Remembering Paul Findley and Yasser Arafat

by James M. Wallbook

On the day Yasser Arafat died, November 9, 2004, former Illinois Republican Congressman Paul Findley wrote an article to describe the relationship he had with the Palestinian leader.

Paul Findley knew then, and he knows now, that if enough members of Congress had joined with him in favor of talking with Yasser Arafat, Israel’s control over American policy might well have shifted in a different direction.

His article was published in the Daily Star, a Beirut, Lebanon, publication, on the occasion of Arafat’s death, 75, in a Paris hospital. Arafat had been under essential house arrest in his Ramallah headquarters. When he became ill, Israel moved him to Paris.

The failure of Findley’s newsworthy piece to find significant American exposure was further evidence of just how much Israel and its American allies fear an influential man like Paul Findley.

It is an article that reveals the irenic spirit and courageous political strength of Paul Findley. A political figure who has refused to yield power to non-American forces, frightens Israel. They need total control to keep Congress in check.

That is why BDS is such a threat to conservative Israeli governments. When people recognize deception as a false narrative, and are offered a way to take nonviolent action, that action must be put down by Israel and its loyal American allies. 

Memo to Congress from Tel Aviv: BDS is a danger, shoot it down. Don’t ask why, just do it.

Findley was that rare member of the U.S. Congress who ignored memos from foreign governments. He understood the danger of allowing the state of Israel to control American foreign policy in the Middle East.

At great political and personal cost, Paul Findley acted on that understanding while his congressional colleagues absorbed the narrative myth of “brave little Israel”, and pocketed the money, votes, and favorable media coverage that was their reward.

Paul Findley wanted to enlighten an American public that was ill-informed about Israel’s unholy alliance with American decision-makers.

In 1982, Paul Findley lost what had been a safe Republican seat in Congress, ending a political career that began when he was elected in 1960. His victorious opponent was Richard Durbin, now a U.S. Senator from Illinois.

The New York Times reported that Findley “narrowly lost his bid for re-election for a number of reasons: a competent opponent, redistricting, the economic recession, and pro-Israel groups’ support to his challenger.”

As Findley wrote in 2004:

During my years in Congress, Yasser Arafat’s name was often mentioned in committee meetings and on the floor of the House of Representatives but rarely without an ugly prefix. “Terrorist” Arafat led the “terrorist” PLO consisting of “terrorist” Palestinians. Observers unfamiliar with the Arab-Israeli conflict might have mistakenly assumed that the adjective “terrorist” was actually a proper part of these names.

The loss of his political platform did not deter Paul Findley. It inspired him to continue to expose and resist that unholy alliance.

Now 96, and living in his hometown of Jacksonville, Illinois, Paul Findley is no longer as active as he once had been.

He has, fortunately, left us a rich legacy of books, articles recorded interviews and memories from a career of service. 

Years before Arafat’s death, as Israel was driving forward with its plan to conquer all of the land from the sea to the Jordan River–still the plan, by the way–I interviewed  a member of Israel’s foreign ministry in Tel Aviv.

The ministry official conspiratorially told me at the end of the interview, “You should watch this Hamas organization. They are doing good things for the Palestinians”. This was, of course, in the months before Hamas emerged as a political force. To Israel, Hamas was a pawn, a movement that could be used to challenge Arafat’s PLO.

This is standard colonial-invader 101: Divide the people against themselves and then conquer them.

Finley’s article, in the Daily Starshould be read in full. Here, in a single
paragraph, Findley explains why:

One evening years ago, during one of my periodic open discussions with citizens in my hometown, Jacksonville, Illinois, the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce wondered out loud about my willingness to associate with Arafat, a “person widely considered more evil than Genghis Khan.” My answer: “Arafat is a powerful leader in the Middle East, and a major power, like the United States, should have the best possible communication with him.”

For a member of Congress to communicate with Arafat, and see him as a man with his own non-violent plan, is not in Israel’s “best interest”.

With the assistance of Jewish organizations like AIPAC, Israel maintained a steady propaganda campaign that tied “terrorist” with “Arafat”. American media bought into Israel’s plan, because Israel wanted it to.

Labels drove the plan and labels become fixed in the public’s collective mind. Remember when Native Americans were called “savages”?  And how about those “Redskins” now playing football in the nation’s capital city?

And don’t get me started on the language white Americans hang on Muslims. 

Empires are built and thrive on deception and the manufactured fear of “others”. The U.S. and its mini-empire, Israel, did not want American political leaders to see the “other” as capable of negotiating in good faith.

Any hint that Yasser Arafat was an admired leader of an oppressed people, was a danger to Israeli’s false narrative. For Findley to treat Arafat  with respect, and do so as a member of the U.S. Congress, was anathema to Israel.

Findley recalled his contacts with Arafat on the day Arafat  died.

While in Congress, I met personally with Arafat twice, both times in his quarters in Damascus. The first was in January 1978 while I was a member of a congressional group on a tour of the Middle East. After I promised never to mention their names, two other members of Congress joined my wife and I on the unscheduled, unofficial side trip to meet the controversial PLO leader. Both to and from his quarters, our cars were escorted by heavily armed escorts. After a discussion of more than two hours with Arafat, we joined him for a late meal.

I returned alone in November for a long follow-up discussion, during which Arafat authorized me to report to the White House his terms for living at peace with Israel: As chairman of the PLO executive committee, he pledged that the new Palestine would live at peace, have de facto political relations with Israel and renounce all violent efforts to enlarge the country, provided that Israel accept an independent Palestine consisting of the West Bank and Gaza district, with a connecting corridor.

It was a concise pledge which still stands as a reasonable and just outline for peace.

Yasser Arafat continues to be honored in the land he sought to lead toward future statehood.

The Palestinian news agency WAFA, reported that the 13th anniversary of Arafat’s death, November 9, was recalled by thousands of Palestinians on a march through the streets of Ramallah. 

They carried portraits of Arafat, waved Palestinian flags and chanted slogans celebrating Arafat’s life.

The rally started from Ramallah Secondary Boys School, moved through the main street of the city, and ended at the presidential headquarters (Muqata’a), where senior officials laid wreaths at Yasser Arafat’s mausoleum.

Speaking on behalf of President Mahmoud Abbas, Deputy Fatah Chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul told the marchers: “Not only was Yasser Arafat the leader who inspired the Palestinian revolution, but also the one who inspired liberation movements worldwide.”

How did Paul Findley feel about the man he befriended, and who cost him his seat in Congress? The former congressman answered that question in the Daily Star.

Did I regret being Arafat’s “best friend in Congress?” Never, not for a fleeting moment, even though this association clearly was a major factor in my defeat in 1982. 

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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6 Responses to Remembering Paul Findley and Yasser Arafat

  1. Thank you, Jim, for a wonderful, word-perfect post. President Arafat, R.I.P. May God Bless Paul Findley.

  2. Pauline Coffman says:

    A worthy tribute to Paul Findley. Thank you, Jim.

  3. Rita Swan says:

    Thank you, Jim. Paul Findley was once our Congressman. He deserves great respect for his courage.

  4. Patricia says:

    Aren’t we weary of ISRAEL’s influence? I abhor anything ZIONIST! Thanks for an excellent article.Americans are bombarded with ” Fake News” concerning ISRAEL- PALESTINE. I am ashamed of the US media, government.

  5. AWAD PAUL SIFRI says:

    Thank you so much, Jim, for having this beautiful piece about our beloved former Congressman, Paul Findley, a true American hero.

    Paul Findley is one of the rare brave patriotic Americans who “dared speak out”, when it really mattered, unlike many others who chose to wait until their terms were over, or those who kept silent and eyes shut.

    Paul Findley could not digest the fact that our own super-power democratic government succumbed to Israel’s instructions, at virtually every juncture and every whim. He was one of the rare voices who could not tolerate the on-going treasonous collusion between so-called “Americans” in and out of successive administrations, Congress, Senate, and all electrodes of government and political-economic-social authority.

    The enormity of this treasonous relationship, at the expense of American leadership, interests, security, and economy, let alone moral values, makes the current Russian collusion with members of the Trump administration more like a cake walk.

    We need more patriots like Paul Findley’s to sprout out all over America, from Coast to Coast, to make America the beacon to the world, as it used to be, without having to fire a shot.

  6. J. Martin Bailey says:

    I find myself lingering over each paragraph in this essay. Though I met Paul Findley only once, and then in a rather large group, I learned so much from his writings and his political stance that I’ve sometimes thought of him as a mentor. He was also a model of courage and honesty. I still refer back to some of his writings when I seek to clarify my own thoughts.

    And as for Yasser Arafat, I am also grateful for your reflections, Jim. I had the good fortune to have worked in Palestine during the period of his leadership there. He truly loved his people and sought their well being in everything he did. And he communicated well with American visitors and journalists. He was both wise and open minded.

    Permit me to use two particular meetings to illustrate this. My work was to help Americans visiting the region to understand the dynamics and especially Israel’s use of force to restrain Palestinians. Once I took a group of church journalists to meet with him. The leader of that delegation was Jim Wall. Mr. Arafat quickly perceived that Jim had an unusual understanding of the issues and insisted that Jim join him at the head table. I believe he did that because he wanted to symbolize how important journalists like Jim are to helping Americans generally understand the goals of the Palestinian people.

    I smile still when I also recall taking a group of the Presbyterian national women’s organization to Gaza specifically to meet Mr. Arafat. There were three English speaking men accompanying the delegation: the then Anglican leader of Jerusalem, Bishop Kafiti, the Presbyterian Middle East secretary, Rev. Victor Makari, and myself. As usual in Palestine, I wore a clerical collar. When it came time to leave, Mr. Arafat called his photographer in to take individual pictures of each member of the delegation shaking hands with him. Then he insisted that Bishop Kafiti stand on one side of him and because I looked “official” that I stand on the other! Such incidental memories are not only pleasant but say much about President Arafat’s willingness to spend time to explain his goals and values to visitors.

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