Against the Current, No. 38, May/June 1992
THERE’S A DILEMMA that the Arab American community is faced with, one that probably confronts Palestinian activists and the peace and justice community in America too. In electoral politics the movement has relied a lot on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, the wing clearly the most beholden to the Israeli political action committees. It has tended to be the most Zionist in its policies toward the Middle East, and the least receptive even to domestic concerns of the Arab American community.
That motivation does not necessarily motivate you to go with the Republican Party either. But there seems to be some confusion around that. We’re at a point now, in American foreign policy and the Middle East in particular, when American interests are being redefined. The question is how much?
A lot of us who have been doing this work for a long time are not giving way to any kind of false euphoria about changes happening in leaps and bounds. But there is some euphoria, I think, in the Arab-American community over President Bush’s stand on the $10 billion housing loan guarantees and how he did expose pro-Israeli influence and pressure on his decision and Congress’ decision.
I don’t think that the end of that fight has yet been seen. I think it’ll be interesting to watch, because the decision could continue to be delayed through the election period–or put the Bush Administration in a difficult position in an election year while it’s trying to orchestrate a “peace process.”
The Arab American community, like any other, isn’t monolithic. There are some groups that have believed for a long time, not just now in the so-called “New World Order,” that we should have a presence in both the Democratic and Republican Parties, and organize to have a presence at the state and local levels as well as the national level in primaries and organize to become delegates.
I don’t think that that has changed. Most people who are looking at the Middle East as one issue perceive that, where American interests diverge from Israeli-expressed interests, Republican officials will have more leeway to represent American interests than the Democrats, particularly the liberal Democrats, might have. That gets back to the question: What are American interests and what does that have to do with people working for peace and social justice?
United States interests in the Middle East were served by the Gulf War, and I don’t think anybody, particularly in the Arab American community, can afford to forget that it was President Bush who launched the Gulf War. And the negative repercussions, for all Arab people and particularly Iraqi and Palestinian people, are amazing. So although he may be able to exercise leverage on the Israelis, how much leverage and for what?
Both Republican and Democratic Administrations have always had alliances with the Labor Party in Israel. So I think that the dissatisfaction that Bush has shown he wouldn’t really show if it were a Labor coalition inside of Israel right now not a Likud coalition. I think that goes for the Democrats too. Even the organized American Jewish community is not going to let out all their guns in this fight over the $10 billion because they’re a little embarrassed by Shamir’s positions.
U.S. interests and Israeli Labor Party interests converge very nicely, whether it’s Republicans or Democrats in the White House. The American Administration and the Labor Party all agree that there should never be a Palestinian state, and that Palestinian autonomy is based on Israeli control over land, water and security. I don’t think for that little bit of difference, and how that translates for Arab people and Palestinian people on the ground, it’s worth building political alliances or having new political expectations.
It’s a long road, but I think those who are working for peace, justice and social change will have to look for alternatives. Even some of the liberal Democrats who have been better have failed to deliver over and over again on substantive issues and certainly on domestic issues.
The peace and social justice community historically was not very vocal or organized around the Middle East. The Gulf War’s probably the first instance where a real serious mobilization happened. The people who really believe social change is going to come from the grassroots and from community organizing have to take up the Middle East.
If the grassrroots work happens and the multi-issue agenda gets built, and the Middle East is part of the agenda, that’s where our power will be, and not in falsely placing our hopes in conservative candidates. We need to build a progressive agenda that gets noticed, to which people whom we’ve supported are held accountable. If it can’t be done through traditional ways, we’re going have to look for alternatives. That’s the kind of discussions I’ve been having with the groups and activists that we have alliances with.
During times like the Gulf War, when they were being so harassed by the FBI and their civil liberties were being violated, Arab Americans want to see that they can actually talk to their local officials and get some results. They saw clearly during the Gulf War that that wasn’t true. So they want people who recognize them as an ethnic minority in this country that’s got some rights and pay attention to their concerns about their families back home.
In cities like Chicago where there have been progressive Black candidates at the local level, and also at the state and national levels, the Arab American community has been very involved (especially during Jesse Jackson’s two campaigns). I think we’d need an independent candidate on the national level, who can link a progressive domestic and international agenda including the Middle East, to get the Arab American community mobilized nationally. Otherwise we might have some opinions and some people will vote some ways and some people will vote other ways, but there won’t really be an Arab American national agenda on electoral politics.
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May-June 1992, ATC 38