Naseer Aruri: Institution-builder, Teacher, Friend

Naseer Aruri was a leading Arab-American intellectual.

By Nadia Hijab

There are those whose life and work touch the lives of tens of thousands, for decades. Naseer Aruri was one such man. The news of his passing on 10 February 2015 was quickly relayed from North America through Europe and to the Arab world, bringing shared sorrow and reflection on his manifold contributions to the cause of justice for the Palestinian people, progress for the Arab nation, and human rights for all peoples.

Aruri, who was born in Jerusalem, Palestine, came to the United States to pursue his studies in 1954. He then served on the faculty of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he chaired the Political Science department for eight years, and which he left in 1998 as Chancellor Professor of Political Science.

By 1967, Aruri’s stature was such that he was one of the leading Arab-American intellectuals called on respond to the 1967 war Israel launched against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and the resulting loss of the rest of Palestine to Israel. Together, these Arab-Americans created a political and cultural movement, serving “as the voice of their community and its intellectual leaders throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s,” said his friend and colleague from the University of British Columbia in Canada, Hani Faris.

This was truly a generation of giants. Faris recalls a few of the names that featured large in that movement, including the historian Ibrahim Abu Lughod, the world renowned literary theorist Edward Said, lawyers Abdeen Jabara and Cherif Bassiouni, sociologist Elaine Hagopian, economist Abbas Alnasrawi, and political scientist Michael Suleiman.

This generation established the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG) in 1968, the first such nationwide organisation in the US, providing much-needed leadership to the community. Aruri twice served as president.

I had the privilege of meeting and working with many of these leaders when I joined AAUG in the 1990s. Sadly, it was past its heyday, in part due to the growth of other Arab American organisations and, later, the appearance of Lebanese, Palestinian, Egyptian and other country-based organisations. Its loss of direction perhaps mirrored the growing fragmentation of the Arab region.

Yet Aruri’s generation and the generations they influenced continued to build institutions and to support just causes. According to Jaber Suleiman, coordinator of the Lebanon-based Centre for Refugee Rights/Aidoun, Aruri was one of the first to see the dangers of the Oslo Accords signed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1993 and the implications for the right of return.

As early as 1996 Aruri, Said, his beloved friend Samih Farsoun and Hisham Sharabi (both part of that generation of giants) called for a conference of the right of return and self determination. A delegation of Arab-Americans travelled to refugee host countries to promote the initiative, but they did not succeed. Palestinian political parties suspected an attempt to replace the PLO.

In 2000, Aruri and his dear colleague Elaine Hagopian, who herself has for decades worked tirelessly to promote justice, often behind the scenes, helped organise a seminal conference on the Palestinian right of return at Boston University. The thirst for direction, for a grasp of vision and goals, was so great that more than 600 people – Palestinian and Arab Americans as well as American solidarity activists – spilled out of the halls.

Aruri edited the book of the papers published in 2001. Even more importantly, the Boston conference provided space for institutions and activists to organise on the sidelines. Jaber Suleiman, who was there representing Aidoun, credits the conference for the birth of a global right of return movement that remains active to this day. Suleiman especially values Aruris’ advice over the years, and his participation in the conferences Aidoun co-organised in venues as far-flung as Damascus and Madrid.

The Trans Arab Research Institute (TARI), which was established in 1988 partly in order to organise the Boston conference, is also still active. Now headed by Hani Faris, it has organised several major conferences, including One State for Palestine/Israel in 2009 and the Arab Uprisings in 2013.

Naseer Aruri’s mission did not stop at justice for Palestinians and Arabs. He served for three consecutive terms as a Board member of Amnesty International, USA, as well as of the Board of the New York-based Human Rights Watch/Middle East, among other civic service.

I came to know Naseer during the 1990s, when I served for a year as AAUG president, learning much about institution building, both good and bad, which I carried to other organisations.

In 2001, when a small group of us co-founded the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, it was only natural to turn to Naseer to serve on the Advisory Board. The US Campaign has since grown to a coalition of 400 organisations nation-wide, managed by a small team of dedicated staff.

In 2010, another small group came together to co-found al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network. We were deeply conscious of the urgent need to put a Palestinian policy voice on the map to prevent the derogation of our rights, and to provide a space for Palestinian thinkers and writers worldwide to debate strategy and policy. Naseer was one of the first Policy Advisors to join al-Shabaka.

Naseer suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, a terrible affliction, during the last years of his life, and our thoughts are with his wife Joyce and his four children, and their families. He continued to give for as long as he could, with the same honesty, unfailing courtesy, kindness and dedication that marked him throughout his life.

With Naseer Aruri’s death, as Hani Faris notes, a chapter in the history of Arab Americans is coming to an end. And yet, much of the present leadership of Arab-American community “and the politically savvy activists among Arab Americans are disciples of Dr. Aruri and his colleagues.”

 – Nadia Hijab is the Executive Director of al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network. (This article was first published in Middle East Eye.)

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