Posted on November 06, 2000 in Washington Watch

While candidates from both parties came and courted Michigan’s Arab American voters this past year, New York’s Arab Americans experienced only painful exclusion.

By any measure, New York’s Senate race has been an embarrassment. During the past year, both Republican Rick Lazio and Democrat Hillary Clinton haved avoided all contact with the state’s 340,000 Arab Americans. At the same time both candidates have sought the support of even the most extreme fringe elements in the Jewish community. State Representative Dov Hikind, a former spokesperson for Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League (listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State) was regularly courted by both Lazio and Clinton.

At one point in the campaign Mrs. Clinton was asked by a network news reporter if she had any intention of meeting with Arab Americans. Her response was a simple “no.” While Mrs. Clinton raised funds from Arab Americans and Muslim Americans at several events outside of the New York, apparently her advisors cautioned her against attending Arab American events in the state–fearing that this might antagonize some in the more sizable Jewish community.

Being locked out of New York’s politics is not a new phenomenon for Arab Americans. I can recall many earlier campaigns when candidates shunned the community. Noting this, some of Clinton’s supporters have suggested that to criticize her was unfair because it held her to a higher standard then either her opponent or earlier candidates for office in New York.

In a sense, they were right. Although more was expected of Mrs. Clinton, because as First Lady she had developed contacts and friendships with Arab Americans and Arabs throughout the Middle East. That she would revert so quickly and completely to become a typical New York politician was quite painful to watch–especially to Arab Americans who had placed such hope in her candidacy.

While Clinton, therefore, earned the wrath of Arab Americans, Lazio and the Republican Party’s disgusting behavior can be condemned in even stronger terms.

Early on in the campaign, the Republicans attempted to provoke a Jewish backlash against Mrs. Clinton by “Arab-baiting” her. First they used her Palestinian statehood comments and then her infamous meeting with Mrs. Arafat. Finally, they began to scour the lists of contributors looking for Arab American donors to use against her.

Months ago Republicans challenged Clinton to return the contributions she had received from Mr. Hani Masri, a prominent Palestinian American businessman in Washington, DC. Masri was described as a “friend of Arafat.” Later, Lazio personally challenged her to return money from former Arab League Ambassador Clovis Maksoud whom they described as a “critic of Israel,” as if that were sufficient to exclude him from participation in politics.

In both cases, Clinton refused to bow to the pressure. The attacks the Republicans launched against Mrs. Clinton during the past few weeks however, were more intense and dangerous and this time she submitted to the pressure and returned $51,000 in contributions to a number of Arab American and Muslim American donors.

Following on the heels of this effort, the New York State Republican Party launched a statewide phone campaign that targeted 500,000 New York voters with a message that attempted to link Clinton’s donors with terrorism and with the bombing of the USS Cole.

New York City’s tabloid press had a feast with the story and featured lengthy pro-Hamas and Hizbullah comments by one of Clinton’s Arab American Muslim donors and then linked him in photographs to Mrs. Clinton and at various State Department events.

All of this sensationalism and intrigue connecting Arabs, money, terrorism and Mrs. Clinton has had a devastating effect on New York’s Arab Americans. By playing this card, the Lazio campaign has only reinforced the message of Clinton’s advisors that Arab Americans are taboo. The result has been a total disenfranchisement of Arab Americans in this election.

In one of the articles I was able to place in a New York newspaper I described the situation of New York’s Arab Americans to that of African Americans in Mississippi and Alabama in the 1950s. Shunned by both parties and then used by both to smear each other. By hanging a ‘No Arabs allowed” sign on their campaign doors, both the Republicans and Democrats have violated the civil rights of 340,000 Arab Americans in New York.

All of this, of course, stands in marked contrast to the treatment received by Arab Americans in Michigan. Actively courted by both parties. Arab Americans in Michigan have experienced unprecedented involvement in this year’s election.
Borrowing from Charles Dickinson’s “Tale of Two Cities” one might suggest that this year’s comparative experiences in Michigan and New York reflects “the best and worst of times.” But it points, as well, to lessons that must be learned from this year’s election.

First, Arab Americans in Michigan must know that the community, even with its advances, remains vulnerable to attack. Instead of gloating about our power, it remains important to build relationships and alliances and become grounded in both parties.

Secondly, it is vital that as Arab Americans pursue their involvement, that they remain focused on the ultimate goal of community empowerment. This requires that activists understand that while it is important that Arab Americans Democrats and Arab American Republicans be free to do their respective work in the parties of their choice–they must not turn on each other and destroy each other in the process.

It is deeply troubling to observe that while pro-Israel groups are using a massive phone bank and television and radio advertising effort to attack Al Gore for his relationships with Arab Americans, some Arab American Republicans are using even more vicious rhetoric to attack those in their own community who are supporting the Democratic candidate.

And finally it is incumbent that whatever the outcome of this election Arab American Democrats and Republicans begin now to prepare for the 2004 election and all of the national and local elections in between. Voter registration and party involvement must be increased and strategies must be developed to consolidate gains where they have been made (as in Michigan) and to challenge the last remaining barriers to our community’s empowerment where they remain (as in New York).

In a real sense, then, next week marks the end of one election, and the beginning of yet another long march to the next election.

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