Posted on May 03, 1999 in Washington Watch
My son Joseph is the only Arab American working in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) at the U.S. Department of State. For nearly one year now he has served as Special Assistant to Martin Indyk, the Assistant Secretary of State.
Last week, Joseph was harshly attacked by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), an extremist pro-Likud organization. The attack came not because of something Joseph said or did at his work, but because of two articles he had written before he began working at the State Department.
The ZOA campaign against Joseph was hysterical in tone and predictable in its execution. It is instructive, therefore, to examine this effort, since the pattern is identical to several other campaigns waged by this and other extremist right-wing groups.
The initial ZOA release was entitled “Joseph Zogby, Aide to Martin Indyk, Wrote Articles Harshly Attacking Israel & U.S.–ZOA Urges Dismissal of Biased Aide”.
Denouncing Joseph as my son (the ZOA describes me as “the militant pro-Arab lobbyist”), the release quotes two articles written by Joseph as evidence that he is “biased” and “should be immediately replaced.”
The quotes, when seen in context, in fact, display nothing more than Joseph’s observations and experiences after living for two years in the West Bank, while running the Palestine Peace Project (PPP), a project which he founded after graduating from law school. The PPP brought over 40 young American lawyers and law students to the West Bank to do internships with a variety of Palestinian institutions. The PPP won the praise of Palestinians, Israelis, prestigious U.S. law schools and major U.S. foundations that supported its work.
For his commitment to public service and human rights, Joseph received the Robert F. Kennedy Award. This award is given to the graduate of the University of Virginia Law School (Kennedy’s alma mater) that best represents the ideals of the late Senator.
During his time in the West Bank, Joseph became acquainted with the reality of Palestinian life and the profound gaps in perceptions that exist between Palestinians and Israelis and Palestinians and Americans. In an effort to bridge those gaps, Joseph wrote his articles.
The articles were both thoughtful and moving. In them, he attempted to present to an American audience the reality of Palestinian daily life and to expose the contradictions between American popular assumptions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what, in fact, is the relationship between these two peoples–one of whom is a powerful occupier, while the other is still denied basic freedoms as a result of a partially implemented peace agreement.
Throughout Joseph’s articles, he displays a fervent commitment to peace and understanding and the hope that a balanced U.S. approach to the region might facilitate a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The ZOA release quotes Joseph’s articles out of context in an effort to grossly distort their meaning. But even as they appear in the ZOA release, Joseph’s observations are far from extreme. For example, Joseph is quoted as having written:
Palestinians are still living under occupation, packed into squalid refugee camps and suffering from gross violations of their civil, political, economic and social rights.
Today, the Occupied Territories resemble nothing more than South African-style bantustans…terms like ‘apartheid state’…are undeniably accurate.”
Joseph also expresses the hope, “that we, as Americans, can begin to play a more constructive role in bringing an end to the oppression of the Palestinian people.”
According to the ZOA, it is apparently unacceptable to use words like “oppression”, “bantustans”, and “apartheid”.
What the ZOA release ignores is that Joseph’s purpose in writing these pieces was to help his American friends understand what he had seen and what Palestinians were feeling and saying. His overriding concern was to create understanding and bring some balance to the U.S. discussion of Middle East realities.
It is this that the ZOA apparently found so disturbing and offensive. Hence their attack and demand for his dismissal.
It is important to understand, however, that the ZOA does not merely send out releases–they organize campaigns. The ZOA does not seek to point out differences or engage in debate–their goal is to defame and destroy their opponents.
In launching their campaign, the ZOA first targeted mainstream Jewish organizations. Now, while most mainstream groups routinely dismiss the ZOA as extremist, the same groups show deference to the ZOA’s rantings. Because most major Jewish groups want to avoid being accused of being “soft”, all too frequently they allow the ZOA to have their way.
As a result, when interviewed by Jewish reporters as to their reactions to the ZOA’s charges against Joseph, some Jewish leaders, even without reading the full articles, gave their full endorsement. Not only did they agree, but using a familiar tactic, they upped the rhetorical ante. One characterized Joseph’s hiring as “an outrage”; another termed it as “obscene”.
The next group to be suborned to do the ZOA’s bidding were a handful of editorial writers at major U.S. newspapers. For the most part the pieces they wrote were taken almost verbatim from ZOA releases (including factual errors), but they too accelerated the rhetorical charges.
Thus in the New York Daily News Joseph became “An Israel Hater” and “a virulent foe of Israel”. Joseph was even held to be responsible for what the writer called “Clinton’s tilt toward the Palestinians”.
In a major editorial in the next day’s New York Post, Joseph was characterized as not only “anti-Israel”, but “as anti-American” as well. And the publication in which one of Joseph’s articles appeared was described as “extremely anti-Semitic and filled with messages of hate and bigotry”. Working himself into a hysterical pique, the New York Post writer demands Joseph’s dismissal and decries his hiring in the first place noting “this guy shouldn’t be working as dog catcher”.
Similarly the New Republic terms Joseph “thoroughly hostile to Israel and to American foreign policy.”
What was disturbing about all of this was the extent to which the campaign was accelerated in just three days–without ever having become a news story. The reason was quite simple. The ZOA campaign was a coordinated effort–able to win the accommodation of some Jewish leaders while intimidating others into silence and, at the same time, suborning major newspapers, in advance, to give credence to their campaign.
The final piece, of course, came when right-wing members of Congress joined the fray. Already Congressman Michael Forbes (D-NY) has announced that he was “chagrined and outraged” at Joseph’s presence in the State Department. Said Forbes, “I can’t believe that someone as insensitive as this individual is would be put in this important position.” Forbes announced that he will do the ZOA’s bidding and launch a letter campaign urging other members of Congress to join him in demanding that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright “remove [Joseph] from his position”.
This, then, has been the basic outline of the ZOA’s campaign. It is similar to efforts they have used on previous occasions to silence not only Arab Americans, but even prominent American Jews, whom they determined did not tow their narrow ideological line.
All of this is strikingly similar to “McCarthyism”–the term used to describe the anti-Communist witch-hunt that occurred in the United States in the early 1950s. Left unchecked for too long, McCarthyism destroyed the careers of many innocent, loyal Americans simply because of views they held or ideas they had expressed.
Like McCarthyism, this campaign establishes a rigid litmus test for loyalty. Commenting on Joseph’s case, Abe Foxman, the Executive Director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith said, “there is no room at a U.S. government agency, the State Department, for individuals who publicly advocate antagonistic views of Israel”.
Like McCarthyism, this campaign cloaks itself in absolute self-righteousness. It makes no effort to discuss or debate differences. Rather it seeks to silence debate. By utilizing harsh and excessive rhetorical attacks, this campaign dehumanizes its targets pushing them “beyond the pale”.
If the ZOA were to have suggested that it disagreed with Joseph, then a debate might have ensued. But, by describing his ideas as “repugnant”, obscene”, “distasteful” or “virulent”, they rule out the possibility of debate.
The intent of this campaign is to not only discredit, but to isolate, their opponent forcing others to cower in the face of their rhetorical barrage.
For too many years, Arab Americans have been victims of this kind of onslaught–driven out of the policy debate and rendered, at times, “untouchable”.
To their credit, the State Department has defended Joseph. Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk, while unfairly characterizing some of Joseph’s views as “distasteful and disturbing”, went on to praise him in the following words:
[P]rofessional and exemplary…. Joe has been thoughtful, intelligent and very hard working…. Working with the Palestinians, this young Arab-American experienced their side of the conflict and that was what he wrote about. He wrote in anguish, not in anger. He was certainly critical of Israel and aspects of American policy, but he was not then and is not now an ‘Israel-hater’ as he has been depicted…. Joe Zogby does not have extreme views, as anybody who knows or has worked with him will attest…. We had been so satisfied with his work that we asked him to stay, and we did offer him a promotion…. He has not been fired or ousted, nor will he be.
Joseph has not been removed from his position.
In the end, however, the ZOA campaign is about much more than Joseph. He must be defended, that is clear. But the State Department must respond to this campaign by hiring more, not fewer, Arab Americans; and by engaging in the very serious policy debate that the ZOA seeks to stifle. Already there is an absence of substantive discussion about U.S. Middle East policy and a serious imbalance in appointments both at the State Department and the White House. If anything, this outrageous ZOA campaign ought to prompt the State Department and the country as a whole to address concerns that have for too long been ignored. If America is to play a critical role in the Middle East then the views of Arab Americans must be heard and views critical of Israeli policy and sensitive to Palestinian concerns and understanding of broader Arab realities must be engaged.
And there must be greater diversity in hiring. To be faithful to President Clinton’s commitment to have an Administration that “looks like America”, Arab Americans must be included in policy making at the highest levels. Our experience is too great, our potential contributions too significant and our role, especially at this critical time, too vital to be ignored.
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