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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October/November 1999 , pages 67, 101-102


Rafeeq Jaber: An Energetic Muslim Visionary and Fearless Palestinian-American Political Activist

By Richard H. Curtiss

It’s a cold, rainy spring day in Chicago and Muslim community leader and Palestinian activist Rafeeq Jaber is spending a relaxed Saturday afternoon—in his office. Although he’ll be a principal speaker at his Chicago chapter of the Islamic Association for Palestine’s (IAP) annual Jerusalem Day that evening, he’s swiveled back in his chair for a relaxed conversation with another speaker who has come from Washington. The evening’s emcee, Raeed Tayeh, a Palestinian-American journalism student and part-time assistant in the IAP chapter headquarters, is bustling in and out, as is another assistant who is putting together a complex public address system. Everyone stops only briefly when a light carry-out lunch arrives from a nearby Middle Eastern restaurant.

The conversation is interrupted every five minutes or so by telephone calls. That gives the visitor time to glance around the walls. A line of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company district and regional “manager” and “salesman of the month” plaques starts behind Mr. Jaber’s desk, marches along the wall on one side of the long office that also is a conference room with a table that easily seats a dozen people, and then back along the spaces between windows on the other side of the room. Another plaque proclaims he was among the top 100 salesmen in the entire country in 1980. Interspersed among the plaques are awards and mementoes from Islamic and Arab-American groups, and diplomas from courses in insurance and finance from different parts of the United States. There also are certificates proving that Rafeeq Jaber is a graduate in financial planning and a certified financial planner licensed for the present year by the state of Illinois.

The current dates on so many of the plaques and certificates are a little surprising because over the many times we had met at Islamic and Palestinian events over the years, many of them organized and directed by Mr. Jaber, the writer had assumed that he was retired from his insurance executive duties. In fact he retired from that position twoyears ago only so that he could go into full-time estate planning. All of his work on behalf of the Palestinians and his fellow Muslims has been while he also was working full-time.

What was also confusing was that although Mr. Jaber would soon be receiving more than 200 guests attending the Jerusalem Day event at the Bridge View Islamic Center, of which he has been board chairman, most of his calls seemed to have little to do with the evening’s activities.

In fact, he was counseling the callers, some in Arabic and some in English, in the same kindly but brisk and practical way that a minister, rabbi, small town businessman or big city alderman might handle such calls: Brief small talk, specific and to-the-point advice on whatever problem the caller has posed, greetings to the caller’s relatives, hang up, and—three minutes later—brrrrg, next call.

I realized soon enough that there was a reason why everyone not only in the Chicago area but, seemingly, across the country, knew he would be in his office that Saturday afternoon, but I asked anyway: “If you didn’t have to be here for tonight’s program and the weather were better, what would you be doing today?” I asked him innocently. He looked puzzled but finally said, “I’d be right here.”

“And tomorrow, Sunday?” I asked, just in case he’d forgotten it was a holiday. “I’ve promised my wife to take every second Sunday off,” he said.

“Do you?” I asked.

“Sure,” he replied, “unless I’m too busy.”

Although always smiling and outwardly relaxed, Rafeeq Jaber is constantly busy because he’s a natural leader. He is the kind of selfless, experienced person to whom relatives, friends and neighbors entrust their personal affairs. When asked, he undertakes major community services with the same genial level-headedness he brings to helping friends start businesses and families establish credit, select schools for their children and find jobs for them when they graduate.

He was elected to the board and served as president for two years of his local mosque, one of the 3 or 4 largest of the 40 in the Greater Chicago area, and around which cluster three affiliated Islamic schools, all in a beautifully designed compound that provides parking for visitors and a safe common area for the students. He also is a founder of the Chicago chapter and a past IAP national president and national chairman; co-founder of the Chicago chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC); a co-founder with Omar Ahmad of San Jose, CA and Nihad Awad of Washington, DC of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR); and a member of the American Muslim Alliance (AMA) and the Arab American Institute (AAI)

He and his wife Aidaare also the doting parents of three daughters, Rula, born in 1974, Leen, born in 1981, and Ruaa, born in 1987, all of whom he hopes will eventually become part of the “first American-born generation” which he expects to put Islam on the American political and cultural map. Already he can see the difference between his own, immigrant generation, still clinging to a second nationality overseas, and daughter Rula, who “doesn’t care about the nationality or race of Muslims she works with.”

Rafeeq Jaber is also a perfect example of how the brain drain works, with communities overseas that desperately need intelligent, energetic and sensible creators and innovators losing them for economic or political reasons to the United States, whose institutional flexibility and social mobility provide the matrix that allows the world’s best and brightest to realize their full potential as part of the richest and most productive society in the world.

Like so many other immigrants, Rafeeq Jaber had no intention of leaving his family or his country when he was growing up in a village 12 miles northwest of Ramallah in what was then Jordanian-administered Palestine. In fact, as the top student in his elementary school class and then a graduate of the fast-track science curriculum in secondary school, he had become a leader while still a teenager and graduated right into the position of city manager under the mayor of his home village and an adjacent one.

Already, however, the Israeli military conquest of the West Bank in June 1967 had cast a shadow over what might otherwise have been a clear career path. Born in 1950, Rafeeq’s class of 1968 became the first in the West Bank to graduate under Israeli occupation. Predictably, the students became highly politicized in a prestigious high school from which a good many of the subsequent PLO leaders also graduated.

Rafeeq settled into a municipal administrative job that involved a great deal of mediating of disputes. And for the five and a half years he held it from 1968 to 1974, he constantly took typing, accounting and local administration courses to improve his performance in handling the town record-keeping, correspondence, and bookkeeping. “I learned a lot about people,” he recalls, including dealing with an Israeli assistant for municipal affairs to the Israeli military governor for the area.

Although he had to meet with the Israeli assistant monthly, Rafeeq refused to deal directly with the Israeli military governor. When the military governor arrived at a meeting, Rafeeq would tell him he hadn’t been invited, and then would leave himself. The military governor complained to the mayor, who ordered Rafeeq to work with the Israeli. But it didn’t end there.

The Israeli military governor insisted that he be invited by Rafeeq and the mayor to civic events, and also that Rafeeq invite him to his home. Rafeeq refused, saying only that “if you arrive in your jeep with an armed guard, I can’t stop you from entering.”

When the military governor realized he was not going to be invited to events, he began summoning Rafeeq to meetings in his office that never took place. Instead, Rafeeq would be kept waiting and then dismissed only after the last public transportation had left, meaning that he would have to take a taxi home, which he could ill afford on his meager salary, or spend the night in a relative’s house.

During the same period there were other attempts to co-opt him. “First they tried money, and then they tried girls,” said Rafeeq, who was a bachelor at the time.

On his mandatory visits to Israeli military government headquarters one particular Israeli secretary in a miniskirt was introduced to him as someone who would “take notes” when the assistant military governor met with him, and then was left alone with Rafeeq.

“It was hard to resist, but I was aware of what was going on and I was religious,” Rafeeq recalls. There were other incidents, both humorous and frightening.

A Wet Gun

Once as the assistant to the military governor stepped out of his automobile he fell into a puddle in the road. Noticing that his gun was wet, he took it off. After he helped the Israeli to his feet, Rafeeq picked up the gun. Misinterpreting the gesture, the Israeli fell to his knees begging for his life. Rafeeq handed him back the gun and now recalls with a smile, “after that we understood each other better.”

Not so humorous was his experience after returning from Jordan, where he went to collect funds the Jordanian government routinely paid to West Bank municipalities, which it considered still under Jordanian administration. Israeli military government authorities accused him of meeting with PLO officials in Amman.

When intimidation had no effect on Rafeeq’s attitude, the military governor requested him to transfer to Jerusalem, an assignment Rafeeq refused. Finally Rafeeq found himself involved in an unexpected situation with the military governor in which, for the first time, the young Palestinian administrator felt he was losing control.

It started when he deposited 840 dinars in municipal funds at the bank, and didn’t notice that the bank clerk had given him a receipt for only 480 dinars. The mistake went unnoticed for months, even during the annual outside audit.

When Rafeeq finally noticed it he told the mayor, who took up the matter with the city councilmen, who decided to write off the loss. However, someone took the matter to the military governor, who tried to force Rafeeq either to make good the loss, which amounted to three months of his salary, collaborate with the Israeli authorities, or go to jail.

Because the pressure had been building for so long. Rafeeq was not without recourses of his own. In 1973 he had married Aida, whose father had immigrated to the U.S. from the West Bank a few years earlier. Even though her father eventually had returned to live in Palestine, she retained American citizenship and was eligible to return, with her new husband. Rafeeq also had been offered a medical scholarship in Yugoslavia by the Palestinian communist party, which had marked him as a leader.

As a serious Muslim, Rafeeq was not interested in communism, but he admits it was also his lack of interest in studying medicine that decided him finally to take advantage of his wife’s citizenship to escape what had become an increasingly untenable situation since his first clashes with the Israeli military governor in 1968. Six months after their marriage, Rafeeq joined his wife, who had been living in the U.S. with her family, on Feb. 9, 1974 and proceeded to Chicago.

He went to work full-time in a factory which produced window panes and soon became assistant production line foreman. At the same time, however, he enrolled full-time in computer classes. Then three weeks after the birth of their first daughter and still in 1974, the factory shut down Rafeeq’s part of the operation.

It was a low point in his life but he finished his courses and joined Metropolitan Life, where he remained as one of its most successful district managers for the next 23 years, until his retirement in 1997. He notes with some pride that although his activism helping build a mosque and Islamic schools brought him clients, 90 percent of his extraordinary sales were to non-Muslims.

Rafeeq Jaber made his first attempt to return for a visit to the West Bank in 1976. The Israelis denied him permission on grounds that he had not renewed his ID. He tried repeatedly but was not able to return until after he had become a U.S. citizen in 1980. On that first visit he was interrogated for some five hours at the airport before he was admitted, and the treatment grew harsher with each subsequent visit.

In 1992 he was put into an Israel military vehicle at the ramp of the arriving plane. In addition to interrogating him in 90-degree heat in the van, and refusing to let him open his bag to get a tissue to wipe the sweat off his face, apparently suspecting the bag contained a suicide bomb, the uniformed Israelis drove him away from the airport, leading him to believe they were planning to shoot him and then claim he had tried to escape. Eventually he was returned unharmed, but he has not been back to Israel/Palestine since.

His activism in the U.S., in which he has helped found both Muslim and Arab-American organizations, has led him to conclude that the best way to politically unite Arab Americans, even the many Christians among them, is Islam. This, he says, is because Islam is “powerful, respected, and is able to get things done.”

Personally, he believes that “what’s good for the Arabs will be good for the Muslims, and what’s good for the Muslims will be good for the Arabs.” He adds that “one of the biggest mistakes of the PLO was to ”˜Palestinize’ what began as an Arab issue. “It should be Islamic, Arab and Palestinian in that order. Even new converts to Islam feel the emotional tie to Jerusalem. Now it’s just a West Bank and Gaza cause.”

Rafeeq Jaber is openly pessimistic about short-run prospects for either Palestine or peace. “I think the peace process not only failed, it died,” he said in an interview shortly before Israeli voters turned out Binyamin Netanyahu.

“The idea of ”˜transfer’ [the Zionist term for ethnic cleansing] is still there,” Jaber warns. “The question is when. I think the Israelis will start by destabilizing Jordan, with the help of the CIA. Israel will recruit people of Palestinian origin to overthrow the Kingdom, by telling them that the new government will ”˜push the Jews into the sea.’

“I don’t believe that Yasser Arafat is a traitor, but I believe he may fall into the trap,” Jaber continues. “When Israelis invade Jordan, ostensibly ”˜to restore order,’ they will seize the opportunity to ”˜transfer’ Palestinians from the West Bank via terrorism, using the Deir Yasin example to scare the Palestinians off. Then negotiations will start over the East Bank. Jordan, in turn, will be demilitarized. That might convince the U.S. to let go of its protection of Jordan.”

Citing the 1998 Israeli attempt to assassinate Jordanian Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, apparently in an attempt to blame King Hussein and incite an uprising against him, Jaber says, “That is why King Hussein was so quick to insist on an antidote for the poison they used against Meshal.” Jaber expressed the hope that Jordan’s King Abdallah will be able to thwart such Israeli pressures.

Within the West Bank, Jaber believes “Likud wants to push for civil war in Palestine. But I think Hamas and the opposition are very aware of this.” He suggests that under an Israeli Labor Party government, Israel might seek to assassinate Arafat, and start an uncontrollable situation in that way. To do so, Jaber speculates, Israel would use collaborators. “I don’t know their numbers,” Jaber says, “but they are many. The principal of my school was a collaborator, and his job was to recruit students.”

Jaber is proud that his generation of Muslims “has set the stage,” but, he says, “it comes with a lot of baggage because of our origins.” Now, he believes, “the new generation will take over.”

The most important battle with Israel does not require guns, he asserts. He explains that “the most neglected front is the United States. The PLO has no one to help them here, while elsewhere they spend millions of dollars for nothing.”

He says the Muslim community in America is starting to change. Formerly most Muslims were doctors and engineers. Now more are getting into political science, law, teaching and journalism. “If I had had the choice, I would have liked to study political science and the history of religion. So now I’m encouraging my daughter to study political science,” he says.

“The problem is that we’ve been looking to start from the roof instead of the foundation,” he explains. “If we start from the grassroots, senators and presidents will come to us. When you go to visit a member of Congress, he’ll listen to you if he knows you can bring him votes or donations.

“Politicians don’t get elected to Congress because they’re dummies. They’re practical and they’re realistic. You can see that the IAP is one of the most effective organizations. We don’t compromise our principles.

“But I don’t want to do anything that’s unethical—that’s contrary to my religious beliefs. I don’t want Muslims and Arabs to use intimidation as the Israeli lobby did here in Illinois against Senator Charles Percy and Representative Paul Findley. I believe God will help those who are doing the right thing.”

Although he is a pessimist for the short run, for the long run Rafeeq Jaber is optimistic. “The American public are good-hearted and they are open-minded,” he says. “Now they only know the Israeli side. Once they know the truth, they will stand up for it.”

Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report.