James Abourezk, who was elected by South Dakotans as the first Arab American senator, and who used his prominence to support the causes of Palestinians and Native Americans while also pushing for friendlier relations with Cuba and Iran, died on Friday, his 92nd birthday, at his home in Sioux Falls, S.D.
His daughter Alya James Abourezk confirmed the death.
Mr. Abourezk (pronounced AB-ur-esk) was a double novelty for a senator. He was a left winger from a generally conservative rural state and a politician who gave up the chance for re-election to focus on pursuing the political objectives he believed in, rather than those supported by his party, his constituents or even, in some cases, most Americans.
In 1970, when Mr. Abourezk won a race for South Dakota’s second district seat in the House, the state’s newly elected governor was a fellow Democrat, Richard F. Kneip, and its other senator was the progressive standard-bearer George McGovern. Mr. Abourezk’s victory came as a surprise nevertheless: A Democrat had not occupied that House seat since the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s dominance in the 1930s.
He was elected to the Senate in 1972. After he stepped down, Larry Pressler, a Republican, succeeded him and served for nearly 20 years.
Mr. Abourezk attributed his success to his reputation as “more populist than liberal or leftist, a brand of politician that resonates with people from South Dakota,” he told The Capital Journal, a South Dakota newspaper, in 2013. “One comment I constantly heard from people was that, ‘I don’t agree much with Abourezk, but by God, he’s honest.’”
His biggest achievements as a senator concerned support for Native Americans. He proposed the establishment of the American Indian Policy Review Commission, which studied legislative possibilities to address problems in that community.
The laws that resulted included the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which granted tribes more autonomy in administering government programs, and the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, which established controls on the adoption of Indigenous children by white families.
That measure continues to draw praise, even from tribal representatives and legal advocates who say it did not go far enough.
On some issues, Mr. Abourezk was content to oppose most other senators — or even the entire rest of the chamber. In 1977, he was a lone dissenter in an 85-to-1 vote on an amendment concerning child pornography. He questioned the legality of a ban on selling or distributing material that might not be considered obscene.
The same year, he organized an almost comically unusual good-will trip to Cuba for a delegation of South Dakota college basketball players to compete against the Cuban national team.
“Sports is noncontroversial, and this should do a lot for normalization of relations,” Mr. Abourezk told The New York Times in Havana. “It’s fitting South Dakota should be involved because we’re famous for pioneers of all kinds.”
Traveling from 25-degree Sioux Falls to 85-degree Havana and being served frozen daiquiris upon arrival, the South Dakotans reacted to the trip with wonderment. “I’ve never even seen the sea before,” Bob Ashley, a 6‐foot‐10 center from the Sioux tribe, told The Times.
Mr. Abourezk brought his dissident sensibility most vocally to issues involving the Middle East, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a 1975 article for The Times, he argued, “No settlement can come about and no peace can endure unless the Palestinians have been settled in a homeland of their own.”
The next year provided another occasion for him to vote against the rest of the Senate. The issue was a measure to cut off foreign aid to nations that harbored international terrorists. Mr. Abourezk said that the amendment was aimed at Arab terrorists but had no provisions for what he termed terrorist acts by the Israeli military.
Some opposed his appearance at a 1977 Democratic dinner in Denver on the grounds that he was too critical of Israel. He replied, “Just as we have seen U.S. Presidents wrap themselves in the American flag in efforts to stifle criticism of their policies, so do we see a foreign country wrapping itself in its state religion, so that criticism of the state or its policies is perceived as a form of racism.”
After leaving the Senate, he became “Iran’s Man in Washington,” as The Times labeled him in 1979, serving as counsel for the Iranian Embassy and seeking to recoup money that the Islamic Republic said had been stolen by the Shah. He also founded the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which drew attention to prejudicial treatment of Arabs by the government and in everyday life.
James George Abourezk was born on Feb. 24, 1931, in Wood, S.D. He grew up there and in Mission, two tiny towns that were on the Rosebud Indian Reservation of southern South Dakota. His father, Charles, had moved to the United States from Lebanon as a peddler in 1898 and managed to open general stores in Wood and Mission. His mother, Lena (Mickel) Abourezk, a Lebanese Greek Orthodox immigrant like her husband, ran the family store in Wood, while Charles managed the one in Mission.
Mr. Abourezk served for four years in the Navy. He got a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and in 1966 he earned a law degree from the University of South Dakota School of Law.
Before entering politics, Mr. Abourezk worked as a farmhand, wholesale grocery salesman, car salesman, bartender and bar owner. He became passionate about politics after a family doctor lent him copies of I.F. Stone’s Weekly, The Nation and The New Republic.
Mr. Abourezk’s marriages to Mary Ann Houlton and Margaret Bethea ended in divorce. He married Sanaa Dieb in 1991. She survives him, along with Alya, their daughter; two sons, Charlie and Paul, and a daughter, Nikki Pipe On Head, from his first marriage; a stepdaughter, Chesley Machado; more than 30 grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.
Mr. Abourezk’s wife runs Sanaa’s Gourmet Mediterranean, a restaurant in Sioux Falls that The Times credited in 2014 with kicking off “an epicurean trend” in the city. In 2019, when he was 89, The Aberdeen News reported that Mr. Abourezk enjoyed holding court at the restaurant, telling stories of his colorful life and sharing his views on politics.
He suggested to The Capital Journal a way to ensure more independent-minded legislators such as himself: term limits.
“If a member of Congress is not worried about getting re-elected, he or she will more often than not vote in the public interest rather than in his or her own electoral interest, which is now what happens,” he said.
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