Posted on May 15, 2000 in Washington Watch
I was recently sent a copy of a fundraising letter issued by an extreme right-wing Jewish organization. The letter’s appeal was based on a slanderous attack against a number of young Arab American leaders. It was a transparent appeal to fear that sought to halt the advance of Arab Americans and to deny us our right to fully participate in U.S. political life.
Such attacks are not a new phenomenon. They have characterized our entire history of work in the United States.
What is disturbing is the fact that these attacks often times use slanderous negative stereotypes designed to demonize and delegitimize. Equally problematic has been the way that some Jewish groups have sought to portray their attacks against Arab Americans as self-defense–as if our political progress or any criticism we might make of U.S. or Israeli policy would be, in and of itself, anti-Semitic.
The result of all of this has been that our efforts to politically advance have, at times, been made more difficult. We have had to grow in organizational and political sophistication, while at the same time, defending ourselves against attacks on our very legitimacy.
Historical examples abound. For example, when I first came to Washington in the 1970s to run the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC), I was routinely targeted by some Jewish organizations for abuse and attack. Despite the fact that our mission was to defend human rights and we often condemned the use of violence against all civilians, Israelis and Arabs alike, we were called “terrorist supporters”–simply because we defended Palestinian rights. And even though the PHRC was supported by U.S. Christian leaders and leaders in the African American civil rights community, we were frequently described as a “terror-front group” or an “arm of Palestinian propaganda.”
As a result of these attacks, we were excluded from a number of political coalitions. Organizations that worked with the PHRC were threatened and universities and media outlets that invited me to speak were harassed. The goals of these tactics were quite simple–to delegitimize us, to demonize us and to isolate us.
After receiving many threats on my life, in 1980, the Washington office of the PHRC was firebombed.
Shortly thereafter, I co-founded the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and opened its office in Washington. The slanderous, rhetorical attacks and the threats continued. These, too, culminated in violence. In 1985, ADC offices in a number of cities were attacked, and in one instance, resulted in the murder of our West Coast Director, Alex Odeh.
In early 1986, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights responded to my request to hold hearings on violence against Arab Americans. In my testimony I made the following observations:
These acts of violence and threats of violence against Arab American organizations are but part of a larger picture of discrimination, harassment, and intimidation. We can document numerous instances of active political discrimination against Arab Americans, “blacklisting” of Arab American political activists and spokespersons, and efforts to “bait” or taint Arab American leaders and organizations as “terrorist” or “terrorist supporters.”
All of these actions and practices create a climate . . . [which] serve[s] to embolden the political opponents of Arab Americans to the point where, as we have seen, some have escalated their opposition to include acts of violence against Arab Americans and their organizations.”
I will never forget the reaction when I uttered these words. The chairman of the commission, Clarence Pendelton, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, stopped the proceedings and announced that he would ask the commission’s legal counsel to investigate whether or not I should be charged with defaming American Jewish organizations!
During the next few years, some things changed, some stayed the same. For one, Arab Americans grew in organizational and political clout. But the efforts to demonize and isolate us continued.
From the mid-1980s through 1989, organized Arab American efforts were frequently victimized by political exclusion. Some candidates returned Arab American contributions, others rejected Arab American support and endorsements. And some candidates who accepted Arab American involvement in their campaigns were attacked for being pro-Arab.
After a particularly difficult election cycle in the late 1980s during which a half dozen major candidates told me directly that they could not accept Arab American support because they feared pressure from the American Jewish community, we decided to speak out. What many of these candidates had said was that if they allowed Arab Americans to participate in their campaigns that they had been told that they would not only lose American Jewish support but that American Jews would work to defeat them.
Not believing this to be true, I resolved to publicly challenge the myth of the monolithic power of the pro-Israel PAC’s that many politicians feared to confront. The result was that one major Jewish organization denounced me in a mass mailing as an “architect of the new anti-Semitism” and equated me, by name to David Duke (the neo-Nazi) and Lewis Farrakhan.
The 1990s witnessed still greater change and improvement in the political lot of Arab Americans. We increased in organizational ability, we strengthened our political work, and we improved our relationship with other political, ethnic and racial groups, including a number of American Jewish organizations.
Some things, however, tragically did not change. Some hard-line anti-peace groups in the American Jewish community continued to attack our efforts and to demonize us.
When, for example, I opposed the efforts by Congress to include a provision in the anti-terrorism bill that would have allowed the unconstitutional use of secret evidence in court proceedings, I was accused of being “soft on terror.” When I decried the brutality of Israel’s occupation policy and the harm done to Palestinians by “closure” and settlement expansion, some American Jews denounced President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore for continuing to work with me.
And then came the attacks on my son Joseph, who, at the time was working as a Special Assistant in the Near East Affairs Bureau of the Department of State.
Before taking this post, Joseph had authored two rather sensitive and thoughtful articles in which he attempted to describe the difference between Palestinian perceptions of Israel and U.S. policy, and those shared by many of his friends in the United States.
Upon discovering those articles, some Jewish groups launched a full-scale attack against Joseph demanding that he be removed from his post. What was more disturbing about this entire affair was the shameful and, at times, frightening and inciderary rhetoric that was used against Joseph.
When the attacks began, Joseph had already taken a new post at the Department of Justice, in part because he was disillusioned by the State Department and its failure to honor a commitment they had made to him to hire more Arab Americans. Nevertheless, Joseph remained at the State Department until they renewed their commitment to Arab American leaders to hire more Arab Americans.
My criticism of this campaign to demonize and remove my son from his position was called anti-Semitic!–because I noted that he had been the only Arab American working on Middle East issues and I had urged the Administration to be more balanced in its appointments to White House and State Department positions. My call for fairness was crudely transformed into anti-Semitism.
The intensity of the effort to remove Joseph was matched by the campaign against Salam Al-Marayti, an Arab American, Muslim who had been appointed to the Commission on Terrorism. Salam, the Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, a Los Angeles based organization, had developed strong ties of mutual respect with a number of leading California Jewish organizations. Despite this, the national groups were ferocious in their assault on his character and his beliefs.
After witnessing this, I urged a number of Jewish leaders to speak out and call for an end to this campaign of demonization and isolation.
The final blow came when, following the Arab American Institute’s national conference in November 1999, one of these Jewish groups issued a release denouncing Vice President Gore and Senator John McCain for addressing the conference. Their stated reason: two “anti-Israel extremists” had participated in the conference–Joseph and Salam. And in a further acceleration of these campaigns of demonization, the leader of this Jewish group referred to Joseph as “an enemy of the Jewish people.”
I know what such crazed hyperbole can mean, what damage it can do, and what violence it can create. And so once again I wrote to more moderate Jewish leaders urging them to work to stop this campaign of incitement. The result, so far, has been silence.
It was this group that sent out the fund raising appeal I noted at the beginning of this article. Their appeal was based on what they had claimed had been their effectiveness in silencing anti-Israel voices. They bragged about their attacks on Joseph and Salam and told their members to be proud of their accomplishments!
And then they added the observation that one of the lessons of Jewish history was that “repeated slanders are sooner or later followed by violent physical deeds.”
To that hypocritical note I can only add “Amen.” I know because I’ve experienced it–and that is what I am now attempting to stop before yet another generation of Arab Americans has to endure demonization, isolation and even violence.
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