In 1956, I attended a lecture at International House in New York City. The guest speaker was Lebanon’s ambassador to the United Nations and former Lebanese ambassador to the United States. Subsequently, two years later he became Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Land of the Cedars as Lebanon has been known for centuries.
Dr. Charles Habib Malik was a Greek Orthodox Christian, a theologian, a university professor and a world-renowned diplomat. I used to compare his brilliant speeches with those of Israel’s Abba Eban.
Dr. Malik was educated in Lebanon and the United States where he earned a Masters Degree and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Harvard University.
He came from a highly educated and wealthy Lebanese family. His father, Habib, was a doctor of medicine and his brother Ramzi was a Catholic priest, a true friend of Jewish people who called the Jews “our elder brothers”. Anti-Semitism did not exist in the Malik family.
Anti-Israel feelings were another matter. Lebanon and Israel had been at war since 1948 and Dr. Charles Malik, Lebanon’s son, defended his country’s role in the war against the Zionist enemy.
Lebanon, in earlier years, was the gem of the Middle East. It had often been called “the Switzerland of the Middle East”. Wealthy Arabs, princes and kings of other Arab countries flocked to vacation in Lebanon, enjoying the luxury of the Phoenicia Hotel and the many casinos in Beirut.
The Land of the Cedars is remarkably beautiful. It is the only Middle East country that has no desert. Everything is green and lush and the trees and blossoms spread their perfume throughout the land.
Until the rise of Muslim extremism, the beaches in Lebanon were always crowded by hundreds of young women in bikinis, an attraction for the Muslim kings of neighboring Arab countries.
Cafes and bars served alcoholic beverages together with exquisite French cuisine. The Lebanese were a highly cultured people. One of my most favorite poets is the Lebanese Khalil Jibran. His poetic and nostalgic book about his love of his country, THE PROPHET, is one of the classics of the 20th century describing love, morality, brotherhood, friendship, and faith in God.
So I was excited to learn that Dr. Malik would be giving a lecture and answering questions. At the end of his hour-long address, he opened the floor to questions. When it was my turn to ask, I made a brief statement rather than asking a question.
“Mr. Ambassador, in the midst of the conflicts between the Arab states and Israel, it is my great hope that Lebanon will be the first country to sign a peace treaty with Israel”.
It has been 62 years from that meeting and I cannot remember all of his reply but I do remember what I considered to be an Arab response. “There can be no peace with Israel until the hundreds of thousands of Palestine refugees who fled from the attacks upon them by Israeli forces are permitted to return to their homes and lands.”
It was a response typical of its time and has not changed over the many decades. But I continued with my question. “Mr. Ambassador, the refugees who fled to brotherly Arab states are forced to live in squalid camps and are denied the rights of citizenship by all the Arab countries to which they fled. Why is that?”
His simple reply was “the Palestinians have not expressed any wish to become citizens of Jordan, Syria or of my country, Lebanon. They wish to remain Palestinians and to return only to their homes in occupied lands held by Israel”.
It is almost 70 years and nothing has changed.
The brilliant diplomat and statesman of the Land of the Cedar Trees returned to his country in 1958 to serve as Foreign Minister. He died in 1987.
And a dream of peace between our two countries has sadly never been realized.