Posted on February 10, 1997 in Washington Watch
Recent revelations about the tragic death of Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s grandparents in Nazi concentrations camps place a number of questions before us.
They are serious questions about sensitive issues and they deserve serious and sensitive discussion.
Firstly, does it matter? Or as a reporter asked me the day this story appeared in the Washington Post, “Will it effect her dealings with the Arab world?”
If anything, I believe, the stories should create greater respect and provoke a degree of compassion for Secretary Albright. It is important for us all to understand the horror that was inflicted on an entire people. It was a horror so great that entire families on a mass scale were exterminated (Albright lost three of her grandparents and at least eight other close relatives in the camps). It was a horror so great that her parents sought to protect her from it by fleeing and inventing a new past so they could create a new life. It must be extraordinarily painful for Secretary Albright to now be faced with this history and the reality of the pain endured by her grandparents and her parents.
Some have crudely said to me, “But she is Jewish,” as if that is a meaningful statement in this context and can be used to explain policy differences they have with the Secretary.
In the first place, Secretary Albright is not Jewish. She is a Christian and a Czech-American. Only to the Nazis or their latter-day adherents could she be considered Jewish. For them it was a matter of race and blood as they hunted down for slaughter individuals who had Jewish ancestors.
In Secretary Albright’s case it is clear. Her family were secular and assimilated Czech patriots. Their conversion to Christianity, even if prompted by persecution, was a real fact in her life.
Religion is not race. A Christian or Jew who converts to Islam is a Muslim. A Jew who converts to Christianity is a Christian.
But even having said this, one must go further and ask if religion or ethnicity or race ought, in any case, to be used as a measure of character or competence.
It should not, and as we have struggled for centuries it the U.S., it must not. With regard to U.S.-Middle East policy, it really does not. In fact, some of the U.S. political leaders who have been most politically hostile to Arab and Arab American concerns have been non-Jews. And conversely, Arab Americans have developed strong working relationships with some American Jews who have been firmly committed to fairness and to building a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.
However, this argument, of necessity, must cut both ways. On one too many occasions some Jewish organizations raised the issue of President Bush’s Chief of Staff John Sununu’s Arab ancestry, as a possible explanation for their concerns with Bush Administration policy. And while only one mention was made of former Senator George Mitchell’s ancestry during the period when he was under consideration for the position of Secretary of State, that alone was apparently sufficient to bring Mitchell to meet with Jewish leaders to affirm his commitment to fairness.
Finally, one must ask that since the principle that religion and ethnicity are and ought to remain irrelevant, why are there no Arab Americans in any State Department or White House foreign policy making roles?
Is it essential that there be Arab Americans in those roles? No, it is not. But should competent Arab Americans be excluded from those roles because of their ethnicity? Again, the answer should be no.
The case I have made to the Clinton Administration in favor of appointing Arab Americans to those posts is not that they would be more competent, but that it is a matter of balance and fairness.
It is also an issue of perception.
It was an Israeli paper that first published an article in which the author expressed surprise and delight over the number of American Jews he found serving in the White House. It was only natural that the article was translated into English and Arabic that the author’s gloating would cause concern among Arabs and Arab Americans.
There are deep differences that divide Arabs from many aspects of U.S. policy and some positions taken by Secretary Albright during her tenure at the United Nations. Those differences were based on policy and fed by perception.
There is a legitimate basis for Arab frustration over the seeming inability of the U.S. to factor Arab concerns on an equal basis with those of the Israelis. Arabs can point to a long history of negative U.S. behavior and establish a compelling case for U.S. insensitivity.
The perception in the Arab world is that for the U.S., Arab rights are not equal to Israeli rights, and Arab fear and suffering are not equal to Israeli fear and suffering.
Recent U.S. silence over the massacre at Qana and passivity in the face of new Israeli land-grabs in the West Bank and heavy-handed behavior in Jerusalem have only served to reinforce the Arab case.
What ultimately shapes U.S. policy on these issues is not the religion or ethnicity of the policy makers but the political pressure that defines the options available to policy makers. This is a fact that Arabs and Arab Americans must understand and upon which we must act.
Rather than raise the irrelevant issues of religion and ancestry of U.S. policy makers, Arabs and Arab Americans must frame their criticism of U.S. policy in clear and direct terms. And Arabs and Arab Americans must organize in support of our concerns.
We must approach Madeline Albright as the new Secretary of State whose job it is to pursue a foreign policy that protects U.S. interests. She is also a person who has known suffering and values human rights . It is for us to present her with a clear and compelling case of our issues and concerns matched by an organized political effort that establishes for her the fact that to protect U.S. interests the U.S. must work for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East that places equal value on the needs and rights of all the people in the region.
It is a case we can make and it is a case, I believe, she can understand.
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