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Casey Kasem, Arab-American Child of American Dream

casey kasemI met Casey Kasem in 1984.  I was then working in my first job, as a fundraiser and regional director for New Jewish Agenda in Los Angeles.  One of my main goals was to host a gala fundraiser for the grassroots group, which was always living financially from hand to mouth. NJA was the most radical Jewish organization on the national scene.  It supported gay rights when almost no one outside the gay community did.  It supported a two-state solution when no Jews, let alone Jewish organizations did.  It supported the Central American Sanctuary movement when it was targeted by Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department.

NJA was so controversial that when local JDL killers murdered the Arab American Anti Discrimination Committee’s regional director, Alex Odeh, we put an ad in the Jewish Journal mourning his loss.  The result was a threatening phone message from one of the killers saying we’d end up “like that dead sand Nigger.”  That was the first time I’ve ever willingly invited the FBI to speak to me.  I did so because the call came to my office and I didn’t know how much danger I faced by being there.  Other members of the organization disagreed with my cooperation; and I’d probably have a lawyer present if I had to do it again.  But when one’s life is in danger, and one doesn’t have much experience with such things, one does as I did.

It was in this context that I set about organizing NJA’s first major fundraising event.  I can’t even remember how we got to talking about Casey Kasem.  But someone suggested asking him and we did.  And he was extraordinarily gracious and kind.  He invited us to his sumptuous Beverly Hills palace of a home where we briefed him about the event.  That’s where I first heard his personal story: the child of Lebanese immigrants, he grew up near Detroit in its large Arab-American community.  I don’t recall whether he told me how he came from the Midwest to Los Angeles.  But in 1970 he got his big break and his show, America’s Top 40, went national.

In 1984, Casey was at the height of his popularity.  All the more reason to acknowledge that his embrace of this fledgling Jewish group of ‘rabble-rousers’ was an extraordinary thing.  In Hollywood, celebrities dish out their popularity in teaspoons on behalf of charities.  If you have even a whiff of controversy, you’re generally avoided.  Casey didn’t care about any of that.  He did what he thought was right and he liked what we were doing.

Growing up a poor Arab-American kid, he hated what happened to his country and the hatred between Israelis and Jews.  Today, perhaps he might be seen as a liberal dreamer.  He certainly was no radical.  But he was reasonable and decent and saw no reason why Arabs and Jews shouldn’t try to find what they had in common instead of what drove them apart.  In those days, that made Casey a totally out-of-the-box personality.

Another amazing figure in the Los Angeles of that time was Rabbi Marshall Meyer.  He was the dean of the Conservative Jewish rabbinical seminary in Argentina during the military junta, which he detested.  After the overthrow of the junta, he came to Los Angeles to be vice president at what was then the University of Judaism.  I don’t think Marshall was terribly happy.  The UJ wasn’t exactly a hotbed of activism.  It was more a sleepy rabbinical outpost.

He later left to become the founding rabbi of Bnai Jeshurun.  The amazing hotbed of Westside Jewish life would never have become what it is today without Marshall’s passion, charisma and towering moral stature.  Unfortunately, Marshall died way to early.  But he left a huge legacy of rabbinical moral activism.

We approached Marshall about joining Casey as our honorees.  They both agreed.  The president of the Beverly Hills Design Center agreed to host our event at his lovely home.  We went from being an “out there” group to being on the cutting edge of Jewish cool.  Perhaps we were on the far cutting edge, but we were a force to be reckoned with.  On the strength of Marshall and Casey’s reputations we broke into some liberal Hollywood celebrities consciousnesses like Richard Dreyfuss, Ed Asner, and others.  It was a fabulous event and put us on the map.

Now Casey is gone.  But like Marshall, Casey leaves a tremendous legacy of kindness and sympathy for the downtrodden.  He is a true representative of the American Dream.  I know he’d be tickled by the NY Times obituary headline which called him “an American voice.”  For this child of immigrants to become America’s voice was truly a dream and a privilege.

Our country was blessed to have two such amazing figures as Casey Kasem and Marshall Meyer.  My life too was blessed to have known them.

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{ 27 comments… add one }
  • Lou June 16, 2014, 11:22 PM

    Why do you say that Kasem grew up poor?

  • Greta Berlin, Free Gaza movement June 17, 2014, 12:38 AM

    Wonderful tribute, Richard. Just one correction. Casey Kasem was Palestinian. His parents fled British occupied Palestine and moved to Lebanon. He was an amazing man, once said that it was easier being Lebanese than being Palestinian, but he was proud of his heritage. Many of us from Los Angeles marched with him when demonstrating against the war in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. He was a tiny man with a huge voice which is, sadly, now silenced

    • Lou June 17, 2014, 2:11 AM

      @Greta

      The obits say that Kasem’s family were Druze. Is that the same thing as ‘Palestinian’?

      • Greta Berlin, Free Gaza movement June 17, 2014, 2:27 AM

        They were druze from what we’ve read, and Palestinians can be druze. There are thousands of them. His parents were from the British occupied mandate of Palestine. They moved to Lebanon, then to Detroit

        • Lou June 17, 2014, 3:54 AM

          Obits say he was born in Detroit in 1932.

          • Elisabeth June 17, 2014, 6:31 AM

            Right Lou, we was not Palestinian at all, sure.
            They are an invented people anyway.
            Satisfied now?

          • ben June 17, 2014, 1:14 PM

            This is the link that wiki sites http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/PersonOfWeek/story?id=131840&page=1#.TwD3OTWJerY

            “Kasem didn’t always want to be a disc jockey. Born Kemal Amin Kasem in Detroit to Lebanese immigrant parents, he originally wanted to be a baseball player and an actor. But Kasem seemed to gravitate toward radio, starting his own radio sports show in high school.”

            Seems lou is correct. Or are you saying his family was from the British mandate then moved to Lebanon and then the usa? If so why wouldn’t the article just say he was palestinian? https://music.yahoo.com/blogs/music-news/radio-legend-casey-kasem-dead-at-82-171146403.html
            This article says that he was palestinian.

            So I’m unsure anyone have any better links then news articles?
            If he was Palestinian I think thats great he was a real positive role model.
            I wonder if there will be a school or road named after him in the OPT considering some people they have honored it would be nice to see someone who had a positive impact honored.

          • Richard Silverstein June 17, 2014, 1:48 PM

            Why would you ask Palestine to name a street for him? In fact, since his family came from Israel, I’d urge you to recommend a street be named for him either in the village from which it came; or if it was one of the 400 destroyed during Nakba , let it be in the nearest Israeli town.

          • ben June 17, 2014, 3:49 PM

            @Richard thats a great idea. Tbh I figured that typically israeli arabs refer to themselves as palestinian, thus it would be logical for them to have the honor… but totally in Israel too… that would be pretty cool. Perhaps name a media school in israel after him too…

          • Richard Silverstein June 17, 2014, 10:16 PM

            Why would any Israeli Palestinian prefer being honored by Palestine than by his native country, which is Israel. Look up the Israeli street naming authority and suggest this to them if you’re aren’t just blowin’ smoke in what you wrote.

    • Pat Nguyen June 17, 2014, 4:13 PM

      Sounds like he chose not to identify as a. Palestinian. Why are you trying to co-op his corpse for your cause?

      • Richard Silverstein June 17, 2014, 4:25 PM

        @ Pat: That’s an absolutely idiotic statement. Of course he identified. Why do you think he agreed to be guest of honor at my event? His problem was that he was a national celebrity and believed that if he was too strident or exposed due to his ethnic identity it might detract from the role he played before the public.

        I find the crack about his corpse to be deeply offensive. Try that again & you’ll be moderated.

  • Marcos June 17, 2014, 1:15 PM

    The Druze as a community who live in Israel have supported the state since its founding. Members of the community serve in the IDF.

    • Richard Silverstein June 17, 2014, 1:54 PM

      There is no such thing as any Israeli ethnic community believing one thing. There are Druze who embrace Israel & Druze who reject it. There are Druze who serve in the IDF & those who never would.

    • Deïr Yassin June 17, 2014, 2:08 PM

      Yeah, Marcos, we know the hasbara ! You also mean people like the poet Samîh al-Qâsim, maybe a cousin of Casey Kasem (the Arabic ‘q’ is often transcribed as ‘k’). Druze serve in the Israeli army because they’re obliged too (since 1956) and Druze objectors are more heavily sanctioned than Jewish objectors. Do you know that Omar Saad, the young Druze musician from the Galilee who played with Nigel Kennedy in Royal Albert Hall last summer, the guy who wrote a letter to Bibi saying that he’s not going to serve in the Israeli army against his own people is actually in prison. Since 1956, an average of 3-4 Druze have constantly been in prison for refusing to serve in the army. And you ain’t seen nothing yet !

      • Pat Nguyen June 20, 2014, 8:19 PM

        Good news! Omar Saad has been released from his civic duties. Let’s see what he does with the rest of his life. Hopefully, he will stop being annoying

        • Richard Silverstein June 21, 2014, 1:41 AM

          @ Pat Nguyen: Since when is it a “civic duty” for a member of a despised Israeli minority to serve in an Occupation army and kill his fellow Palestinians? As for being annoying–a man going to prison for what he believes and standing up for principles is only “annoying” to a member of the class oppressing him. Omar is a gifted musician who has had great accomplishments. I wish in your life you had half his accomplishments, but I doubt you do or will.

          • Pat Nyguyen June 21, 2014, 1:32 PM

            Thank you Richard for your kind wishes. If we ever meet, you would be impressed

          • Richard Silverstein June 21, 2014, 7:37 PM

            @ Pat Nguyen: “Impressed?” From the evidence of your “accomplishments” here, not in the least.

          • Pat Nyguyen June 21, 2014, 1:34 PM

            I am not sure who despised the Druze or the Circassian communities as they have integrated fairly well into Israeli society. Perhaps you do because they tend to reject the victim narrative

          • Richard Silverstein June 21, 2014, 7:41 PM

            @ Pat Nguyen: The Druze “integrated fairly well into Israeli society??” Are you daft? What you really mean is that Druze perform highly useful tasks in the IDF. Have you ever visited a Druze village? Have you seen how those IDF veterans live after the army is done with them? You clearly know nothing about the quality of life for Druze in Israel.

            They are just as much victims of the Israeli Jewish majority as other Israeli Palestinians. Many Druze are rejecting enlistment in the IDF as non-Jews become increasingly alienated from the Jewish majority, which enjoys superior rights and opportunities.

  • Deïr Yassin June 17, 2014, 1:54 PM

    Casey Kasem indeed had Palestinian ancestry. Lou who’s speaking about him being Druze should really read a book or two about the ethnic diversity of Palestine. Maybe she/he thinks the Druze in the Galilee in present-day Israel came down from the sky….
    Arabamericannews is mentioning the Lebanese and Palestinian origin of Kasem
    http://www.arabamericannews.com/news/news/id_2324
    Palestinians hiding their origins is not an uncommun thing just as it isn’t uncommon that Palestinians are told kindly maybe not to mention their origins if they are born somewhere else. You know: “You’re just a Norwegian of Middle Eastern heritage, okay” for the sake of peace in the conference/meeting/party, so not to provoke/irritate/embarass the Israeli/Jewish participants etc (in event having no direct link to the Israeli-Palestinian issue) and I’m NOT joking !

    • Lou June 17, 2014, 9:05 PM

      @Deir

      Don’t the Druze have religious beliefs different from mainstream Islam? Don’t they follow the teaching of a holy man named al Hakim, who lived in the 10th century?

      • Deïr Yassin June 18, 2014, 12:18 AM

        What does Druze religious beliefs have to do with being Palestinian ? Why don’t you stop being a hasbara troll ?

        • Lou June 18, 2014, 2:26 AM

          Why? Because Druze are a religious sect who opted out of mainstream Islam, and the Druze live in Israel, Syria and Lebanon Because if you ask a Druze, ‘Who are you?’, he will probably say, I’m a Druze, or I’m a Syrian or an Israeli, or I’m Lebanese. He will probably not say, ‘I am a Palestinian’.

          • Deïr Yassin June 18, 2014, 6:50 AM

            And you probably don’t know what you’re talking about. The fact is that Casey Kasem rallied Lebanese and Palestinian causes, and you seem not to like it, at least the Palestinian part of it. You know what, we frankly don’t care.
            Why don’t you read this poem by the Druze poet Samih al-Qâsim from the Galilee, he’s one of the greatest poets in the Arab world, he went to prison many times for his political activities. He probably never says “I’m an Israeli”….
            “The End of a Discussion With a Prison-guard”
            Through the eyehole of this little cell of mine
            I can see the trees all smiling at me,
            The rooftops crowded with my family,
            The windows breaking into tears for me
            And prayers for me.
            Through the eyehole of this little cell of mine
            I see your bigger cell just fine.

  • pea June 18, 2014, 2:18 PM

    You might want to read this article in the Jewish Journal and the linked to LA Times Article from 1988 to better understand Kasem’s actual legacy: http://www.jewishjournal.com/foodaism/item/remembering_casey_kasem – I think he will be missed by Jews and Arabs who care about peace, mutual respect and reconciliation…

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