Posted on November 03, 1997 in Washington Watch
Despite significant progress in race and ethnic relations in the U.S., problems still remain. In the past few years the U.S. has witnessed the burning of black churches and some mosques, vandalism against some Jewish synagogues, and attacks against individuals based on their race, religion, or national origin.
As reports by some Arab American organizations show, Arab Americans, too, have been victims of hate crimes. But the situation of the community has dramatically improved, as has our ability to defend ourselves and advance our concerns in all areas.
Next week when President Clinton convenes the “White House Conference on Hate Crimes,” Arab Americans will be well represented. Eight Arab Americans will be among the more than 200 delegates invited by the White House to participate in the daylong event.
The issues of racially, ethnically, or religiously motivated violence has long troubled this President. He often speaks of how this problem has torn apart several other countries and how disturbed he is to see the persistence of such hatred in the U.S.
The purpose of the White House Conference, in the President’s words, is to “develop a deeper understanding of the problem” of hate crimes so that the nation can “mount an all-out assault” on the problem and “find ways to prevent hate crimes from occurring in the first place.”
Again, in the President’s words, the conference will bring to the White House “victims of hate crimes and their families to help us understand why the impact of these acts runs so much deeper than the crimes themselves.” The conference will also bring together law enforcement officials and congressional leaders “to take a serious look at the existing laws against hate crimes and consider ways to improve enforcement of these laws.” And finally the White House event will bring community and religious leaders together to discuss “solutions that are already making a real difference” in communities across the U.S.
Appearing at the centerpiece session of the conference will be victims of hate crimes speaking in a panel discussion led by President Clinton. One of the seven panelists chosen to participate in the panel will be Mr. Sami Odeh, the brother of Alex Odeh, the Arab American leader murdered in a 1985 terrorist bombing attack at his office in California.
As President of the Arab American Institute (AAI), I have been asked to lead one of the other panel discussions that will be held during the conference. Other Arab Americans invited to attend the day-long session include: Mr. Abdulrahman Alamoudi of the American Muslim Council (AMC); Mr. Ellie Abboud, President of the National Arab American Business Association; and Dr. Hala Maksoud, President of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).
All of this points to the increased role Arab Americans are now playing, not only in defense of our community’s rights, but also as respected participants in shaping the U.S. policy debate about how to protect the rights of all Americans.
Even with this progress, it is important to note that those hostile to Arab American advancement continue their efforts to harm the community and its leadership. As reports issued by Arab American organizations show, there are still instances where bigots have attacked Arab and Muslim Americans. And there is still defamation and negative stereotyping in the media which, while not hate-crimes in themselves, help create the climate in which those crimes are committed.
Equally disturbing are recent attacks on Arab American leaders clearly carried out in an effort to stem the community’s political progress. For the most part, these efforts are the work of right-wing ideologues and hard-liners in the Jewish community. In a few recent incidents, however, the perpetrators of these defamatory campaigns have also included some divisive elements within the Arab American community itself – a handful of so-called “Lebanese patriots” using an anti-Arab agenda to advance their “cause”. It was those elements, who recently allied themselves with the right-wing in an effort to derail the nomination of an Arab American as Ambassador to Morocco. And it is this same small group that has supported a nasty campaign of defamation against myself and Mr. Alamoudi of the American Muslim Council.
Our concern with these efforts is not that they will succeed. The nomination of Ed Gabriel as Ambassador to Morocco has moved forward and a senior official at the White House called me last week to express their support to us over the attacks we have had to endure.
The real concern is that when campaigns of defamation take hold, if only among a fringe of society, then the danger exists that hate crimes may occur.
From 1979 to 1985 there was a six-year period where our Arab American organizations were routinely defamed. We were called extremists and supporters of the “terrorists” (meaning the PLO.)
As a result of those verbal attacks many of us faced death threats and actual violent attacks. My office, the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, was bombed in 1980. Several of us received repeated death threats and in 1985 Alex Odeh was murdered.
In December of 1985, I wrote to and testified before the US Civil Rights Commission linking the sustained campaigns of defamation against Arab American leaders and organizations and the violence and threats of violence to which we were subjected.
“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.”
This is the same message I will take to the White House conference on Hate Crimes next week, confident that our message will be heard, that we will be supported and defended, and that our advancement will not stop.
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