Posted on March 01, 1993 in Washington Watch

I am taking a brief detour from the type of articles I have been writing, in order to reflect for a moment on political developments in the Arab American community.

Consideration of these events is important because they help to shed light not only on the problems my community is facing, but also help to reveal the nature of the American political process and the nature of the political work that must be done to bring about real shifts in U.S. policy. There are those who focus primarily on the relative weakness of Arab American organizations and/or on some divisions that exist in our community. However, it is more instructive and useful to take a different view.

Twenty-five years ago there were no Arab American organizations and very few people of Arab descent in this country who identified themselves as Arab Americans. By contrast, there are today a number of national Arab American organizations, each with its own specialized skills, but most with overlapping memberships. There is a lobby (the National Association of Arab Americans), a civil rights group (the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee); there are professional associations for academics (the Association of Arab American University Graduates), doctors (the Arab American Medical Association), lawyers (the Arab American Bar Association), businessmen (Arab-American Business and Professional Association); and there are political and policy organizations (the Arab American Institute and its associate Arab American Leadership Council of Arab American elected and appointed officials).

Twenty-five years ago most Arab Americans either assimilated and forgot their ancestry, identified primarily with their villages or churches, or belonged only to groups they brought with them from the Arab world. Today, increasingly, people of Arab descent define themselves as Arab Americans and, at major community events around the U.S., those in attendance represent Arab Americans of every generation and descendants from every country in the Arabic-speaking world.

Another set of examples makes the same point. In 1972, a small group of Arab Americans to which I belonged endorsed the Democratic nominee for President, George McGovern. The endorsement was never received by McGovern because one of his campaign staffers refused the endorsement as “something we do not want.” In 1976, the Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter created an “Arab Americans for Carter” committee to support his campaign. It lasted only three days before Carter was forced to disband it under pressure.

In 1980 President Carter’s reelection committee and the Republican nominee Ronald Reagan’s committee both had small and ineffectual Syrian-Lebanese committees to support their campaigns. But in 1984 Reagan’s reelection campaign team saw the tremendous outpouring of Arab American support for the failed candidacy of democrat Jesse Jackson, and decided to create an Arab Americans for Reagan-Bush committee. Of the 42 ethnic committees formed by the Reagan-Bush team, the Arab American group proved to be the most effective, and in appreciation President Reagan invited a group of Arab American leaders to the White House to congratulate them for their work.

This year, for the first time in our country’s history, both the Democratic and Republican Presidential campaigns had officially recognized Arab American committees, and hired Arab Americans as campaign staffers. And since this past election, Arab Americans have been hired by the new Administration (with more under consideration), have met regularly with White House and State Department officials, have prepared briefing papers on policy and have met with other cabinet-level officials and party leaders.

In a recent two-week period Arab American representatives have met with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to discuss health care needs of recent Arab American immigrants, the FBI Director William Sessions to discuss Arab American civil rights concerns, high-level State Department and White House officials to discuss the peace process and the issue of the Palestinian expellees. Our representatives have also met with Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell to discuss securing his assistance for Arab Americans seeking government appointments in the new Administration and also to discuss increasing aid to Lebanon and Bosnia. There have also been meetings with ten other senators and members of Congress, and a small group of Arab Americans traveled to New York City to meet with UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali on the issue of the Palestinian expellees.

I have chosen to present these lists in order to establish a simple point: there has been and continues be real progress toward political empowerment in our community. Simply having a meeting is no guarantee of influence over major policy decisions—but all of these meetings show that Arab Americans today are recognized and accepted as an important constituent group that must be included in the policy debate. And meetings, if carefully prepared for and properly conducted, can lead to invitations to future meetings and meetings with other people and, eventually, greater input into policy-level decision-making. This presentation helps to set the stage for an intriguing debate now underway in the Arab American community.

There are some who quite simply do not see the progress or, to put it more precisely, who do not grasp the idea that progress is a process. As the cliché goes, politics is the art of the possible. Real politics—whether it’s local, national or international—is not about what you deserve or even what you genuinely need; it is, rather, about what you have earned and what you have the power to demand.

There are voices in the Arab American community (and, I daresay, in the Arab world as well) who perceive every setback as a reason to turn and walk away from the political process altogether. This rejectionist attitude has recently appeared in a segment of the Arab American community in response to some actions by the new Clinton Administration.

Following Clinton’s appointment of some supporters of Israel to government posts and after the U.S.-Israeli deal on the expulsions, some Arab Americans sent a letter of denunciation to the Administration. The same group took another step in the same direction by denouncing other Arab Americans who are attempting to take advantage of openings to work with the new Administration on matters of concern to our community. They have gone even further by denouncing two major Arab American organizations and accusing them of having accomplished nothing for the community. This group has rejected the strategy of participation in the political process and arguing instead that political abstention is the best course for the Arab American community in the future.

There are three fundamental critiques to be made of the views of this small but vocal group. First, and most obvious, is their failure to recognize the real progress that Arab Americans have made in the past twenty-five years while following the path of political participation.

We have not yet solved the Palestine problem, nor have we equaled the effectiveness and influence of the pro-Israel community. But we have created a community and institutions that have gained increasing respect on the national and local levels. We have also organized Arab Americans to the point where they are able to make a positive difference in their communities and in their daily lives. Today there are 400 Arab Americans serving as either elected or appointed officials on boards and commissions which help our community to meet a wide range of local needs, including education, business, health care, civil rights and other social services.

At the same time, we have used this increasing recognition and respect to position ourselves to influence the debate on the foreign policy concerns of our community. Gone are the days when Israelis and American Jews alone appeared in the media to discuss Middle East issues. At every Senate and Congressional hearing, on every television and radio debate, and now even at major party conventions both sides of the Middle East debate are heard. Arab Americans have not yet been able to win many of these debates, but we have succeeded in shaping them.

Politics is a process, and Arab Americans are part of the process. To take an all-or-nothing attitude, to become an angry rejectionist who walks away from the process because the maximalist demands went unmet is wrong. It is wrong both because it denies and throws away gains that have already been made—the gains that got you into the debate in the first place—and because it removes you from the very place you need to be in order to effect change.

The second critique with the rejectionist approach in the Arab American community lies with the vehemence with which their arguments are made, and their concurrent tendency to deny legitimacy to any divergent opinion.

This aspect of the rejectionist problem became especially acute during the Gulf war. At least two of the major national Arab American organizations (NAAA and AAI) supported the four goals outlined by President Bush when he ordered the deployment of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. In so doing we were trying to take a course we knew was right: we couldn’t support or condone the occupation of Kuwait, nor could we allow ourselves to be opened to the double-standard argument of being soft against the occupation of Kuwait but strong against the occupation of Palestine. Our position also happened to be the position supported by the overwhelming majority of Arab Americans and Arabs.

The rejectionists in our community could neither accept nor understand these realities, primarily because they do not fully comprehend the composition of the Arab American community. Our community is two and a half million strong, with eighty percent having been born here, and the majority of this group are second-generation. The overall majority are Lebanese and Syrian, and the second largest group is Egyptian. There are also large groups of Palestinians, Iraqis, Yemenis, and Jordanians. In December of 1990 the U.S.’ largest newspaper, USA Today, sponsored a scientific survey of Arab American attitudes toward the Gulf conflict; and 82% of all Arab Americans supported the policy of President Bush.

We knew that there were Arab Americans in the U.S. military, Arab American mayors whose cities were home to large military communities. But the rejectionists were not content to simply dismiss our viewpoint, but instead branded it illegitimate and traitorous. They turn reality on its head when they claimed, and still do, that we were “out of touch with the majority of all Arab Americans”, and that we had lost all credibility in the community. The outcome of this claim is that, from the rejectionist point of view, the more than two million people of Arab descent who didn’t agree with their position were something other than Arab American.

This was quite painful to those of us who believe in building bridges within our community in order to make it as strong as possible. We understand that there are differences of opinion in our community. We may—and do—disagree but we insist upon the need to debate these differences and to treat one another with respect. Name-calling and casting-out our enemies from the community certainly stifles debate, but denying legitimacy to the opposing point of view eliminates the very possibility of debate. All that is left is one or another form of violence and division, which those who opt for participation and dialogue find wrong and destructive and inhibits efforts to strengthen the community.

The rejectionists have forgotten the story of an old patriarch who calls his twelve sons to his deathbed, telling each of them to bring a twig. The father then hands a twig of his own to his elder son and commands him to break it, which the strong son does quite easily. The father then commands each of his sons to hand their twigs to the eldest. This time when he commands the eldest son to break the twigs, he is unable; and the father tells his sons that together they will be strong, but apart they will be broken like the single twig. Many ethnic communities in this country have internalized that lesson, but the rejectionist in the Arab American community have not.

The third critique of the rejectionist approach to U.S. politics is that it is anti-political. It in effect calls for people to reject the political process and denies the basic reality of the process. While the rejectionists are in a room passing resolutions damning views and people they don’t agree with, the real political process goes on and policy gets made without them. We have a saying in America, that “You can’t win if you don’t play the game.” One of the reasons that Arab Americans have lost the policy debate in the past is due to the simple fact that the pro-Israel team was alone on the field. Now, for the first time, Arab Americans are actually playing and though we’re not yet winning we are scoring some goals. The problem we face is that some of our teammates, whose help we need, refuse to get on the field with us.

Because he understood from his own experience the problems facing Arab Americans who tried to get involved in a political process in which they weren’t always welcome, Jesse Jackson once advised me, “Don’t walk away from the fight. the biggest threat you pose to those who oppose you (meaning in this case the pro-Israel forces in the Democratic party) is not that you’ll leave, but that you’ll stay and fight.

In the early 1970’s I learned an important lesson from one of my heroes in the U.S. civil rights movement. Julian Bond, a young African American leader, said to me:

“There are two types of people. There are those who look at racism and oppression and say, `it’s got to get a lot worse before it gets any better’, and those who say `I’ve got to work a little at a time to make it better.’

“I’m with the second group,” he said, “because to take the first view is to allow too many people to continue to suffer unnecessarily while refusing to do anything to help them.”

I suppose it’s fair to say that the Arab Americans who are working in the political system share Bond’s view. We are as well aware of how much progress we’ve already made as how much progress we have yet to make. We are willing and eager to debate with those who hold other points of view. But we are neither willing nor eager to give up on the path to political empowerment, because to do so would leave too many people—in our community and in the land of our fathers—to suffer unnecessarily while we do nothing to help them.

I hope that this little detour from my regular articles has been instructive of the progress Arab Americans are making and the problems we are facing. I hope, too, that it has also been helpful.

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