His­tory is too deep, pain is too real

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Dr James J Zogby

Aweek ago, a pro-Is­rael me­dia mon­i­tor­ing group ac­cused me of mak­ing “an un­sub­stan­ti­ated charge that Is­rael sup­port­ers are re­spon­si­ble” for dis­crim­i­na­tion, hate crimes, and the po­lit­i­cal ex­clu­sion of Arab Amer­i­cans. Be­cause this is­sue is so im­por­tant to Arab Amer­i­cans and be­cause some hard­line pro-Is­rael groups refuse to ac­knowl­edge their role in harm­ing my com­mu­nity, I am obliged to re­spond with a few ex­am­ples rep­re­sent­ing just the tip of the ice­berg of painful acts of defama­tion, dis­crim­i­na­tion, ex­clu­sion, threats, and vi­o­lence.

From the mo­ment Arab Amer­i­cans be­gan to or­ga­nize and to ad­vo­cate for causes we held dear, we were con­fronted by at­tacks from ma­jor Jew­ish com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions. Our early ef­forts to bring our com­mu­nity into the main­stream of Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal life were met with re­sis­tance and cam­paigns of pres­sure de­signed to make us “ra­dioac­tive”. They used po­lit­i­cal pres­sure to have us ex­cluded from gov­ern­ment meet­ings, en­gage­ment with coali­tions, and in­volve­ment in po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. They defamed us in re­ports they cir­cu­lated (I have copies of all of them), terming us “Arab pro­pa­gan­dists”, “a made up com­mu­nity”, “a cre­ation of petrodol­lars”, pur­vey­ors of anti-Semitism, or a “sub­ver­sive plot” sup­port­ing Pales­tinian ter­ror.

My first di­rect en­counter with this ex­clu­sion came in 1978. I was in­vited to the White House for an eth­nic lead­ers’ round­table with Vice Pres­i­dent Mon­dale. A few days af­ter the meet­ing, I re­ceived call from the White House in­form­ing me that be­cause they had re­ceived com­plaints from Jew­ish groups that a pro-Pales­tinian Arab had been at the meet­ing, I wouldn’t be in­vited to fol­low-up dis­cus­sions.

The next year, my or­ga­ni­za­tion ap­plied for mem­ber­ship in the Coali­tion for a New For­eign and Mil­i­tary Pol­icy - a group­ing of 60 re­li­gious, and peace and jus­tice or­ga­ni­za­tions. We over­whelm­ingly won the vote for ad­mis­sion, but three mem­bers, led by a lib­eral Jew­ish group, ob­jected to our en­try and threat­ened to quit the coali­tion “if the Arabs were admitted”. The coali­tion lead­er­ship then asked us to with­draw our ap­pli­ca­tion. In late 1979, my Pales­tine Hu­man Rights Cam­paign hosted a ma­jor na­tional con­fer­ence that fea­tured seven Mem­bers of Congress, ma­jor Black lead­ers, and many fig­ures from peace and jus­tice or­ga­ni­za­tions. De­spite re­ceiv­ing prom­i­nent and fa­vor­able na­tional news cov­er­age for three con­sec­u­tive nights, a proJewish De­fense League news­pa­per in New York de­scribed the event with a huge font front page head­line as a “SE­CRET PLO MEET” that “plots ter­ror”.

A few months later, af­ter hav­ing re­ceived a num­ber of threats, my of­fice was fire­bombed. The JDL is­sued a state­ment which, while not claim­ing credit, said that they “ap­proved of the act”. Months later, JDL head, Meir Ka­hane, showed up pound­ing on my of­fice door taunt­ing us about the fire­bomb­ing un­til the po­lice ar­rived and re­moved him from the premises. In 1981, I was in­vited by a na­tional Ital­ian Amer­i­can or­ga­ni­za­tion to head-up a mul­ti­eth­nic meet­ing ad­dress­ing is­sues of me­dia stereo­typ­ing. Some Jew­ish groups ob­jected to my role ac­cus­ing me of hav­ing “an­other agenda”. They re­fused to par­tic­i­pate and con­vened their own meet­ing.

In 1983, for­mer Sen­a­tor James Abourezk was in­vited to serve on the Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee of the 20th an­niver­sary of Dr. King’s March on Wash­ing­ton (I was asked to serve on the Na­tional Steer­ing Com­mit­tee). Once again, ma­jor Jew­ish groups threat­ened to with­draw if Arab Amer­i­cans were in­cluded. Af­ter a long and painful de­bate, the mat­ter was re­solved in our fa­vor when Rev Joseph Low­ery and Rev Jesse Jack­son in­ter­vened on our be­half.

The threats con­tin­ued - by mail and phone - all of which were re­ported to author­i­ties. Some came to us in Wash­ing­ton, oth­ers to Arab Amer­i­can of­fices in other cities. Then, in 1985, Alex Odeh, the Direc­tor of the Cal­i­for­nia Amer­i­can-Arab Anti-Dis­crim­i­na­tion Com­mit­tee was mur­dered when a bomb ex­ploded as he en­tered his of­fice. Shortly af­ter Alex’s mur­der, the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee and, later, the US Com­mis­sion on Civil Rights, held hear­ings on vi­o­lence against Arab Amer­i­cans. In my tes­ti­mony, I said: “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 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.”

While our ef­forts to or­ga­nize and nor­mal­ize our in­volve­ment in civic life proved chal­leng­ing, in the po­lit­i­cal arena, Arab Amer­i­cans faced even greater hur­dles. Through­out the 1980s, Arab Amer­i­cans had con­tri­bu­tions re­turned and en­dorse­ments re­jected. A prom­i­nent group of St Jude Hos­pi­tal board mem­bers had their con­tri­bu­tions to the Mon­dale cam­paign re­turned in 1984, and in 1988, pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Michael Dukakis re­jected our en­dorse­ment. Two na­tional po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, David Dink­ins, run­ning for Mayor in New York City, and Ed Szchau, run­ning for a Se­nate seat in Cal­i­for­nia, both di­rectly asked me to dis­cour­age Arab Amer­i­cans from con­tribut­ing to their cam­paigns cit­ing their fear of a back­lash from the Jew­ish com­mu­nity. Whether their fears were real or imag­ined, the im­pact on my com­mu­nity was real and hurt­ful. In spite of th­ese ob­sta­cles, we per­sisted and with the help of coura­geous lead­ers like Jesse Jack­son, Ron Brown, and Bill Clin­ton we made our way into the main­stream. Jack­son wel­comed us into his two pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns. As Chair of the Demo­cratic Party, Brown, de­spite warn­ings by some Jew­ish donors that they would with­draw sup­port for the party, came to our events, wel­comed us, and gave us a seat at the ta­ble.

But prob­lems re­mained. In 1992, Arab Amer­i­cans were be­ing re­buffed by the Clin­ton cam­paign. At that year’s Demo­cratic Con­ven­tion, I was ap­proached by AIPAC’s le­gal direc­tor, who also served as the Clin­ton cam­paign’s le­gal ad­vi­sor. He said to me “I know you’re try­ing to get into the cam­paign. Why the f **** should we let you in? ...leave us alone”. I was shaken by the naked hos­til­ity of the en­counter and went to Brown. To­gether we laid out a strat­egy. It ul­ti­mately led me to an un­likely place - a meet­ing with Sen­a­tor Joe Lieber­man. De­spite our many dis­agree­ments, he was ap­proach­able and fair. He was so in­censed that he called the Clin­ton cam­paign ex­press­ing his out­rage over this be­hav­ior. The next day, we were in­vited to join the cam­paign.

While the Clin­ton years, shaped as they were by the Oslo Accords and the pres­i­dent’s own per­sonal com­mit­ment to jus­tice, changed the po­lit­i­cal dy­namic for Arab Amer­i­cans, prob­lems per­sisted with some Jew­ish groups still at­tempt­ing to ex­clude Arab Amer­i­cans and de­fame those who were in gov­ern­ment posts. Now, how­ever, the main threats came not from the main­stream groups, but from the fringes, and from a col­lec­tion of en­ti­ties funded by the likes of Shel­don Adel­son and Robert Shill­man. They as­sumed the role of smear­ing Arab Amer­i­cans and now, Amer­i­can Mus­lims. Their ef­forts have not been able to ex­clude us, but they have been able to in­cite against us and the toll they con­tinue to take on com­mu­nity lead­ers and ac­tivists is sub­stan­tial.

Af­ter 9/11, three men were ar­rested, tried, and con­victed of mak­ing death threats against me, my fam­ily, and my of­fice. Two of the three used, in their threats, ma­te­rial culled from th­ese “hate sites” - cit­ing their sup­port for Is­rael as a rea­son for their ha­tred and death threats. The bot­tom line is the charge that sup­port­ers of Is­rael are, in part, re­spon­si­ble for in­stances of dis­crim­i­na­tion, hate crimes, and the po­lit­i­cal ex­clu­sion of Arab Amer­i­cans can­not be dis­missed as “un­sub­stan­ti­ated”. The his­tory is too real and the pain is too deep. Shame on those who can’t ac­knowl­edge the his­tory and the pain.

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