Posted on May 25, 1992 in Washington Watch

This past week I had the opportunity to testify before the Democratic platform drafting committee.

The platform process in both parties is important because it provides a forum for the nation’s key constituencies to debate and negotiate the political parties’ position on a broad range of issues.

Being the only Arab American leader invited to provide testimony was both an honor and a special responsibility. Party platforms have historically been strongly pro-Israel while ignoring foreign policy issues in the wider Middle East. Even the 1988 Republican party platform was so tilted toward Israel that the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC termed it “the best ever.”

The platform drafting process is an important test of the national concerns and the balance of power between competing ideas and groups. While Republicans control the White House, Democrats control both Houses of Congress. Therefore it is important to engage the body of both parties in debate.

This year it is clear that there has been a change in the national debate on the Middle East. Arab Americans have succeeded in working out compromise language in several state political party platforms. And party leaders are now directly involved with Arab American and Jewish American leaders to negotiate compromise formulas to deal with Middle East issues. This negotiating process already represents a victory of sorts in a political arena where in the past only pro-Israel voices were heard.

The Arab American goal in this process is to work toward bi-partisan support for the ongoing peace process. We have also sought to stress broader American responsibilities toward all of our friends and allies in the Arab world; and to promote the diverse needs of the Arab American community which range from full recognition as an ethnic community to protection from political exclusion.

While Arab American testimony took a high road, the testimony of the pro-Israel group AIPAC was typically one-sided and single-issue focused.

What was especially noteworthy was that nowhere in AIPAC’s testimony did they issue a call for loan guarantees for Israel. This may be an indication that they recognize that the loan guarantees are not a popular issue, and one which they are not counting on winning at this time.

What follows is my message to the Democrats.

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I am an Arab American. I am a Democrat. I am part of a community of 2.5 million. We are Americans who are immigrants and descendants of immigrants from the Arabic-speaking world.

I begin with that introduction because in a profound political way it defines me and my experience. I know the vast Arab World from Morocco to the Arabian Gulf. I know the Arab peoples, their hopes and fears, their hardships and aspirations. And I know my community – from the unemployed auto- and steelworkers of Dearborn and Bethlehem and the burned-out storeowners of Los Angeles to the hundreds of Arab American elected officials who serve their cities, states, and nation.

I come before you today with a call for recognition, understanding, and healing – for both the peoples of the Arab World and the Arab American community.

After the Cold War, after the Gulf War, the Arab World is a region caught up in profound changes and challenges – looking to America for leadership and support.

Countries rich in resources are looking for regional stability and security assistance; struggling economies are seeking development and technical expertise; and emerging democracies are reaching out for moral and political support.

In the past our party’s platform has ignored these complexities and concerns of the Arab World, reducing the region to a stepchild of our politics. Seen through the distorted lens of domestic concerns, at best the Arab World gets a one-line mention as “Israel’s neighbors.”

Victory in the Cold War has increased the burden of leadership on Americans. We dare not cast it off. Calls for “America first” are dangerous for our party, our country, and our world. To demonstrate our readiness to assume world leadership, especially in the Middle East, we must display our ability to deal equitably with all of our allies and friends – promoting stability, fostering security, establishing mutually beneficial trade relations, and building a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.

It is, to be quite honest, at this point – at the mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – that some in our party begin to panic. This must not, and I believe, need not be the case. When in 1988, I proposed and led the debate on the Middle East minority plank, the silence that had long characterized our party’s treatment of the Middle East was once and for all time broken. The headlines read “Democrats debate Palestinians rights.”

Of course we do. Democrats debate everything. That is what makes us a vibrant and healthy party. But we are not alone in this debate. Arabs are debating it. And, while we speak, Israelis are debating it. What we must not do is take positions in this debate that support extremists and make peace and compromise impossible. We must support our historical values of recognizing equal rights for all people and working for peace through negotiations.

We must make room for debate but we must not self-destruct in our disagreement. We should discourage intolerance and zero-sum politics in our party. We should be open to debate and even disagreement, all the while seeking formulas in our platform that heal and unify and create the common ground that will send the message to all Americans, and to Israelis and Palestinians alike, that says “Democrats are ready to lead. And to lead with fairness.”

We must move beyond divisive and one-sided rhetoric that recognizes the humanity of only one party in the Middle East. We must affirm the needs and rights of all.

In this regard I want to report to you how successful negotiations were just completed between Arab Americans and Jewish American Democrats in Texas. That good-faith effort was brought about through the office of Bob Slagle and is a model we can learn from. I recommend this process and their common-ground formula to you.

It has not only been the Middle East policy debate that has suffered from a lack of tolerance. Arab Americans have, as an organized community, become victims of intolerance as well.

Arab Americans have made great strides in political empowerment in recent years and for that I would commend our Arab American elected officials, especially Representatives Mary Rose Oakar and Nick Joe Rahall, and mayors and other political leaders across the country who have welcomed us into their coalitions, energized us and empowered us: Jesse Jackson, the late Harold Washington, Mayors Mike White in Cleveland, Ed Rendell of Philadelphia and Richard Daley of Chicago – all have contributed greatly to my community.

Still, in too many political situations and in many parts of the country, Arab Americans remain vulnerable – subject to violence, to political exclusion, and to denial of basic political rights.

There are hundreds of Arab American elected officials, most of them Democrats. All too frequently they are put into a position of having to bury their ethnicity in order to succeed.

Foreign-born Arabs in America are especially at risk. They have become the weak link in our civil liberties chain. And when that link breaks the rights of all are affected.

When the Reagan Administration sought to rewrite U.S. extradition law, it was done in violation of the rights of a young Palestinian. As a result, the Filipinos and Irish were put at risk.

Similarly, it was supposedly to stop an “Arab terrorist threat” (which later evidence showed never existed) that provided President Reagan with the opportunity to undo reforms that had prohibited surveillance and harassment of domestic political groups. As a consequence, Salvadorans and their supporters were spied upon.

And most shocking of all, it was in an effort to test the workability of an INS “alien detention” program that seven Palestinians and a Kenyan were arrested and are threatened with deportation for the stated “crime” of the distribution of Marxist literature.

And in one too many political campaigns, of Democrats, responsible and upstanding leaders of my Arab American community have either had their contributions returned or discouraged and their endorsements or active involvement outright rejected.

This is wrong. It’s not fair. It’s not what our party should stand for.

And so my call to Democratic elected officials and candidates is to do what DNC Chairman Ron Brown has done – reach out to Arab Americans, make room for us, work with us as an organized community, help us debunk the attitude of some that politics must be a zero-sum game – do not allow intolerance or exclusion a place in our party or in its campaigns. Our platform I believe should deal specifically with this question.

Finally, do not let others define Arab Americans. Let leaders and elected officials in my community speak for themselves. We are not a single-issue constituency.

As immigrants and descendants of immigrants from the many Arab countries of North Africa and Southwest Asia we have concerns about the Middle East. We are concerned about the Middle East, but we are not consumed by it. We are Americans who have excelled in the professions and in public service and in small business. We are autoworkers, steelworkers, grocers and the second largest ethnic group of farm workers. We want to be heard and deserve to be a part of the policy debate on a broad range of issues affecting our country.

We need to be heard from in the discussion on multicultural education, on international trade, and on the broad social impact of the deterioration and break-up of ethnic neighborhoods in the Northeast and Midwest. If Korean Americans dominate in small-store ownership in some parts of Los Angeles, Arab Americans do in others and in San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Brooklyn as well. The discussion about the urban challenge facing America must include Asian and Arab American small business leaders. Republicans are talking to them. Democrats must too.

The Democratic Party must create an outreach program to the new ethnic communities of our country. Such a “new Americans movement” would provide new sources of ideas, strength and votes for our party and a new sense of inclusion for groups too often locked out of the political process. Reaching out to the new immigrant groups from Africa, the Arab World, Asia and the Americas will expand our base, solidify our strength in major urban centers, and stem the erosion of our support in suburban areas.

***

The Making of a Three-way Race

This week’s primary was held in the state of Oregon. While President Bush won on the Republican side and Clinton won the Democratic contest, Ross Perot won the battle for newspaper headlines. In a spontaneous show of support for the independent candidate, 15% of all voters wrote his name on their ballots instead of the other candidates.

Of even greater concern was an exit poll showing Perot being favored by all voters—placing him ahead of Bush and Clinton. This is even more important that standard polls, because primary voters are typically the most loyal to their own parties in November. If a plurality of primary voters is willing to embrace Perot, that is bad news indeed for Bush and Clinton.

In all there are now seven states in which polls show Perot to be leading, and two recent national polls have Perot tied with Bush and ahead of Clinton.

While these numbers may change over the many days between today and election day, they are causing both the Republican and Democratic campaigns to seriously reevaluate their strategies and plan for a three-way race in November. I will examine this more closely in next week’s article.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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