Posted on March 08, 1993 in Washington Watch

Three recent developments have brought cause for serious concern among the Arab and Muslim American communities. There is a fear that if these three issues are not properly addressed, they could genuinely threaten the political and civil rights of Arab Americans and American Muslims. At the same time, mishandling of these cases could lead to even further distortions of the Middle East policy debate in the United States.

San Francisco Spying

The first story came to light one month ago when San Francisco police investigators uncovered evidence that a former San Francisco police officer had conducted illegal surveillance of the Arab American community and had, apparently, sold his files to other U.S. groups and some foreign intelligence agencies. The San Francisco police found the officer’s intelligence files in the local California office of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (ADL)—the Jewish community’s human and civil rights organization.

Arab Americans had long been aware of the fact that some level of cooperation existed between the ADL and United States law enforcement agencies. What is most disturbing about this relationship is the extent to which the ADL and some other groups in the American Jewish community have been able to impose their political agenda on U.S. law enforcement agencies.

The ADL has a long and respected history for its human rights and anti-discrimination activity. It has provided leadership in the struggle for African American civil rights and for religious tolerance. But, as Arab Americans know, there is a darker side of ADL activity—its treatment of and dealings with Arab Americans. In fact, the ADL has taken advantage of the respect that it has earned for its more well-known activity to pursue an anti-Arab and plainly discriminatory agenda.

Together with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the ADL has long maintained intelligence files on Arab American organizations and on the political activity of Arab American leaders. It has carried out surveillance at Arab American political events and distributed “black lists” containing derogatory and defamatory briefs of Arab American leaders to universities, the news media and political leaders. In some cases, it has worked covertly with federal and local law enforcement officials to monitor the legitimate political activities of Arab Americans. As early as 1975, an ADL official told the Chicago Tribune (July 13) that he was monitoring Arab American activity and that “he keeps files on the more active Arabs living here and routinely passes them on to the FBI.”

In fact, FBI files acquired by one major Arab American organization through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed ADL correspondence that had been sent to FBI field officers who were reporting on the political activities of the Arab American community. This type of activity, in which law enforcement officers take on the prejudices of one community against another, is highly questionable if not unlawful.

That is why, in the wake of the San Francisco disclosures, Arab Americans are disturbed by comments from an ADL spokesman who said that there was nothing extraordinary about the situation in San Francisco because “the relationship we had with [the police officer under investigation] was the same as with thousands of police officers around the country.”

In fact, there is a long relationship between the ADL and the former San Francisco police chief, who is currently that city’s mayor. In 1986, while chief of police, this man took a junket to Israel paid for by the ADL. He returned to the United States and commented at an ADL event that he preferred Israel’s judicial system to that of the U.S. because it was more efficient. He also said he had learned from Israeli security officials of a pending threat of Palestinian terrorism in this country. This case is just an example of larger strategy on the part of the ADL and (AIPAC). Through their efforts, these two organizations set the stage for denying Arab American rights by means of a systematic effort to portray us as threats to American security and Middle East peace.

Since the 1970s, both groups have routinely published pamphlets and books describing the so-called “anti-Israel network.” This “network” includes Arab Americans whose main offense is to oppose the Israeli occupation of Arab land and to advocate a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In 1975, the ADL produced a 118-page document entitled Target USA: The Arab Propaganda Offensive. The document purported to detail “the work of the Arab propaganda apparatus in the United States” and named officers and prominent leaders of Arab American organizations, including their addresses, and charged each of them with being either “PLO fronts” or part of an “Arab master plan” with “billions of petrodollars at their disposal.”

In January 1983, the ADL updated this work by publishing the “first edition” of a handbook entitled Pro-Arab Propaganda in America: Vehicles and Voices. Employing conspiratorial imagery similar to the 1975 document, the 1983 handbook created a more explicit suspicion of Arab American leaders and organizations alleged to be “in the vanguard of the anti-Israel Arab propaganda network in America.” In all, 31 groups (including all of the major national Arab American organizations) and 34 individuals (including prominent professors and some leading Jewish American critics of Israeli policy) were listed.

Later that same year, AIPAC published its own book entitled The Campaign to Discredit Israel. Modeled almost entirely on the ADL’s books, AIPAC went a step further by calling the Arab American community an “artificial community” funded by “petrodollars” and motivated by hatred of Israel.

In essence, these books constitute a form of “blacklisting” and targeting of Arab American leaders. Those portrayed in these publications have been routinely denounced by various Jewish organizations and publications as they speak out on Arab American concerns in communities around the country.

There is significant evidence to show that such practices continue. A former employee of AIPAC recently went public with information about how he followed one Arab American leader in order to gather information that would discredit him. Information gathered for AIPAC files was shared with other groups, some of them extreme in outlook, and served as the basis of reckless and defamatory charges of anti-Semitism against Arab American leaders.

Throughout its literature, the ADL has consistently refused to recognize Arab Americans as a legitimate ethnic community with legitimate political concerns. In their view, we are “organized anti-Israel propagandists.” Arab students studying in the United States are described as “a virtual army…financed and primed for propaganda by their home governments before being sent to the U.S.” This, of course, runs directly counter to the reality that I have described in several previous columns of an Arab American community that is struggling to awaken to political awareness and achieve political inclusion.

This pattern of behavior is the result of an abiding belief prevalent among ADL leaders, and perhaps best expressed by Arnold Forster and Benjamin Epstein in their book, The New Anti-Semitism, that opposition to Israeli policies and actions is in itself an act of anti-Semitism.

In The Real Anti-Semitism, Nathan Perlmutter, a former director at the ADL, carries this logic one step further. No criticism of Israeli actions is allowed. When Israel bombed Lebanon, Perlmutter argued “Israel’s bombs serve peace!” In his view, to criticize Israel is to “practice hypocrisy” and pushing Israel to negotiate for peace is an anti-Israel act by definition because “the gelling outline for peace in the Middle East is a death trap for Israel” that enables the Arabs to “gain through negotiations what in war they have failed to gain.”

The purpose of this activity is political in nature. Though Arab Americans, like most immigrant groups, suffered from discrimination earlier in the century, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been the common denominator in most cases of anti-Arab discrimination since the 1960s.

Had the cause been classic racial or ethnic antipathy, Arab Americans could not have reached the levels of mobility in business, the professions, education, residential choice, and even intermarriage that they have. In most ways, Arab Americans have not suffered as have other, more visible, minorities in the United States. It has been not so much Arab origin as Arab political activity that has engendered what I call “political racism”, which removes prejudice and exclusion from the arena of personal relations and places it into the arena of public life and public policy.

The result is all too well known to our community. In many instances in the past, we have suffered from political exclusion. We have had campaign contributions returned and “no Arabs allowed” signs hung on the campaigns of some who run for elective office. Our cultural programs have been canceled, our speakers disinvited from universities, and our professors spied on or defamed. But these practices have largely ended as a result of the hard work and dedication of several Arab American organizations. Today Arab Americans are gaining political power; and it is precisely because Arab Americans are making progress in ending exclusion that some pro-Israel groups are working harder than ever to stop our advance.

It is impressive to see what Arab Americans in San Francisco have done in response to this situation. Working together with the County Supervisors, the police department’s internal investigation unit and the local press, they have begun a full investigation of the ADL’s involvement in illegal activity with the local police. Last week I was in San Francisco to organize a rally of Arab Americans, meet with the press, political leaders and the police. I was pleased to learn that all are committed to resolving this matter and doing justice to Arab Americans.

Bringing the Campaign Against Hamas to the U.S.

The next of the three stories is not unconnected to the first and may not have as hopeful an outcome. It began just after Israel expelled the 415 alleged supporters of Hamas from the occupied territories in December. Stories began to appear in the U.S. Jewish press warning of a Hamas network in the United States. These same charges then appeared first in a major op-ed article in The New York Times written by an Israeli researcher working at a pro-Israel Washington-based think tank, and later in a front-page New York Times article datelined Israel. Though the articles were vague and there were no indications that laws had been broken, news reports coming out of Israel have suggested that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation plans to step up surveillance of Muslims in this country.

Finally, came the report that two Arab Americans from Chicago, visiting the occupied territories, had been detained by Israeli authorities on suspicion of raising money for Hamas. The name of one of these men was found in the ADL files confiscated by investigators in the San Francisco area.

All of this is deeply disturbing to the Arab American community. It harkens back to the days when law enforcement agencies singled out Arab Americans for surveillance and questioning for no reason other than our ethnicity and our support for Palestinian rights. The allegation of a “Hamas-U.S. link” bears all the markings of a media-generated campaign of the sort witnessed in the 1980s, when the “anti-terrorism” campaign – spearheaded by Israel and its allies – took on the urgency of an international crusade and Arab Americans were repeatedly targeted by local and national law enforcement agencies.

It is vitally important to put the current events in proper historical perspective in order to understand the seriousness of these concerns. Arab American political and civil rights have been jeopardized repeatedly over the past two decades.

What follows is a telling, but by no means comprehensive, list of how Arab American political rights have been threatened in the past:

·· “Operation Boulder,” in which the Nixon Administration, in the aftermath of the deaths of Israeli athletes in Munich, ordered law enforcement agencies to: screen ethnic Arabs seeking visas; investigate Arab students who were politically outspoken; deport several Arab students for minor visa infractions; and conduct surveillance of some 90 politically active Arab Americans.

This practice continued throughout the 1980s – an Arab American leader took the affidavits of over 100 Arab Americans to the FBI, about 90 of whom complained of FBI harassment and intimidation. Others complained of threats of violence or acts of violence against them. We asked then and we ask now – why do law enforcement agencies expend so much time violating Arab American rights and so little in protecting them?

·· Repeated acts of violence against a number of Arab American organizations, their offices and their leaders, including the tragic assassination of Arab American political leader Alex Odeh in 1985.

·· Repeated instances of political exclusion of Arab Americans, “Arab-baiting” of political candidates supported by the Arab American community, and actual blacklisting of Middle East experts whose appearances at universities and media events were canceled and who were even denied positions because their views were judged unacceptable by the Anti-Defamation League or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

·· FBI questioning during the Gulf War of over 200 law-abiding Arab Americans, many of them elected officials, on the ludicrous assumption that they might have knowledge of pro-Iraq “terrorist” activity. That the FBI announced this program in the press only served to create panic in the Arab American community, which felt they were being identified as a group with “suspicious anti-American” activity.

·· The arrest in Los Angeles by the Immigration and Naturalization Service of seven Palestinians and a Kenyan (the “L.A. 8” case), who were threatened with deportation on the charge of distributing literature published by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The Los Angeles Times reported early on in this case that the ADL had played a role in tipping off federal investigators about the activities of the Palestinian students.

Given this background it is no wonder that the current campaign to see “Hamas in every mosque” is arousing such concern among American Muslims. There is a clear effort in this current campaign to accomplish a number of dangerous objectives:

·· To turn public attention and criticism away from Israeli human rights violations. By making Americans wary of “Islamic fundamentalism” it is hoped that they will be more sympathetic to Israeli violations of international human rights norms.

·· To create a public reaction against Islam in order to reenhance Israel’s role as the ally the U.S. can most depend upon in the new “Cold War”—the war against Islam.

·· To transform political debate over future U.S. policy in the Middle East in terms more favorable to Israel and less favorable to the U.S.’s Arab allies in the region.

The Bombing in New York

It is in the context of these two ongoing campaigns that one must understand the impact of the tragic terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center building in New York City.

While it is not yet clear who is responsible, the arrests of two Arab Muslims living in the U.S. (one of whom is in the U.S. illegally) have created fear among Arab Americans and Muslim Americans that they may be unfairly caught up in the hysteria that has followed the bombing.

The bombing was a thoroughly repugnant act that created genuine and justified panic, and not only in New York City. This panic was not, as some have unfairly suggested, the action of spoiled Americans who for the first time are seeing terrorist violence in their own country. In fact, Americans, especially in recent years, have seen a great deal of random violence. Gang and drug-related violence takes thousands of lives every year. In New York City alone, more than 2,000 die every year as a result of such criminal acts. In Washington, DC, a city 10% of the size of New York City, more than 500 people are slain every year—again, most through drug-related violence.

What shocked New Yorkers was both the target of the bombing and its total randomness. There are 47,000 people who regularly work in the high-rise building, and at the time of the bombing there were more than 100,000 people inside the structure. The five people who were killed and the thousand who were injured were all innocents. The building itself is still closed because of structural damage, which has left tens of thousands out of work. But the terrifying thought on so many minds was how many more might have been killed if the bomb had exploded in a slightly different place. The concerns of these people are justified.

In the U.S. where everyone, citizens and non-citizens alike, is entitled to a fair and impartial hearing in a court of law, it is unwarranted to judge an individual or group guilty simply because they have been accused of or arrested for a crime. “Innocent until proven guilty” is the cornerstone of our legal system.

And yet, daily news stories that link the bombing and the two arrested Arab men to the Egyptian Shaykh Omar Abdel Rahman cannot but have a negative impact on Arab Americans and Muslim Americans.

What has so far been helpful is the effort that most respected media outlets have made to cover the arrests with deliberate caution. Practically every day stories about the bombing have been accompanied by stories detailing the potential impact of the arrests of the two men on the Arab American and Muslim communities. There have been a few irresponsible pieces, such as the Washington Times (a small and extremely conservative newspaper in Washington, DC) which ran the headline “Muslim Arrested…”. New York’s right-wing Senator Al D’Amato used the occasions of the bombing to propose legislation to outlaw Hamas in the U.S. Acts such as these serve only to further inflame public passion.

But those acts of disregard for Arab Americans and Muslim American rights were countered by New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who issued two very elegant statements cautioning New York residents against a backlash directed at any group of people. Similarly, President Clinton has made a statement urging the protection of the rights of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans. And the White House informed a visiting group of Arab American and Muslim American leaders that the President will soon be issuing a special Eid message to the Muslim American community—an important gesture at this difficult time.

While some Arab American groups have reacted to the current crisis by attacking the media, others are aware of the need to work with the media and elected public officials in order to protect the rights of the community.

We have condemned the New York bombing without any “buts” or excuses. And while no one has yet been found guilty of the crime, if it tragically turns out to be Arabs and Muslims who are responsible, in no uncertain terms Arab Americans and Muslim Americans must act not only to repudiate the act but must also make it clear that no one, especially those who wish to support Arab and Muslim causes, can carry out such hideous acts in the United States. In the context of our national history, such acts of terrorism have not only killed and maimed innocent people, they have threatened political and civil rights. In the current case, it is clear that such acts play into the very hands of those who have wrongly sought to inflame passions against Arab Americans and to silence debate in the U.S. over our country’s policy in the Middle East.

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