When the Rev. A. Knighton Stanley and the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks, two prominent Washington ministers, boarded a plane last Sunday for the Middle East, their destination was not Israel but Syria and Lebanon.
The trip, as members of a delagation representing the National Black Pastors Conference, is but the latest example of a major drive by Arabs to win friends within the American black community.
This effort has, if anything, intensified since the public furor that erupted between black leaders and the American Jewish community four months ago following the resignation of former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young. Many blacks continue privately to feel Israel forced Young's resignation. And while the public recriminations have died down, blacks have begun drifting away from their traditionally strong alliance with the American Jewish community.
Arab governments, meanwhile, have sought to capitalize on this trend.
"We are seeking support on the Palestinian issue, we are orienting blacks objectively about Arab life, and we are [exploring] those interests that we have in common," said Yassar Askari, Syrian minister of Foreign Affairs and director of the Arab Information Center.
"Our contracts are better, wider than before," Askari said. "The contracts with black leaders had begun before the resignation, but the Young affair gave it more publicity and pushed relations forward."
A noticeably larger number of black leaders are seen now at Arab diplomatic functions here and in New York City. More black religious and business leaders have accepted invitations to visit Arab nations and Arab-American organizations have hosted well-attended joint business conferences and stepped up contracts with the black bar association.
The government of Kuwait also made friends in the black community by donating $100,000 to the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change in Atlanta.
Hyman Bookbinder, Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, said his organization is aware that Arabs "are trying harder than ever [to influence public opinion."]
"I don't think they are having much success other than in the universities and among third world groups," Bookbinder said. "But we made a mistake a long time ago when we thought that the Arab propaganda machine was incompetent, not well organized."
"They are now well organized, well financed," he added. "We're out there trying to counteract that."
The Arab attempt to broaden support among black leadership, expecially on the Palestinian homeland issue, represents a new strategy.
Black leaders, for their part, are anxious to gain more experience and knowledge in the areas of international business and foreign affairs.
Franklin Williams, director of the Phelps-Stokes (educational development) Fund and former U.S. ambassador at Ghana, said he also has noticed that social contracts between blacks and Arabs are increasing.
"Large numbers of blacks find themselves on invitation lists, diplomatic lists, probably more than ever before," said Williams.
Carl T. Rowan, a syndicated columnist, said: "You go to parties of these various embassies and you will see more black Americans than you've ever seen before. What you've got is a little contest inside the major contest of winning American public attention. It's a contest of winning black public opinion. It has increased to the point that it's becoming very obvious."
For many years the American Jewish community enjoyed a close relationship with blacks, building strong ties in civil rights efforts.
But Young's resignation last Sept. 23, following an unauthorized meeting he had with a Palestinian Liberation Organization representative, sorely strained relations between black leaders and the American Jewish community, which largely opposes any U.S. contact with the PLO.
Many black leaders were angry about Young's resignation, viewing it as an Israeli-directed attack on black leadership and an attempt by American Jewish leaders to prevent blacks from expressing views and exercising policy-making roles in foreign affairs.
In a stinging manifesto endorsed by every major black political, religious and social organization, blacks said American Jews should no longer take their support for granted.
According to several black leaders, Young's resignation created an atmosphere in which black leaders have since increasingly sought opportunities to broaden their expertise beyond domestic concerns.
Nine prominent black businessmen here, members of the D.C. Chamaber of Commerce, joined a Chamber-sponsored trip to Cairo.
"All of the 13 firms represented came back with letters of intent or joint venture contracts," said Ed Van Kloberg, a Chamber spokesman. "Within the past six months, Arab embassies have called us asking us to recommend names of prominent black businessmen in the Washington area. We have provided them with names. There is an element of black business moving out into the international arena."
John Richardson, a spokesman for the National Association of Arab-American University Graduates, said his organization held a conference with black business officials and executives and Arab trade representatives at the Hyatt Regency Hotel here in November.
"The objective was to try to give black business executives some useful guidelines about who to proceed to make contact with in Arab markets," Richardson said.
"We've had ties with black leaders for some time, but what's new now is that black leadership has come forward," said James Zogby, spokesman for the Palestine Human Rights Campaign. "Blacks are asserting themselves in being an independent voice in foreign policy."