Posted on May 18, 1998 in Washington Watch
On May 7, 1998, President William Jefferson Clinton addressed the Arab American Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C. It was the first time an U.S. President had addressed an Arab American conference. For my Institute (the Arab American Institute), the other co-sponsoring organizations, the more than 800 Arab Americans in attendance and the hundreds of thousands who watched the event live on C-SPAN and ANA-TV, it was a remarkable and historic moment.
While some critics may not have understood the significance of the event, for those of us who labored long and hard in Arab American politics, its meaning was undeniable.
Our community had arrived. As an organized constituency, Arab Americans are now recognized as full participants in the U.S. political system. This was not always so. It did not come easy. We had earned this recognition with a lot of hard work.
Just 30 years ago there was not an Arab American community to speak of. There were no national Arab American organizations and there was no unified community consciousness. There were some organizations, but they were mainly social Lebanese groupings or village and family-based associations.
Individuals of Arab descent could and did become involved in U.S. politics–but as individuals, without an ethnic (and certainly not an “Arab”) identification.
When Arab American organizations did come into existence, they experienced two some-what related difficulties. Because they largely based themselves on Arab issues, they did not attract to their membership the overwhelming majority of American’s of Arab descent. Additionally, they did not direct their attention or participate in the major arena of American politics–electoral activity. Nevertheless these groups were vigorously attacked by the much larger and more powerful American Jewish organizations who saw Arab Americans as a potential threat. Because these Arab American groups were on the margins of U.S. politics, they were vulnerable to these attacks.
During the past 20 years there has been a steady evolution of Arab American organizing efforts from the margins of U.S. politics into the mainstream. But it was not an easy task. When, in this early period, Arab American organizations attempted to join broader U.S. coalitions on foreign policy or civil rights concerns they were often excluded because of American Jewish pressure.
I recall attempting to bring an organization I formed in 1978 into the Washington-based Coalition for a New Foreign Policy. The members of the coalition voted overwhelmingly to include us. But we were ultimately rejected when three Jewish groups threatened to resign in protest if we were admitted.
That same year, we were invited to join a coalition that was being formed by a number of U.S. ethnic organizations. Once again our inclusion was challenged by Jewish groups, who ended up forming the coalition without us.
Around that same time I was invited to the White House to an ethnic leadership meeting with Vice-President Mondale. Three days after the meeting, a White House official called to inform me that I would not be invited back again because Jewish groups had complained that a “pro-Arab” group had been included.
During this period, major Jewish groups published reports and issued warnings to the media and politicians on each and every Arab American organization and leader. We were described as “terrorist supporters” and/or anti-Semites. Because some of these politicians and even some in the media took those warnings seriously we found our path to full inclusion impeded.
These same Jewish groups even published analyses of the “Arab American phenomenon.” They denied the existence of an Arab American community as such and dismissed it as a fiction created simply to wage an anti-Israel campaign.
While some progress was made during this period, grave difficulties remained.
Beginning, however, in 1984 with Arab American involvement in both the Jesse Jackson for President campaign and the Republican Presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan things began to change for Arab Americans.
Our AAI was founded in 1984 by Arab American Democrats and Republicans in order to further the process began in 1984 of bringing Arab Americans into the mainstream of U.S. politics. At first our efforts, while recording some successes, encountered some serious challenges as well. Pressure continued to be applied to candidates to reject Arab American support and to exclude Arab Americans from political campaigns. For two years, for example, the Democratic party refused to meet with or recognize the newly formed Arab American Democratic Federation. It was clear that as we sought to enter the mainstream, we would be perceived as even more threatening and the pressure to exclude us would intensify. But as Jesse Jackson reminded us in these early years, “The biggest threat you pose is not the threat to quit and walk away, but the threat to stay around and fight.” And fight we did.
In 1986, AAI published a booklet called the “Politics of Exclusion.” In this study we detailed how the campaigns of several politicians discriminated against Arab Americans: by rejecting our contributions, refusing our endorsements or by attacking their opponents because Arab Americans were participating in or contributing to their campaigns.
This booklet received significant press coverage. And in the years that followed, each and every time that candidates treated our community in an undemocratic way, we protested publicly and received both press coverage and public support.
In the 1988 presidential campaign, Arab Americans made a real impact in both parties. We elected a record number of delegates in national and state party conventions. On the Democratic side, we succeeded in winning enough seats and supporters that in 10 state conventions we passed resolution supporting Palestinian statehood and had the first ever debate on Palestinian rights at the National Democratic Convention in Atlanta.
The nation’s press was filled with articles about “Arab Americans Coming of Age in U.S. Politics” and some even attributed Jesse Jackson’s victory in the Michigan primary elections, in part, to the Arab American vote.
We continued to grow and develop: increasing Arab American voter registration, candidate support activity, and deepening Arab American involvement in the grass roots of both parties.
By now, the phenomenon had become self-generating. Arab Americans across the country had begun quite spontaneously to organize and vote and became recognized.
This growth has continued. After initially experiencing some difficulty breaking into the Clinton Campaign in 1992, Arab Americans fought back and gained access to the campaign. Arab Americans supported the campaign and were, in turn, supported in their efforts by the campaign.
In many ways the Clinton White House has been extremely supportive of Arab American involvement. While Arab American involvement at the 1993 White House signing ceremony and Vice President Gore’s Builders for Peace are well known as are the frequent Arab American White House and State Department meetings, other developments are less well known.
When the White House and Democratic Party founded their ethnic councils, Arab Americans were not only included from the outset, we were also asked to serve as one of the three co-conveners of the groups. In addition, Arab Americans participated in the President’s Initiative on Race and the White House Conference on Hate Crimes. Arab Americans were also a part of the Democratic Party’s mobilizing efforts on behalf of several of the President’s important legislative initiatives: the budget proposal, health care reform and education reform.
In 1996, Arab American involvement in the national electoral arena took a step forward when the Clinton-Gore Presidential Campaign formally launched, at a Washington press conference, the Arab Americans for Clinton-Gore committee. In 1997 this committee was transformed into the Arab American Democratic Leadership Council (AADLC), a recognized part of the Democratic Party.
Through all of this, Arab American activity in the political process continued to grow. Today, the Arab American vote in Michigan, for example, is a recognized political force. Across the United States Arab Americans are running for office and winning elections in record numbers. There are currently six Arab American members of Congress and one Arab American Senator. This year a total of 14 Arab Americans are running for Congressional and Senate seats!
In addition to the AADLC, there is an Arab American Republican group and an Arab American Leadership Council that now includes almost 400 Arab American elected officials and party leaders. This number includes dozens of mayors, judges, state representatives and county party chairs.
Our most important accomplishment, I believe, is that we have fused together most of the component parts of the Arab American community into a single constituency. We are, as I said in my May 7 introduction to the President’s speech,
Immigrants and descendants of immigrants…we are a diverse people, about three million strong coming from all parts of the Arab world. We are part of the American success story.
No longer does an individual of Arab descent who seeks to run for office run away from the Arab American community. The community supports those candidates and the candidates seek community support. We have formed a mutually beneficial relationship, which has given us strength and recognition.
Other politicians now seek us out as well. Today in most campaigns Arab American support is sought and welcomed. As the Arab American vote numbers increased and Arab Americans have become more active in politics, politicians who only a decade ago rejected our support now reach out for our endorsements. As one White House official described this turn about “Politicians know how to count and now you count.”
I recall an event in the middle of Israel’s 1996 bombing campaign in Lebanon that made it clear to me how far we had developed. As always happens in the middle of a crisis situation the White House Office of Public Liaison called my office to see how the community was reacting to the bombing and what could be done to assist us. The National Security Council also called and organized a few meetings for our leadership with the White House and State Department officials.
The most intriguing call, however, came form a high level White House political official who asked “will this hurt us in Michigan?” The intent of his call was purely political. He wanted to know, would the White House lose Arab American voters in Michigan in the November 1996 elections? While some might dismiss the call as crass politics–in fact, politics is a crass game of numbers. This was the call Arab Americans had been working toward for 20 years! After working to register voters and organize their turnout now, for the first time politicians were taking note of the Arab American vote in a key state that had to be won in order to win the White House.
Inspired by that call, we worked with Michigan’s large organized Lebanese community. They brought almost 3,000 Arab Americans to Washington to demonstrate their concern for Lebanon in front of the White House. Before the demonstration, the President’s National Security Adviser met with us and the President agreed to four of the demands we made that day.
Our message had been sent, and we were heard.
When some Arab reporters asked us how we got the President to come to our event, they expected, I believe, a short answer or some behind the scenes story of intrigue. Instead I gave them the narrative I have just related of our 20 years of struggle. The President came, in part, because we had earned his recognition and respect, because we had worked hard and made our place in U.S. politics.
Additionally, we have developed personal ties with White House officials and party leaders. The importance of those bonds of friendship can never be underestimated. It’s like the lesson I learned from my father’s grocery store. Customers will come to your business if you have the goods they want and if they like doing business with you. You have to have both–the goods to sell and a personal relationship.
There are still huge challenges facing Arab Americans. The negative stereotypes our opponents created to discredit the Arab cause have now become public policy. FBI harassment, airport profiling and other forms of discrimination are issues that must be addressed in addition to the on-going struggle for a balanced Middle East policy. But the path to overcoming all these problems is the same path we have been following for the past two decades. A recent caller to my ANA radio program criticized our Vote ’98 Conference saying that he went to only one session and left because, as he put it, “you were not discussing the important issues facing the Arab world. You were only talking about voting and elections.”
My response was simple “voting and participation in politics is the most important issue, because none of our other issues will be addressed until we are stronger as an American voting constituency. There is no short cut. It is the only way for us to succeed.”
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