Addressing Lebanese Americans

On June 17, 2009 I was in Danbury, Connecticut, invited by the Lebanon-American Club to be the keynote speaker at their annual Lebanon Day Celebration.

Danbury, a city of 75,000, is home to more than 4,000 Arab Americans, most of Lebanese descent. The first immigrants from Syria/Lebanon settled there at the end of the nineteenth-century. Today, they are among the city’s most prominent and prosperous citizens (the Lebanon American Club was founded over 80 years ago).

As the day’s events began, Jimmetta Samaha, a leader in Connecticut’s Democratic Party and I were asked to raise the Lebanese flag over city hall, as both the US and Lebanese anthems were sung. Recognition was given to several local and state elected officials–”many of Lebanese descent, and special tribute was accorded to octogenarian Taffy Jowdy, a World War II veteran–”one of the very few survivors of the historic battles at Normandy Beach (D-Day) and Iwo Jima.

In many ways, Danbury is a typical northeastern US city, one in which Lebanese Americans have integrated and excelled, yet never forgotten their heritage. They are an American success story, remarkable for their achievements, and yet, too often, unrecognized.

Addressing the group in my keynote remarks, I reflected on two themes. First and foremost is the debt we owe to America–”the country which provided us the opportunity to excel. I recalled how when I first met with then Vice-President Al Gore (with whom I had the pleasure to work during the early post-Oslo period), he asked me to tell him a little about myself. I related how I was the son of a Lebanese immigrant, who had come from a one room stone house in the hills of Lebanon and how remarkable it was that just one generation later I was meeting with the Vice-President of the United States.

The three hundred thousand brave souls, like my father, who braved the elements and took the risk to leave the Arab world and come to America before 1920, came with nothing but their hopes and dreams and their belief that with hard work they could realize their aspirations. Our community today, numbering some 3.5 million, is the heir of their dreams and their work–and beneficiaries of the opportunities provided them in this new world. This we can never forget.

But, I added, we should also not forget the lands from which they came, and, in this context I spoke specifically of Lebanon–”and the debt we owe to that land of our heritage.

I recalled how just over a decade ago when then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri made his first official visit to Washington, Secretary of State Warren Christopher noted in his formal remarks that, “since the establishment of Lebanon in 1943 our two countries have enjoyed a strong relationship. The strength of our ties has in many ways derived from the important contributions that Lebanese Americans have made to our society.”

The intervening decades have not been kind to that relationship. Civil strife and a fracturing of the Lebanese polity, both here in the US and in Lebanon, have taken a toll. Lebanon’s long war took its toll on the Lebanese American community, which tragically became fractured. Too many competing and often contentious voices were heard, all claiming to represent Lebanon. US lawmakers were often confused as to which voice represented the community. This sad state of affairs confounded even those US political leaders who wanted to help Lebanon and strengthen the US-Lebanon relationship.

This must change.

I have just returned from Lebanon, where in the aftermath of that country’s national elections, I had the opportunity to sit with the son of my friend, Saad Hariri, to congratulate him on his victory and to hear his plans for the future. He made clear that he wants to continue the process of rebuilding the country, not just its infrastructure and economy, but its government institutions and its polity. To secure Lebanon’s independence, its people must become unified, healing old wounds through reconciliation and reform.

I left Lebanon encouraged by his vision for the future and with a clear sense of the role we, Lebanese Americans, could play in helping to move the country forward, strengthening the US-Lebanon relationship. This will require putting aside differences and working as a unified community. Instead of importing divisions, we must be able to export a common sense of purpose, working together to increase US assistance for Lebanon’s government and to provide the political support and space Lebanon needs to achieve national reconciliation.

None of this, of course, precludes what we continue to do to address the pressing concerns of Palestinians and Iraqis, or to defend our civil rights, fighting discrimination against Arabs and Muslims, and a host of other concerns. These efforts must continue. But this is a critical time for Lebanon, and its needs cannot be ignored and must be addressed now. The opportunity exists for us to make a difference, and we, who trace our origins back to that wonderful land, have, I believe, the responsibility to act.