What a US-Italian leader did for US-Arabs and me
Fred Rotondaro, an Italian American leader, died on June 26. He was, by every measure, a remarkable man. On hearing of his passing, my brother John commented, “Fred was a creation God would be proud of. He was a smart, elegant man who never forgot where he came from”. To this I would add that I feel fortunate, because for nearly four decades Fred was my friend and my mentor.
When, in the 1970s and 1980s, many in Washington refused to work with Arab Americans, Fred took me under his wing and taught me, often by example, the nuts and bolts of ethnic politics, he also provided me with political access that would otherwise have been denied to me.
When I first came to Washington in the late ‘70s, I was running the Palestinian Human Rights Campaign a cause that some found taboo. I remember being invited to an ethnic leaders meeting at the White House with Vice President Walter Mondale. Three days after the meeting, I was called and told by the representative at the White House, “I’m so sorry, but we’re not going to be able to invite you back again. We had objections that a pro-Palestinian Arab was at the meeting.”
She was a very good person, and later became a close friend. She was also a friend of Fred’s and was associated with his National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs (NCUEA). When Fred learned about this episode, he was deeply troubled by the way I had been treated and took it upon himself to include me in efforts he organized - conferences, group meetings, and, most importantly, lunches with leading writers, activists, and politicians.
At one point, when he was working to build a multi-ethnic coalition Fred invited me, as a representative of the Arab American community, to be a part of the group. The coalition convened a special meeting on the role media played in ethnic stereotyping and Fred asked me, as the Executive Director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, to lead the session. Once again, there were some who complained about my involvement, saying “You can’t trust Zogby. He’s an Arab with an agenda and doesn’t really care about these issues. He’s trying to be disruptive.” Fred defended my role, telling my detractors: “No, he knows and cares about this stuff and his community has a lot to offer to this discussion.”
On another occasion, when Fred organized a conference on the role played by immigration and the children of immigrants in defining what it meant to be an American, he made sure to invite me and other Arab Americans to be a part of the discussion. Quite simply, Fred gave me and my community a boost at a time when other people were not interested in including Arab Americans.
Fred was also the master of the power lunch before there was such a thing. He was a great convener and he used it for good. Many of the restaurants in this city had a table that was “Fred’s table,” and he would invite us and just sit back and let conversation flow. He brought together journalists, politicians, organizational heads, and religious leaders - four or five people, at a time. It was a privilege and a great learning experience just to be a part of these luncheons. I used to love being at the table and listening to the conversation and, then, being a part of it.
What I didn’t realize, at the time, was that I wasn’t just being invited as a witness. Fred actually saw me as a part of the group. He normalized my role as an Arab American who could be an equal participant in political and policy discussions. It was empowering.
Fred never sat me down and taught me lessons about ethnic politics. Instead he taught by example. From watching him operate, I learned how sharing a common heritage mattered and how by coming together to support one another, an ethnic group could become a political force.
When we launched the Arab American Institute, Fred came and led a panel discussion together with Joe Ventura, who had been an Italian American city councilman from Cleveland. They spoke about how ethnic groups can get involved in local politics and how a community could organize to gain respect and political influence. These were important lessons I had learned from Fred’s work with the NCUEA and his National Italian American Foundation (NAIF) and I was so pleased that we were able to share them with leaders from the Arab American community. In this way, Fred helped to shape our work at the AAI.