The day before Ramadan began, the Islamic Cultural Center of Southern California buzzed with the cadences of prayer and the exhortations of lecturers answering questions about the month-long fast. Parents chased their exuberant children or stood chatting beneath a wall-mounted map that pinpointed Muslim populations state by state and country by country around the world.
Taking a break from helping out at the center, Arash Spencer talked about how George W. Bush had won his vote in the first presidential debate last fall. The 19-year-old Angeleno, the son of an Iranian mother and a Hawaiian father, said he didn’t think Bush differed much from Vice President Al Gore when it came to America’s Middle East policy.
But, like a lot of Arab Americans and Muslims in this country, he voted for Bush because in the debate the Texas governor had talked about government terrorism prosecutions that rely on information withheld from the defense, so-called secret evidence, saying “it’s wrong, it’s against the Constitution.” And Gore, said Spencer, “didn’t make time for the Muslim community.”
Making time for Arab Americans, a major component of Muslim America, is suddenly an issue of importance not just to political insiders and sociologists but also to Jewish leaders, who understand that these 3.5 million citizens are gaining a credible voice in Washington and beyond, even if they agree that the Arab American community does not speak with a single voice.
More worrisome is the radicalism that thrives even within the mainstream organizations, but Jewish leaders say extremist views will not survive the intolerance of the American public in general.
“The concern is not the activities or the inclusion in the political process, which we encourage,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. “But there are people who advocate views that are inimical to American interests, groups that openly support Hezbollah and Hamas and groups that have helped in fundraising for terrorist organizations.”
More Than Numbers
During the past eight years, Arab Americans have built an impressive network of social, media, political and religious organizations. Voter turnout is above average. The mainstream media are spotlighting Arab concerns about discrimination at home and are likelier nowadays to cover the Middle East from a kitchen table in Gaza.
“There is a marked difference now in the way the media is covering the Middle East,” said Ann Lin, a professor of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “I think you see Arab Americans making the point that Israel and Palestinians are fighting, but the vast majority of people hurt and killed are Palestinians, and that fact is getting through to people more than it did five years ago.”
Bush had shown them they mattered when, during the first presidential debate, he denounced the use of secret evidence to hold suspected terrorists and condemned ethnic profiling – red-hot issues for Arab Americans, who claim they are the primary target of the practices. He had spoken twice to important Arab American organizations and won their endorsements.
Gore also reached out to the community, but his choice of Joseph Lieberman as a running mate didn’t endear him to Arab Americans, who couldn’t imagine an Orthodox Jew budging on questions of support to Israel.
Undoubtedly, the current intifada galvanized the community and may have contributed to Bush’s great showing in the polls among Arab Americans: 45 percent of the vote to Gore’s 38 percent, according to a survey by an Arab television station. But it was the collective courtship of their vote, whoever the suitor, that signified to them that they had finally become a credible voice in the national discourse, if not a potent force for change.
Policymakers, particularly the Democratic congressional representatives from Michigan, with its large Arab population, are listening, too.
House Minority Whip David Bonior co-sponsored legislation to reform the immigration laws that have led to the detention of people – mostly Arabs – who have alleged ties to terrorist organizations. Rep. John Conyers joined in, too. Arab activism and the media attention it drew certainly were factors in the release last month of Mazen Al-Najjar, a University of South Florida professor who was held for three years on suspicion of having ties to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
It was a coup for the community, said Dr. Yahya Basha of the American Muslim Council, who also praised Jewish groups that came to Al-Najjar’s defense.
Another coup was President-elect Bush’s appointment last week of Spencer Abraham of Michigan as his secretary of energy. If confirmed, Abraham, the first Arab American U.S. senator, will be the first Arab American Cabinet member.
“We recognize the increased level of activity and assertiveness on the part of the Arab American community, which they are entitled to and which we respect,” Hoenlein said. “It should not be exaggerated, as there’s a tendency to do.”
Transforming itself from a recognized minority to a powerful lobby, as American Jews have done, will take time, but it will happen, said Hussein Ibish of the 20,000-member American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (AAADC). The AAADC’s mission is to illuminate and root out ignorant and bigoted images of Arabs that make their way into movies, television and the news media.
“I think it’s clear that other ethnic groups that had once been disenfranchised or ineffective as immigrant groups have had a similar learning curve. But we are starting to see the results of our efforts in the last few decades,” he said.
“There’s a learning curve in acculturating to the American conversation and the American political system,” Ibish added. “Simply repeating what would be effective in an Arab context, in English, is not going to be effective.”
Jewish leaders, some of whom work in political or religious coalition with Arab groups, agree that their Arab counterparts have become sophisticated at advancing their agendas through the press and Congress.
Yet they also agree there isn’t a unifying force bringing Arab Americans under a single banner.
A Los Angeles rabbi who works closely with the Muslim community believes that a lack of organization is preventing Arab Americans from attaining their political objectives in the Middle East.
“I think Arab Americans are at a nascent stage of their development,” said Rabbi Harvey Fields of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “One of the bellwethers I’m looking for is the Arab American community beginning to take on what many American Jews took on … a sense of real responsibility and stewardship of the building of the infrastructure and economy that will make a Palestinian state and entity durable. That is something I have not seen very much yet.”
Donald Cohen, immediate past director of the Michigan Anti-Defamation League (ADL), believes Arab American organizations undercut their credibility by failing to rein in the searing rhetoric that has spilled onto the streets during anti-Israel rallies in Dearborn, which contains Michigan’s heaviest concentration of Arabs, and to dispel grotesque stereotypes of Jews that routinely find their way into the Arab press.
Cohen and the National Jewish Democratic Council tussled during the fall with the Dearborn-based Arab American Political Action Committee (AAPAC) over a videotape called “Hope for Peace in Jerusalem,” in which Israeli soldiers are falsely depicted storming the Al Aqsa mosque and are accused throughout of killing Arab children. The tape was shown at AAPAC’s annual dinner, at which Michigan Rep. John Dingell was present, and at a “town hall” meeting in Dearborn.
It wasn’t the first time Cohen publicly took issue with the leadership, and it has been frustrating, he said.
“The organizations know what they’re doing, and while they’re not necessarily leading the march on the anti-Jewish tone, they know where their troops are and what types of things will appeal to them,” he said.
Abed Hammoud, 34-year-old president of the AAPAC, said he felt wounded by the ADL’s denouncement of the videotape, asserting that the ADL is blind to human rights abuses in Israel. He called it a “hypocritical” position that stems from an inability to see Arabs as anything but violent provocateurs.
“We criticize Saddam Hussein,” Hammoud said. “Jewish organizations should tell the government of Israel it should be democratic and stop discrimination.”
Muslims cannot gain a foothold in mainstream American politics because of the same prejudices, said Ibish of the AAADC. It’s not true of the Jewish community as a whole, he noted, distinguishing it from the “pro-Israel community” like the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), AIPAC, and fundamentalist and messianic Christians.
“It’s true that most journalists and commentators are influenced by a very pro-Israel take on things, but there is an Arab American constituency that has managed to express itself in the media. It’s not a monologue any more, but in policymaking, in government, we see a concerted and coordinated attempt to exclude Arab Americans, especially those who are Muslim, who might affect discussion on Israel,” Ibish said.
The Terrorism Issue
Salam Al-Marayati of the 11-year-old Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles was a casualty of Jewish opposition, some from moderate organizations, when he was appointed as the only Muslim member of a congressional commission on terrorism in mid-1999. Rep. Dick Gephardt, his sponsor, withdrew the appointment as a result of the clamor.
“Every time a Muslim steps on a public stage, they get bombarded by the pro-Israel factions that have dominated the arena,” Al-Marayati said. He links the episode with Hillary Clinton’s disavowal of a $50,000 campaign contribution from the American Muslim Alliance last fall. Clinton’s opponent in the Senate race, Rick Lazio, had suggested that she was consorting with terrorists by accepting the money and pressured her to return it.
“They were fulfilling their civic duty and they got knocked around,” Al-Marayati said. “I was in exactly the same situation. They felt that the commission needed a Muslim voice. We were serving national interests.”
If it hadn’t been for a more sympathetic media, particularly the press, his case would not have made as many editorial pages as it did, he said. More than 50 publications, including some Jewish periodicals like The Journal, opposed Al-Marayati’s ill treatment.
“The judgment was clear: The American public was outraged when it happened to me, and I believe they’ll be equally outraged when this happens in the future,” Al-Marayati said.
Just as Israelis worry about their Arab citizens’ potential to aid the current Palestinian intifada, many Americans – Jewish or not – are concerned that Arab Americans may be providing financial or logistical support for terrorist activities aimed at Israel or at America. They cite specific instances in which Arabs, particularly Muslims, have been linked to violent incidents.
Al-Marayati, like other Arab American leaders, dismissed the allegations that covert cells in the U.S. support terrorist activity in the Middle East as so much pro-Israel propaganda.
“When it comes down to Palestinians, the fundraising has been for people with no schools or shelter, and that’s where the money is going. When we talk about people blowing themselves up, those are acts of desperation that don’t require funds,” Al-Marayati said.
Basha, of the American Muslim Council, said the fears are exaggerated. And anyway, he said, Jewish organizations raise far more money for Jewish settlers than any U.S.-based Arab group could.
“There are humanitarian entities based here or elsewhere that try to get finances overseas,” he said. “But people are focusing on their issues and events, and sooner or later fundraising will become less popular.”
No Longer Immigrants
In Los Angeles and Chicago, it is all but impossible to find a distinctly Arab neighborhood, though the Arab population of Los Angeles and Orange counties is listed as 283,355 by the Arab American Institute. Mosques seem to serve as social centers for all comers.
In Dearborn, the Arab community has settled in shtetl fashion, setting up bakeries, meat markets and restaurants side by side. The girls working behind the counters peer out of head scarves, while men in street clothes inspect plastic bags of freshly baked pita piled in baskets. Arabic is the only language spoken. The area is a magnet for new immigrants, who may live 10 to a house to save money.
Good demographic data aren’t easy to come by because the U.S. Census doesn’t track the Arab American community, but there have been attempts, most notably by the polling firm Zogby International, headed by prominent Arab American John Zogby.
In a comparison of six ethnic groups in early 2000, the survey found that half the Arab subjects surveyed had at least a college education, more than half said they were better off financially than four years ago, and 30 percent had incomes second only to the Jewish subjects in the poll.
One of the more significant findings of the survey is that the majority of Arab Americans are American-born for the first time in their century-old history in the United States.
Second- and third-generation Arabs are further from the conflicts that displaced their parents and grandparents, but there is a strong solidarity with their progenitors on issues ranging from ethnic discrimination to Palestinian rights. They aren’t constrained by language and “foreignness.”
“These kids went to school and learned their culture was backwards and their people are violent,” said sociologist Louise Cainkar of the University of Illinois. “There’s nothing like negativity and racism to keep people politically engaged, plus the uprising in the Middle East. Their parents faced this kind of racism and discrimination and thought they were just never going to become fully American.”
Ramy Eletreby, a 19-year-old college student from Orange County who, like Spencer, was helping out at the Islamic Cultural Center last month, reflects the politicization of the later-generation Arab Americans. The affable young man, whose Egyptian-born father is the head of the center, said he didn’t want to discuss his politics too openly because he’d like to break into acting one day, and he feared alienating people who might employ him.
But he said that he chose Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, admitting that Nader’s Lebanese heritage swayed him. Otherwise, he said, he would have gone with Bush.
“It’s hard to say this without sounding racist, but a vice president can become president,” said Eletreby. “I am not a Republican, but I hate Gore because of his policy in Israel. It contradicts American ideals of freedom and nonoppression.”
While the children and grandchildren of immigrants increasingly find their voice, a nationalistic pride has taken root. It wasn’t until about 30 years ago that Arab Americans began seeing themselves as a singular group.
“When I was growing up we had Lebanese from different villages who defined themselves by their villages,” Zogby said. “People identify themselves as Arab Americans, whereas they used to consider themselves Egyptian, Lebanese, Syrian. The children of immigrants, despite their parents’ direct ties with a town or a particular country, see the more general cultural designation as the identifier.”
About 80 percent of Arab Americans are Christian, but newer immigrants come from Iraq – most notably Chaldeans, who are Catholic – as well as Israel, Egypt, Yemen and North Africa.
“Even with the diversity in the community, there are overriding issues that unite everybody,” Zogby said. “Chaldean organizations are working with the larger community. They didn’t before.”
Terry Ahwal, a Palestinian activist in Detroit, remembers her father warning her not to mention that she was from Ramallah. He suggested she tell people she was Italian or Syrian to avoid their unspoken assumption that she had terrorist leanings.
“Up until the 1980s, the Arab community tried to hide its identity because of discrimination,” she said.
“Now, we are part of the country. What affects this country affects us.”
The differences between immigrants and nonimmigrants are also disappearing. “There’s an increasing realization that home is here in America, not Karachi or Cairo, where many immigrants have come from,” said Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “Home is where my grandchildren are going to be buried, not where my grandparents are buried. You’re not dealing with a foreign group any more; you’re dealing with a growing group of Americans.”
Aside from interfaith coalitions and bridge-building between American Jews and Arabs in Israel, most notably a project at the New Israel Fund to raise money for Israeli Arabs, the dialogue between Arab and Jewish groups in the United States is almost invisible.
Still, leaders agree the potential for a good working relationship is there. In L.A., Arab-Jewish dialogue groups have drawn a small but determined membership. “We will experience more difficult times, but I’m optimistic that we can maintain a relationship of trust and respect with the Arab-American community,” Rabbi Allen Freehling of University Synagogue said in October.
The Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit’s efforts on behalf of the Arab community “reflects a lack of anxiety and fear of each other,” said Basha.
David Gad-Harf of the community council, the only Jewish group he knows of in the U.S. that has worked in coalition with Arab American organizations to fight immigration quotas and the use of secret evidence, said Arab Americans will eventually be more amenable to working with outsiders, Jews among them.
“With the growing sophistication of the Arab community, they’ll realize they’ll have to work in coalition with others. That tends to have a moderating influence; once you know someone, it’s hard to see them as an enemy,” he said.
But which party will offer the olive branch is the central question.
James Zogby, founder and head of the Arab American Institute and the granddaddy of mainstream Arab politics, is rueful about the battering he has taken at the hands of Jewish organizations, particularly since he routinely defends himself against Arab accusations of being too conciliatory.
When Gore appointed him as a senior advisor to his campaign, Zogby was accused in newspaper editorials of supporting Hezbollah. His son Joseph came under fire for articles he wrote about the plight of the Palestinians when he worked at the State Department under Martin Indyk, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. Mort Klein of the ZOA led the charge, calling for Joseph Zogby’s ouster.
Abraham Foxman of the ADL also weighed in, accusing Indyk of hiring Zogby to assuage Arab American concerns that too many Jews worked in the State Department.
Although the younger Zogby was leaving anyway to take a job at the Justice Department, his father said it’s hard to shake off the sense that he can’t win.
“I want to build relations between our communities, but it can’t be at the expense of my son, and it can’t be at the expense of being fair with each other,” James Zogby said. “I defended Lieberman, and I’m still being attacked in e-mails. I know the man, and I disagree with him on some of his votes, but he’s fought for us and he’s a good guy. Should we not step out of our respective communities and make efforts to improve our relations?”