An Important Night for the Spirit of Humanity

James Zogby’s Column

In the most difficult of times, Arab Americans convened their annual Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity awards dinner in Washington, DC.  Named after the famous Arab American poet of Lebanese descent, the event recognized individuals and institutions whose “work commitment and support make a difference in promoting co-existence and inclusion in all walks of life.”  The award also aims to promote “the positive forces of diversity and cultural interaction, and to showcase programs that foster democratic and humanitarian values across racial, ethnic and religious lines.”

With civil liberties under assault in the United States, Iraq facing a humanitarian crisis and social upheaval, and Palestine devastated by a continuing brutal Israeli assault, some might have found it hard to find the “Spirit of Humanity” at work in our world.  But for the 700 who gathered for this the 5th annual Arab American Institute Foundation event, that spirit was everywhere in evidence.

This year’s honorees were an extraordinary group.  Amnesty International USA (AI), the largest grassroots human rights organization in the world, was recognized for its post 9/11 defense of those who were victims of hate crimes and those whose rights were violated by government actions.  Mercy Corps International, a global humanitarian organization, was recognized for its worldwide relief program efforts with special attention being given to its work in Lebanon, Palestine, the Balkans and Iraq.  Mercy Corps was also involved in addressing post-9/11 trauma among U.S. children with programs focusing on creating cross cultural understanding and respect.

The award for corporate responsibility was given to the television network MTV in recognition of its “Fight for Your Rights” campaign designed to encourage young people to combat discrimination and intolerance.  MTV was also commended for its powerful post 9/11 advertising campaign promoting respect for Arab Americans and American Muslims.

A very special award was given to Ms. Helen Thomas, an Arab American, and one of America’s most respected journalists.  Ms. Thomas has been a White House correspondent during the terms of eight U.S. Presidents and has been respected and feared for her integrity and persistence in getting at the truth.

An emotional highlight of the night was the tribute to Rachel Corrie, the International Solidarity Movement activist who was killed when an Israeli bulldozer ran over her as she was attempting to protect a Palestinian home from being demolished.  Following a moving video, which featured Rachel at eight years of age delivering a passionate appeal about the need to combat world hunger, the audience gave the Corrie family, who were in attendance at the dinner, a standing ovation. 

Senator Edward Kennedy delivered the evening’s keynote address.  The eight-term Massachusetts Democrat focused his remarks on both the need to protect the constitutional rights of Arab Americans and American Muslims and the need to address the emerging humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

The Kahlil Gibran dinner, though only in its 5th year, has established itself not only as a defining event for the Arab American community, but as a Washington staple as well.  Previous Gibran events have featured such luminaries as President Clinton, Cabinet Members of the Clinton and Bush Administrations, dozens of Senators and Congressmen, Hollywood stars, CEO’s of major U.S. corporations, Arab Ambassadors and Arab American leaders from across the country.

This year, however, given the environment, there were some who actually questioned why the Foundation would hold the dinner.  By the end of the evening the Foundation’s answer was clear.

The simple truth is that not only is the “Spirit of Humanity” alive and well, it is in the most troubling of times that we need to be reminded that despite, and possibly because of, the inhumanity and insecurity that is so prevalent, there remains a courageous core who continue to work to alleviate suffering and to defend the rights of those most vulnerable to abuse.  By their work, they challenge the rest of us to join their efforts.

For Arab Americans, the Gibran dinner makes an important statement.  When President Clinton came to the event three years ago, he noted that a community makes a statement about who they are by those whom they choose to honor.  When Arab Americans honor public service, humanitarian relief, human rights advocates and institutions that promote understanding, they define themselves as a community seeking values that are at the core of their heritage.  In doing so, they fulfill the vision Gibran expressed in his open letter to young Arab Americas written three quarters of a century ago.  In that letter, he wrote:

…I believe that you are contributors to this new civilization.

I believe that you have inherited from your forefathers an ancient dream, a song, a prophecy, which you can proudly lay as a gift of gratitude upon the lap of America.

I believe that you can say to the founders of this great nation, “Here I am, a youth, a young tree whose roots were plucked from the hills of Lebanon, yet I am deeply rooted here, and I would be fruitful.”

…I believe that you can say to Emerson and Whitman and James, “In my veins runs the blood of the poets and wise men of old, and it is my desire to come to you and receive, but I shall not come with empty hands.”

In another poem, “Pity the Nation” Gibran wrote that he pitied the nation “that acclaims the bully as hero and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.”  In honoring Rachel Corrie who gave up her life to defend a home, or Helen Thomas, who has, for 60 years fought for truth, or the thousands of relief workers and human rights champions of Mercy Corps or Amnesty International, Arab Americans are calling forth a different kind of nation.  They are promoting a nation built on service and respect, a nation that honors the “Spirit of Humanity.”  Despite what is unfolding in the Middle East and here in the United States, Arab Americans are working with those who seek to build a better America-a nation true to its values and fair to all of its people.   

That’s the message we sent and that is precisely why the night was important.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.