Arab advocate still speaks up — and often

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah is sitting in the CNN studio in Chicago, waiting for the debate over the Middle East to begin on yet another talk show.

Staring into the camera’s glass eye, he outlines in his mind his talking points, and how they will reflect on the Palestinian cause.

The son of a former Jordanian ambassador, Abunimah has found his own form of diplomacy. He frequently appears on television programs and writes op-ed pieces on the Middle East. He lobbies media organizations when he thinks their coverage has been unfair. And from his Hyde Park home, he helps maintain, a Web site that attempts to tell the story of the Middle East from a perspective he and others say is overlooked.

“When you get behind the headlines, you do change people’s minds,” Abunimah says. “There are a lot of voices that are silent, and I try to point people to these voices.”

Alex Safian, associate director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) describes Abunimah as “talented,” with a British accent that may give him an air of sophistication to American audiences. But in terms of the issues, Safian says, “I think his message is straining credulity, and I think that shows.”

Abunimah, 30, counters that he researches everything for his appearances and on his Web site, and visitors and viewers can judge for themselves. Abunimah adds that he feels obligated to act as an Arab advocate because there are so few out there, and because he thinks the official ones have not realized they need to spend more time making their case directly to the American people rather than to government officials.

It’s not for the money

Abunimah says he’s sure not in it for the money. Occasionally, the shows on which he appears have reimbursed his parking costs and similar expenses, but generally, he says, most do not pay. The Web site is run mostly on volunteer labor and has a budget of a couple of thousand dollars, says Nigel Parry, another of its organizers. All in all, Abunimah adds, it’s a non-profit endeavor with low costs — except perhaps emotionally.

“I see this as a necessity, not a career,” he says. “Mentally it’s very, very draining. It’s also very repetitive. When you do X interviews about a subject, you find yourself saying the same things over again and again.”

Essentially, those same things include that he and most Palestinians condemn terrorism against Israelis, that the Israeli occupation is the equivalent of a military dictatorship in which Palestinians are stripped of their rights and that the mainstream media often downplays that.

“It’s a constant struggle, because when people see violence they think that all Palestinians support violence or because some Palestinians use despicable methods that that means the Palestinian cause isn’t just,” he says. “At the same time, there’s this complete denial of the suffering inflicted on Palestinians.”

By profession, Abunimah works as a senior researcher at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Center for children. “I’m interested in social policy,” Abunimah says. “There’s no place in which social policy has more impact than the lives of children.”

He says he’s careful to keep his advocacy separate from his job. In part, it’s because he does not want the university to suffer a backlash. In part, he says, it’s because he wants a refuge from thinking about the Middle East 24 hours a day.

A typical day begins at 5 a.m., when Abunimah, who is single, wakes up and scans the Web for information about the Middle East. After his job, he returns home and works on the Web site. It features links to stories about the conflict, accounts from people in the occupied territories, tips for other would-be advocates and a place to make tax-deductible contributions.

Many nights, Abunimah participates in talk shows or other discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Among the outlets that have quoted Abunimah or published his opinion pieces in just the last year: the Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times,, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Village Voice. He has appeared on “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” “Chicago Tonight” and “Hannity and Colmes.”

Joel Kaufman, coordinating producer for prime-time programming at Fox News Channel, says Abunimah stood his ground quite well against Sean Hannity, a supporter of Israel.

Abunimah is “extremely articulate and the accent doesn’t hurt,” Kaufman says. “He’s got really great energy. He’s certainly someone you can count on to be controversial as well. He’s someone you can always count on to have the courage of their convictions.”

Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, thinks of Abunimah as eloquent and sophisticated.

‘A serious absence’

But Kotzin says he is troubled that he has not heard Abunimah, who pointedly deplores terrorism, state that he supports the continued right of Israel to exist alongside a future Palestine. “I’m not asking him to come up with the formula to get there,” Kotzin says.

“I think you just have to give the positive, especially when the thrust is so heavily critical of Israel. I think that’s a serious absence.”

Abunimah says he has repeatedly asserted “my firm and unwavering conviction that Israelis and Palestinians should live alongside each other in full peace, complete equality and profound democracy.”

Growing up, Abunimah moved to many diplomatic postings as one of three children of Hasan Abu-Nimah. (He says he stopped hyphenating his name after his records were often misfiled at Princeton University, where he graduated in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in politics. He earned a master’s degree in political science in 1995 from the University of Chicago.) He knew members of the Jordanian royal family and went hunting many times with Prince Mohammad, the elder brother of the late King Hussein.

Off camera, he’s polite and soft-spoken. On camera, he bumps up the aggression level — out of necessity, he says.

“They throw you in a pit with a bunch of people who disagree with you strongly,” he says. “If you can’t make a case, if you can’t hold your own, the audience will know it.”

Abunimah recalls an instance in which he was embarrassed when his debating opponent pointed out that he was using information from a reporter who had been discredited for using composite characters and other journalistic breaches.

“I didn’t like … being taken by surprise,” Abunimah says. “I usually am better prepared than my opponent, or I try to be.”

Jeffery Dvorkin, ombudsman for National Public Radio, says Abunimah has proven “a persistent critic with excellent knowledge of the region.”

Dvorkin adds. “He’s as credible as much as an advocate … can be.”

But there are times when Abunimah is left exasperated by being a top-talking head.

“I hope,” Abunimah says, “the day will come when I don’t have to do this at all.”

Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune