Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

What an Italian American leader did for Arab Americans

James Zogby pays tribute to the late Fred Rotondaro, a stalwart of the Italian American community and a mentor

Fred Rotondaro, an Italian American leader, died 26 June. 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 Rotondaro was my friend and my mentor. 

When, in the 1970s and 1980s, many in Washington refused to work with Arab Americans, Rotondaro 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 1970s, 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 Rotondaro’s and was associated with his National Centre for Urban Ethnic Affairs (NCUEA). When Rotondaro 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 organised — 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 Rotondaro 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 Rotondaro 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.” Rotondaro 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 Rotondaro organised 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, Rotondaro gave me and my community a boost at a time when other people were not interested in including Arab Americans.

Rotondaro 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, organisational 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 realise, at the time, was that I wasn’t just being invited as a witness. Rotondaro actually saw me as a part of the group. He normalised my role as an Arab American who could be an equal participant in political and policy discussions. It was empowering. 

Rotondaro 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 (AAI), Rotondaro 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 organise to gain respect and political influence. These were important lessons I had learned from Rotondaro’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, Rotondaro helped to shape our work at the AAI.

One of my greatest treats came in 2004 when Rotondaro, still with the NIAF, honoured my brother John and me for our work in empowering Arab Americans in American politics, and in educating Americans about the Middle East. It was so wonderful to be recognised by the man who had been my teacher.

Oftentimes people have asked me, “Are you doing what you do because you want to be like Jewish groups?” I would honestly respond “No, I am doing what I do because I want to be like the Italian groups. It was from them I learned the importance of networking, the importance of being supportive of each other, and the importance of inter-ethnic cooperation” — all this came from Rotondaro.

More recently, after he retired, Fred also became a financial supporter of the institute. He and his wife Kathy were regulars at our annual Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards Dinner. In turn, I was pleased to be able support a new group that Rotondaro launched, the Catholic Alliance for the Common Good, and proud when he asked me to join its board. 

So as a friend, supporter and mentor, and as someone who took me under his wing when others were shunning Arab Americans, I’m going to miss Rotondaro. He played an important role for my community and for me, personally, and he will always be remembered.

The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.

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