, two things among so many stood out: 1) I discovered the extent to which pro-Israelis dominated curriculum development in American public schools; and 2) the way in which events in the Arab world could affect the unity of the membership. During this period, the Facing History, Facing Ourselves program came into being. It focused on the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide initially, training teachers to teach about these historical tragedies. Teaching about the Holocaust, a human catastrophe in and of itself, was too often used to justify Israel, a colonial settler state. More than that, I found commercial curriculum development companies purveying pro-Israeli misinformation as far away as Minnesota. I informed our AAUG Chapter in Minnesota, and their members tried valiantly to challenge the Zionist oriented curriculum. Clearly, we neither had the resources nor the clout to equalize the curriculum. In so many ways Arab-Americans faced a more unyielding situation regarding curricular representations than did Black Americans throughout and after the Civil Rights Movement period.

During the 1976 convention at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, we were deluged with threats locally and with telephone calls from Jerusalem castigating Israeli attorney, Felicia Langer (With My Own Eyes) who was one of our invited speakers. Palestinian citizens of Israel, Emile Touma (Political Analyst) and Toufic Zayyad (Mayor of Nazareth and Poet), Shafiq Al-Hout (PLO Representative in Lebanon) and Farouk Qaddoumi (Foreign Minister of the PLO) were also invited speakers. As President, I was faced with two major problems at that convention: 1) Felicia, Emile and Toufic wanted to go for a walk on Fifth Avenue in spite of my concern for their safety; and 2) the members wanted to halt the convention to go and demonstrate against the Syrian Ambassador to the U.N.

The trio went for their walk trailed by security guards. I stressed out. They came back safely. Their summary of the experience was that the U.S. was the most seductive capitalist society in the world. As Emile noted “it just pops right out of their department store windows.” The trio were all members of the Israeli Communist Party. Their presentations made us even more aware of the complexity of Palestinian statuses both within Israel proper as third-class citizens and in the 1967 Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. Some of the issues for these two categories of Palestinians as well as the Palestinian Refugees scattered throughout the Arab World–especially in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan–were addressed by several important AAUG publications. Among them was the book edited by Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Baha Abu-Laban, Settler Regimes in Africa and the Arab World (1974); Ibrahim Ahu Lughod ed., The Transformation of Palestine (first edition, 1971); and Erskine Childers, The Wordless Wish: From Citizens to Refugees (1971).

In 1976, Syria sent its military into Lebanon with US and pragmatic Israeli blessings. The civil war had begun. Syria backed the Maronite Christians (traditionally pro-Zionist) against the secular Lebanese National Movement with which the PLO was allied. Syria’s thinking at the time was to persuade the Maronites that Syria would be their protector, and they need not turn to Israel to retain a strong position in Lebanon. But also, it was clear that Syria wanted to bend the Lebanese National Movement and the Palestine Liberation Organization to Syrian ambitions in the area. I did cancel the immediate meetings so that members could go and demonstrate. Syria’s actions were unacceptable, especially its hostility to the secular Lebanese National Movement. But other members were not happy about the situation. I saw that we were no longer Arab-Americans with the unitary goal of justice, but separate nationalities relating to events abroad. I was exhausted and saddened by the events and AAUG members’ reaction to them.

Even so, by the end of my year as President, I felt content that I had done my best in pursuing our goals. I worked diligently to keep in touch with members, committees, professional sections and chapters and to initiate new efforts. It was my belief that informing members of everything that was happening and spelling out how they could help, would and did generate energetic and committed efforts by many of them. I remain grateful to the other 1976 officers: Dr. Mujid Kazimi (Vice-President), Dr. John Makhoul (Secretary), and Mr. David Stratton (Treasurer). I am also grateful to the late Faith Zeadey whose help I sought and which she gave willingly. My gratitude also extends to Nabila Mango whose commitment to our goals assured extraordinary contributions to the Association.

Camp David One 1978

Completing his abandonment of Arab Nationalism, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1978 in return for re-securing the Israeli-occupied Egyptian Sinai. Splits developed in AAUG over this treaty and the attempts it fostered to dissolve Palestinian collective and individual rights. The Association issued a publication entitled Camp David: The New Balfour Declaration, edited by Faith Zeadey. Some of the Egyptian AAUG members began to withdraw from the Association. Egyptian friends abroad were angered by our publication, feeling that Egypt had sacrificed so much for the Palestinian cause and had not been recognized for trying to include a PLO-Israeli settlement in the Camp David talks.


In 1977, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod went to Beirut where he was engaged in teacher training issues. When he returned, he was somewhat less involved with AAUG, having turned his attention to educational issues among Palestinians and in the Arab World. In 1979, Ibrahim was appointed by UNESCO with funding from the Kuwait Fund and backing by the PLO to initiate a Palestine Open University Feasibility Study. The idea was that Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the Arab region, along with poor Arabs in various states, would be able to gain higher education through a distance learning system patterned on the idea, if not the exact structure, of the Open University in the United Kingdom. The establishment of AAUG identified a pool of talent from which Ibrahim could draw personnel for the feasibility study. Among the team members from AAUG were Abbas Alnasrawi (economist), Khalil Nakhleh (anthropologist), Elia Zureik (sociologist), Janet Abu-Lughod (demographer, sociologist), Baha Abu-Laban (sociologist), and myself (sociologist). The team was joined abroad by Palestinians and other Arab nationals. After a short stay in Milton Keynes, U.K., home of the British Open University, the team assembled in Paris and attended briefing sessions at the UNESCO building there. We then went on to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait and the West Bank to meet with Palestinian refugees and other Arabs in those areas. Janet and Ibrahim remained in Paris working out of UNESCO headquarters.

Aside from the wonderful comradeship between members of the team, there were a number of experiences that provided hope, and others that deflated it. Those that gave hope were the reactions of the refugees who yearned for education, it being the only capital they could accumulate and carry with them no matter where scattered. Two among many other experiences punctured our expectations. First, in Lebanon where the civil war was in process, a progressive Lebanese friend warned us that Southern Lebanese had become disenchanted with Palestinians and the PLO in Lebanon. The southern Shi’a would not be happy about a Palestine Open University even though it would be open to them as well. The Shi’a had suffered regular Israeli bombings as punishment for Palestinian actions launched from Southern Lebanon. They were also fed up with Palestinian fedayeen ordering them around in their own country. This blunt reality was something I had anticipated in my earlier experiences in Lebanon, but I was still surprised [Hizballah did not yet exist. Israel mistreated the Shi’a after the 1982 war. Hizballah was formed as a resistance movement in 1982. It ultimately recognized common cause with the Palestinians even as there were still some bitter memories of PLO bullying.] In 1979, we became acutely aware that Palestinian anything was not welcome in the South. The dream of developing a solid distance learning system for Palestinians and other poor Arabs–which implicitly would promote Arab nationalism–took a frontal blow before the 1982 war.

Second, in Syria, we were taken to an area north of Damascus called “Education City.” It was developed by the Syrian Government for Palestinians. We were being lobbied to have the equivalent of Milton Keynes in Education City. It became obvious that the Syrian Government was accumulating political leverage by controlling as much of the Palestinian institutional structures as possible. Preparation of curricular materials for the Open University would be expected ipso facto to be pro-Syrian. Aside from the many logistical problems a Palestine Open University would face, any compromise of its independence was seen as a significant obstacle to providing the kind of quality education we envisioned that would empower the refugees and the Arab poor to build a humane future.

We completed our field work and returned to our home bases to write our individual reports. This phase was followed in March 1980 by a Curriculum Colloquium in the UNESCO building in Beirut. The Lebanese Civil War was continuing. We stayed at a hotel near the UNESCO building. Edward Said and Naseer Aruri, among others, were invited to participate–again a case of Ibrahim drawing on AAUG talent. A number of Palestinian NGO leaders were there. Chairman Arafat came to open and address the assembled participants. I recall his opening statement which appalled me. He was late in arriving. His excuse: “I couldn’t find my way here since our people never occupied the UNESCO building.” He seemed oblivious to Lebanese and UN sensibilities.

Ibrahim wrote up the final conceptualization of the University and attached our reports to it. UNESCO praised the final product. The next steps were to find a site for the University, to assemble a faculty and to prepare the educational materials for the different student populations the University would serve. Ibrahim went to Lebanon and focused on the former British “spy school” building in Chemlan in the Druze area. Purchase of the property was being contemplated when Israel attacked Lebanon in 1982 destroying Palestinian institutions there, and ultimately occupying the country all the way up to Beirut. That was the end of the Palestine Open University as conceived by Ibrahim, Janet and the team. Nonetheless, Palestinian figures in Amman, Jordan–some of whom originally opposed the effort–took up the idea and began an Open University in the 1967 Israeli-occupied territories. Needless to say, the actual materials and implementation were quite inferior to the original study. Those of us who served on the team realized two things: 1) there was no way Israel would permit Palestinian Refugee education and development; and 2) the ridiculous jealousy of Palestinians with power would also undermine development.

Thereafter, I understood that what we in AAUG could accomplish was simply planting seeds of justice through our educational efforts and working with those Arab-Americans and individual Arabs who cared about justice and Arab dignity. These were worthy enough goals. The frustrations of past experiences allowed those of us who did not abandon ship to continue to produce quality publications and educational programs.


Actually, there was an earlier Israeli invasion of South Lebanon in 1978 as the civil war raged in the country. Israel met with greater resistance than it expected from the Palestinian fedayeen ensconced in the South. It basically withdrew, although it kept troops in the area to work with its allied renegade South Lebanese Army (SLA). The 1978 invasion prompted an AAUG publication on South Lebanon co-edited and authored by Samih Farsoun and myself. Dr. Hasan Cherif (Lebanese) wrote a significant piece for that collection on the importance of South Lebanon’s water resources in Israeli strategic thinking.

The 1982 Israeli invasion was coordinated with Phalangist, Bashir Gemayel and his Lebanese Forces, trained and equipped by Israelis under Sharon’s command. The SLA continued to collaborate with Israel up until Israel withdrew from the occupied south in May 2000. Most of them then fled to Israel.

In 1982, AAUG had an office located in Belmont, MA with some staff. I recall that a number of us in the immediate area spent days at the office “manning” the phones and attempting to provide analyses to the public of what was happening in Lebanon. Penny Johnson–who later married a Palestinian human rights activist (Raja Shehadeh) in Palestine–worked day and night as the public relations person. We all reached out to various groups for support, especially to labor and third world groups. We met with the usual media obstacles that had plagued us since our inception, i.e., the media tended to shut us out with few exceptions.

Ibrahim was in Beirut on the mission of finding a site for the Open University. His apartment building had been hit by an Israeli missile. He moved to Hilda Said’s home in Beirut–Edward Said’s mother–where he remained until it was possible for him to return to the States. Needless to say, his family and AAUG comrades were concerned for his safety. That period was trying and emotionally painful. When Ibrahim did return, his role in AAUG was less than what it had been. The Association had moved on to a more collective leadership, although the basic Board structure remained.

It was clear to all of us that Israel’s invasion was intentional and purposeful. The International community had declared their support for a two-state solution and had confirmed that the PLO was the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Not wanting to recognize the PLO as representing a national group with rights under international law or accepting the International community’s pressure for a two-state solution, Israel found a pretense to invade Lebanon. It had two goals in mind: 1) destroy the PLO and render the Palestinians a scattered and headless ethnic minority without national rights; and 2) create a Christian dominated state in Lebanon which would recognize Israel–a Zionist goal dating back to WW I. The aim of the latter was to solidify sectarian divisions in Lebanon while allowing Israel a platform for controlling the Levant. AAUG subsequently published analyses of the war critical of the right-wing Lebanese Front and Forces. Some of our Lebanese members dropped out. We were faced with the stark reality of Israeli power and US Government complicity. The “we can win” attitude we had in 1967 was melting before our eyes. But we were academics, and we did what we know best–produce first rate analytical studies in hopes of a future awakening of Americans and Arabs to Middle East realities and human suffering.

In early 1983, I received my second Fulbright-Hayes Faculty Research Fellowship. I went to Paris where I lived for a number of months researching the French period in Lebanon in French Foreign Ministry Archives. From there, I went on to Beirut while the multi-national forces were still present. The massacre at Sabra and Shatila camps had taken place. One of my Palestinian friends who worked with a woman’s group in Lebanon was murdered. Among other things, I got stuck in the South for several hours with another Palestinian friend when the Israeli occupiers closed the roads north to Beirut.

In Beirut and the surrounding area, I interviewed a number of pro-Zionist right wing Christians at that time, which I turned into a study published in Arab Studies Quarterly later. I was stunned by the hatred for Palestinians and all other Arabs expressed by those right-wingers I interviewed, most of whom thought of themselves as non-Arabs. They even invited me to “return” to Lebanon and help build the new Christian Lebanon, which they insisted would be the haven for the M.E. Christians in the same way, they said, Israel is for Jews.


The Arab Regimes, especially the Gulf countries, were pre-occupied with the Iraq/Iran war on their doorstep (1980-1988) as well as the continuing civil war in Lebanon. They were not focused on Palestine. Palestinians felt it imperative they take action, and action they took in the form of the Intifada in the 1967 Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. The successes of the Intifada in rallying the people into self-dependence and unity raised Palestinian hopes again that they could challenge Israeli occupation. By this time, I was pre-occupied with caring for an elderly parent and unable to participate regularly in AAUG activities. Instead, I gave much of my energy to Arabic Hour Community Television–an effort with which I have had a long association. I interviewed many AAUGers on the meaning and effectiveness of the Intifada. Palestinians experienced another round of euphoria in spite of the fact that the Arab Regimes had turned their backs on Palestine. By 1990, that euphoria dissipated. It dissolved when Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait. Arafat appeared to support Iraq, a mistake of the highest order. It appeared that Ararat was endorsing Iraqi occupation of Kuwait while the PLO was struggling against Israeli occupation. Besides, Iraq was in violation of the Arab League Charter which stated that no League member should ever invade another League member. Arafat’s action assured further isolation of Palestine by the wealthy Arab Regimes. At the end of the American military action (1991) to remove Iraq from Kuwait, the PLO and Arafat were rendered impotent. George Bush senior felt it was an opportune time to settle the Palestine/Israel conflict once and for all. By this time, AAUG was struggling just to stay alive, affected deeply by fragmentation. The Association had criticized Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait, and this angered Iraqi members, many of whom withdrew their membership.

The Madrid Conference of 1991 and the backdoor Oslo process (1993) are now history. The Oslo Accords were signed at the White House in September 1993. Shortly thereafter, at the AAUG convention, I chaired a session that featured Edward Said, Naseer Aruri, Samih Farsoun and Mohammed Hallaj–all Palestinians–discussing the Oslo Accords. Edward gave an impassioned critique of them, while Mohammed Hallaj expressed the view that Oslo should be given a chance. Farsoun and Arufi shared Said’s views on Oslo. Clearly, Oslo split the Palestinian and Arab-American communities.

By this time, AAUG still existed but it was frail and failing. I did plan one more convention program for the Association in those waning years after 1993, but it seemed to be in vain. Fragmentation, lack of resources, unsupported leaders, lack of evaluation of new challenges and the growth of other Arab-American organizations spelled the decline of AAUG. By 2000, most of us had no idea what happened to the Association, how it was closed down or why. Efforts were initiated about two years ago to resuscitate it but thus far have failed. AAUG was based primarily on volunteerism and limited funding. It was clear that as one moved away from the highly motivated founding members it would be difficult to sustain volunteerism with no stable funding sources as well. These were not the only reasons for AAUG’s decline.


As many have noted in this collection, the immediate goal of AAUG was to produce an academically unimpeachable alternative literature to the mythically constructed Zionist narrative. The Association generated a body of work which exposed the settler-colonialist nature of Zionism and its ties to Western imperialism. The integrity and veracity of AAUG publications brought forth constant attempts by the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S.A. to stifle AAUG studies and speakers. The Anti-Defamation League and AIPAC, among others, sought to defame and destroy professionally, Arab and other scholars critical of Israel and its version of “truth.” These same organizations, with a number of newer Zionist “monitoring” organizations, have intensified efforts to suppress legitimate critics today by using increasingly indecent means. The intensification today is directly related to a broader expose of Israeli influence on U.S. foreign policy and Congress, as well as Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights and its occupation of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese territories. Zionists cannot counter Palestinian claims. Hence they choose defamation to block them from public forums.

In summary, whenever and wherever an educational or community “hole” appeared, AAUG tried to plug it. For example, a number of us became acutely aware of the way in which Zionist themes and views were insinuated into school curricula. The Zionist expended tremendous resources building what appeared to be “legitimate” institutions and/or managed to secure major positions in such institutions which produced school curricular materials.

The problem for AAUG was that there were too many holes to fill. This was also compounded by real needs in the Arab-American community concerning their fights and status. The AAUG spent seven years supporting one community member, George Faddoul, who had been denied a deserved academic promotion because he was Arab-American. In 1972, the Nixon Administration issued a decree, Operation Boulder, a precursor to the Patriot Act aimed at silencing Arab-Americans. Arab students met with government threats to deport them as well as discrimination on campus. AAUG Attorney Abdeen Jabara informed them of their rights. Wherever one turned in those first years after the 1967 war, there were pressing issues in search of solutions.

In the end, AAUG fell by the sheer weight of overload exacerbated by fragmentation. However, the AAUG was not really a failure. In so many ways, it was quite successful as I look back. It planted many seeds. Its problem was that it tried to do everything that needed to be done when in fact the various efforts of the AAUG needed specialized institutions. The AAUG experience made that clear. In fact, that is what started to happen in the 1980s and thereafter with the formation of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the Arab-American Institute, Al-Awda, Palestinian Heritage Foundation, the National Council of Arab-Americans and a host of other organizations related to media, charity and culture. The AAUG itself should have converted into a think tank, but it would have had to give up being a membership organization. It could not be both. Unfortunately, resources to employ full-time the best minds for a think tank and to have suitable facilities were simply not available, especially for a progressive group.

The AAUG was really an amazing organization. We do not now have an Arab-American organization producing quality studies such as those published by AAUG. Many of those original publications are still used by educators today and continue to inform the general public. There is need for something like the AAUG today, but in the form of a think tank. It is quite astonishing to me the Arab-American community has not found the means to support such an effort, especially since there is a proven track record of excellence. More than ever, an AAUG is needed, and more than ever, there is an audience for its analyses. Only when the exclusivist Zionist narrative can be fully challenged to the point of engaging all parties in the search for justice and equality in the M.E, will we finally be moving in the direction of peace. A revamped AAUG, and one that is not overly idealistic, would be a step in that direction. Is there a new generation out there who will take up this effort?

Finally, what conclusions can we draw from the AAUG experience. What is most important for committed young people to realize is that not everyone who claims to seek justice will work for it. The answer is not to quit, but to work with those who care and not to give up in frustration with those who don’t. If you give up, the victimizers win. Quality programs are better than quantity. Avoid overloading those who work hard; they will opt out if exhausted. Realize early on that your efforts are stepping stones that will accumulate at some point. Try not to fall victim to the notion that success should equal effort. Just remember that what you do is important to those who are victimized. Your work offers hope, and if you are patient, you will see results incrementally. It is not only important to identify doable and meaningful goals, but it is equally important to pursue these through an efficient organizational structure. Too often, Arab-American organizations are tall on goals, but short on developing an implementing structure. Shun those who use the cause of justice to promote themselves. In all that you do, retain your humanity and dignity.


(1.) Noted in an email to me from Abdeen Jabara, 5 March 2007.

(2.) See the AAUG First Decade 1967-1977 Book for the AAUG belief in transforming and developing the Arab World. The Decade book can be found at the following website:

Elaine C. Hagopian is Professor Emerita of Sociology at Simmons College, Boston. She was the 1976 President of AAUG; main organizer of the first Palestinian Right of Return Conference (April 2000), and author and editor of the award winning, Civil Rights in Peril: The Targeting of Arabs and Muslims, Haymarket Books and Pluto Press, 2004.

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