by James J. Zogby
A week 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 pro-Jewish 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 multi-ethnic 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 U.S. 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.
Although 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.
Although 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.
James J. Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute.