Posted on May 31, 1993 in Washington Watch

With lightning speed and no debate, the Ohio State Senate (a Midwestern state with a population of 11 million) passed a bill that would permit the State Treasurer to use Ohio tax dollars to purchase Israel Bonds. As in nearly all of the other forty-nine states, Ohio law currently does not allow treasury funds to be invested overseas.

The bill’s sponsor is the powerful President of the Republican-controlled Senate, Stanley Aronoff. Because Aronoff personally wanted this bill to succeed, the word passed quickly to other legislators that “this is for Stanley—pass it.” Senators with whom I spoke hadn’t considered the contents of the bill or discussed it—it was a favor for Aronoff and that was enough to win their vote. The final tally was an easy 30-1 victory.

In order to become law, the bill next has to pass through the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, and then be signed by Ohio’s Republican Governor George Voinovich.

Arab Americans, like most Ohioans, did not become aware of Aronoff’s bill until after it had passed the Senate. At that point they began to mobilize a state-wide effort to defeat the bill before it became law.

There are 150,000 Arab Americans in Ohio, who had until recently been organized only in a number of local communities. But two years ago the Arab American Institute (AAI)_ brought together a number of disparate local groups from the communities of Toledo, Cleveland, Youngstown, Columbus, and Akron, to form the Arab American Political Caucus of Ohio (AAPCO). It is this network of local Arab American community organizations which seized upon Aronoff’s bill and is working to prevent its passage by the legislature.

Working with this AAPCO network, AAI helped to plan a “Week of Action” beginning on May fifth. The goal was to energize and organize the Arab American community and to lay out a strategic plan to defeat the bill. Town meetings and events were held in five cities, and a lobbying and press campaign was designed to inform the public and the legislators of the intent of the Aronoff bill.

Arab Americans were convinced that public opinion would be with them, but only if there were public discussion about the legislation. They were further convinced that the effort should not be fought as an Arab-Israeli issue but as a question of fiscal and domestic policy. Therefore, the two main issues they put forward were: are Israel Bonds a solid investment? and do Ohio voters want their tax dollars invested overseas or would they prefer them to be invested in and to produce benefits for Ohio?

The town meetings each generated press coverage. To generate additional press coverage, AAI and AAPCO conducted a poll of Ohio voters on May 14-15. The results were clear.

In answer to the question “Do you want your Ohio state representative to vote for or against the Israeli bond bill?”, 72% of the voters said no while only 18% wanted their representative to approve the bill.

The voters were then asked if they would be more or less inclined to support Governor George Voinovich, who will be up for reelection next year, if he signs the bill into law. The results on this question were equally clear. Only 11% said they would be more inclined to vote for him, as opposed to the 43% who reported they would be less inclined to support his campaign if he approved the bill.

The poll generated a large number of headlines in major papers across the state. The Toledo Blade state-wide edition (which has the second-largest circulation in the state) had a headline reading “Ohio bill to but Israeli bonds stirs Arab anger.” And in a lead editorial the Blade entitled “Inappropriate Investment” said:

“The proposed investment is inappropriate and should never have reached this stage. ...Supporters of Israel laud the possible bond purchase. An Arab-American Institute spokesman calls it a `horrendous gesture.’ If the legislature wanted to pass silently through the statehouse they are plain out of luck. It is now a public policy question. The senate’s approval of the proposal showed a disturbing lack of judgment. It is up to the House to clear up the mess.”

A mailing to over 1,000 Arab American activists in Ohio urged them to become more involved in the effort to defeat the bill, and they responded well.

On May 19th, the Blade ran an article which opened, “In the face of mounting opposition from Arab-American groups and others, state legislators plan to amend a bill that would permit the state treasurer to buy Israeli bonds. In this article Barney Miller, House Speaker Pro Tempore said, “My phone has been ringing off the hook and my desk is piled with letters” in opposition to the bill.

In the face of this organized opposition, the Ohio House of Representatives convened public hearings to debate the matter. Once again, Arab Americans across the state turned out to let the legislators know their views. More than 70 Arab Americans and allies packed the committee room where the public hearings were held, and 19 of them testified against the bill. Nadeem Salem, a financial advisor and President of the Greater Toledo Association of Arab Americans (GTAAA); Suhail Zidan, a free-lance consultant who serves as President of Arab Americans of Central Ohio (AACO) and Andy Amid, a developer of educational videotapes, also representing AACO; Ray Nakley representing the Youngstown Coalition for Peace in the Middle East; Jeff Kassouf, a medical advertising specialist and a former President of Cleveland American Middle East Organization (CAMEO), and several Arab American high school students all made presentations before the ten assembled Representatives.

Zidan, in his testimony, detailed the weaknesses in the Israeli economy and argued that Israel Bonds were a bad investment. Salem offered the legislators an alternate proposal that would invest Ohio funds in Ohio cities and developmental authorities. Kassouf used his testimony to present the results of the AAI/AAPCO poll to those legislators present at the hearing. This multi-pronged attack against the legislation was the result of thoughtful planning on the part of the Arab American community in Ohio, which knew that a diversity of arguments would have a greater effect on those listening than would a stream of statements focusing on the same point.

In an effort to quiet the protests, some legislators have amended the bill to allow the purchase of bonds from “any foreign country” instead of just “Israel”. But this has not stopped the organized Arab American protest, because they see the move as a veiled effort to pass the legislation and allow investment in Israel.

It is too early to predict the final outcome. The bill’s sponsors seem determined to pass it, but the Arab Americans are equally resolved to amend it away or defeat the bill outright. So far, the Arab Americans in Ohio have several commitments from a number of Representatives who are pledged to vote against.

But whatever the outcome, this effort represents the first time that an organized Arab American lobbying program has emerged as powerful enough to confront pro-Israel legislation. This, in itself, is significant.

And what is even more significant is AAPCO’s resolve to immediately build on this effort, with a commitment to increasing voter registration and organizing efforts in order to more effectively represent Arab American concerns in the 1994 elections. The timing is good because in 1994 the Governor and a U.S. Senator, as well as 19 members of the U.S. Congress, and many of the state senators and representatives who Ohio Arab Americans have come to know through their activism on this issue—all of these positions will be up for reelection.

I attended two of the Ohio town meetings and am pleased to have seen that state’s Arab American community demonstrate their resolve to build for the future. This past week, as well, I was in three different cities in California, where the same sort of legislation is being considered by that state’s Senate (which is surely no coincidence). Arab Americans in California are watching and learning from Ohio. And while I was in California and meeting with Arab American and Muslim American groups, we discussed the development of a similar strategy to defeat the California bill to buy Israel bonds.

Arab Americans have weathered a number of storms in recent years —but now seem invigorated and committed to grow and fight back. Ohio’s Arab Americans are showing the way.

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