Washington’s elites, like Hollywood’s, can be quite shallow, placing value on titles, wealth, or appearance. Back in the 1990s, my wife Eileen and I were invited to a dinner hosted by a wealthy socialite whose political contributions had earned her a Presidential appointment and a title. At one point in the evening, she went around the room showing off her guests. Because I was heading up a project for Vice-President Gore promoting Palestinian economic development, she went on at length about my work supporting Palestinian rights. She then came to my wife, who had no title, and after a pause said “And this is Eileen. She’s married to Jim.” It was a hurtful slight. She had no idea who Eileen really was.
In fact, my journey to Palestine began with Eileen, 50 years ago. Back then I was a newly married graduate student in the Department of Religion at Temple University. In addition to my studies and teaching, I was involved in anti-war, civil rights, and student rights movements.
I was taking a break from activism to prepare for my Masters’ comprehensive exams. While I was attempting to study, Eileen was reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the compelling story of the betrayal and dispossession of America’s indigenous peoples.
Eileen, who possessed a fierce sense of justice, was outraged, repeatedly interrupting my study to share her fury at each atrocity and broken treaty. When she finished this book, she picked up The Evasive Peace by John Davies, the first head of UNWRA. The outrage and interruptions began anew. She was struck by the similarities: The promises betrayed, the treaties broken, and the indigenous people dispossessed of their land and dispersed from their ancestral homes. She was deeply troubled that we, both educated people, had learned none of this history during our schooling.
At one point, while reading the Davies book, she said to me “We didn’t know this. And these are your people, and you aren’t doing anything about it.” That’s when my journey began.
This wasn’t the last lesson I learned from Eileen. She passed away four months ago and left me, our five children, and our 13 grandchildren with a passion for justice that will live on in our hearts and actions.
After passing my comprehensives, I began to address the issue of Palestine in student meetings and rallies, only to find out that there was a price to pay for this advocacy. A few months later, on Eileen’s birthday, we received a letter threatening my life – “Arab dog, if you set foot on campus, you will die.”
A year later, Eileen, our first-born, and I packed our bags and set off for Lebanon and Jordan. I had received a grant enabling me to spend time in refugee camps collecting stories of the Nakba. On the flight home, I said to Eileen, “I don’t think our lives will ever be the same.” And they weren’t.
A few years later, while teaching at a Pennsylvania state college, I launched the Palestine Human Rights Campaign – a coalition of civil rights, anti-war, and religious leaders. Our home became “PHRC Central.”
During the ups and downs of the next four decades, Eileen was there with me. We started the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in 1980, Save Lebanon in 1982 (to provide medical treatment for children victims of Israel’s bombing), and the Arab American Institute in 1985.
From the beginning of my public speaking career, whenever Eileen was present, I was speaking to an audience of one. In the very early years, I was prone to using language that was a bit too raw or harsh. When I did, I could see Eileen wincing. When I went on too long, she gave me the cut-off sign. Eventually, I was able to make it through entire speeches without one.
Eileen came with me to a number of Jesse Jackson events and Democratic Party conventions. Together, as a family, we were able to visit Lebanon (where we visited my father’s village), Jordan, Kuwait, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Ireland (where we searched for Eileen’s roots).
Through it all, Eileen’s commitment to justice and support for my efforts were the constants on which I anchored my life and my work. I stopped working after Eileen had a stroke in November, 2019 and was with her every day for months.
Over the years Eileen tempered my speech and my soul and made me the person I am today. Her commitment to justice helped shape and orient our children to pursue justice in their diverse callings: Civil rights and immigration reform, disability rights, protection of the environment, and equity and justice in higher and elementary education. They and I are Eileen’s legacy.