Posted on January 06, 2003 in Washington Watch

It was twenty-five years ago that I first came to Washington to begin working full-time on behalf of my community. During the past two and a half decades so much has changed. As we begin a new year and prepare to deal with the many pressing issues that crowd our agenda in 2003, it is important to make note of the progress we’ve made and how that progress has enabled us to meet the demanding challenges we will face.

On reflection, perhaps the most significant development that marks Arab American progress over the past 25 years has been the very establishment of the community itself.

When I moved to Washington in 1978 to run the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC), I was one of but a handful of Arab Americans working in a few small Arab American organizations. The combined membership of all of those organizations was only a few thousand. And most Americans of Arab descent did not identify themselves as Arab Americans. To a degree this was due to the newness of the concept. The bulk of the community, were descendants of the early 20th century immigrants from Syrian and Lebanon. Their departures to America had predated the development of the modern Arab national movement. Other factors, which complicated the emergence of an “Arab American” identity were the devastating civil war in Lebanon and the post-Camp David rupture, both of which took a toll on community building.

Today, on the other hand, there is a strong and growing Arab American identity (a recent poll show that more than half of all Americans of Arab descent describe themselves as “Arab American”), and there are national and local organizations that have contributed to establishing a presence for the community. The combined membership of these efforts are in the many tens of thousands and at any point in time over 100 Arab Americans are employed in various forms of service in one of these community organizations.

The fact is that today Arab Americans are established, recognized and included at all levels. That was not always the case. A few examples will suffice to make this point. In 1978, I was invited to the White House to participate in an ethnic leadership meeting with then Vice-President Walter Mondale. Three days after the meeting, I was called by the White House and told that I would not be invited back, because they had received objections to the inclusion of an “Arab” in the gathering. In 1979, the PHRC, which I headed, applied for membership in a Washington-based foreign policy coalition. We were rejected, because some groups felt that our inclusion would be “too controversial.” Finally, in the early to mid-1980s, candidates for political office and the major political parties either rejected contribution for Arab Americans or attacked others for accepting support from activists from our community. Neither political party had an outreach effort to Arab Americans, preferring less controversial “Lebanese” or “Syrian-Lebanese” efforts.

Today, all of this has changed. Arab Americans are fully recognized by both major political parties and included in all coalition efforts dealing with foreign and domestic policy concerns. It is, for me, a point of personal satisfaction that I now serve as co-convenor of the ethnic leadership council in the Democratic party and that my colleague, George Salem, Chair of the Arab American Institute (AAI), serves as Chair of the Arab American outreach effort of the Republican party. In this respect, it is also worth noting that Ralph Nader, a proud Arab American, ran as the presidential candidate of the Green Party in 2000.

Arab American inclusion has meant that the community and its leadership now have the opportunity to engage in the policy debates on all levels. While some are justifiably concerned that our views are not always heard or are not strong enough to win the day, Arab Americans are part of the debate on domestic and foreign policy issues. We may not win, but in many instances we have been able to shape these debates or, at the very least, warn of the consequences of ignoring legitimate concerns we have raised.

Twenty-five years ago, the still fledgling Arab American community had little national institutional structure and, therefore, no ability to meet basic community needs. Today, on the other hand, Arab American organizations have the ability to: combat and correct negative stereotypes in the media, in educational institutions and in public forums; serve as recognized spokespeople of Arab American concerns; provide support for community members seeking advancement in political life; register, educate and organize Arab American voters; provide direct social services to recent immigrants in need and advocate on behalf of their needs; and lobby on a range of issues on the national and local levels. Organizations like the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the Arab American Institute (AAI), the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) and the Arab American Chamber of Commerce (AACC), and many others are today recognized as effective entities acting to meet Arab American needs.

The record of these Arab American organizations in response to the terrible tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 speaks volumes of their ability to support the community and act in defense of its needs. As detailed in the new report, Healing the Nation (available online at www.aaiusa.org), Arab Americans were able to meet the challenge of this crisis and act effectively to: give a voice to Arab American concerns; win support for the community from a broad coalition of other American organizations; defend Arab Americans against discrimination; and debate our country’s foreign and domestic policy response to this crisis.

Even with this past progress, there is no doubt that Arab Americans will face some of the most serious challenges in our history in the coming year. The continued threat to civil liberties at home, the danger of an expanded Middle East war, the dramatic deterioration of living conditions in the Occupied Territories, and the continued assault on Islam and US-Arab relations–all of these issues will confront our community-based organizations in 2003.

Are we up to meeting these challenges? I believe we are. Looking back at where we were 25 years ago, the storms we have weathered, and how we have grown, I believe that we will continue to do all that is in our power to defend our community and to have our voices heard. The challenges seem to grow, but we get smarter and stronger: that’s the story of the past 25 years.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org or www.aaiusa.org.

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