1982 versus 2024: A tale of three cities

The secret is getting organized

Wahington Watch

This past weekend, I was supposed to travel to Chicago for the Arab American Democratic Club’s annual candidates’ brunch. Illness prevented my travel. Instead, I’m writing what I was going to say in my keynote remarks, hoping that it will help both younger and older Arab Americans better understand how much has changed for the community over the past four decades.

When it became clear how unrelenting Israel’s assault on Gaza would be, many in my age cohort had a bit of PTSD. We recalled the pain, dread, and powerlessness we felt in 1982 during Israel’s invasion and bombardment of Lebanon, culminating in its brutal entry into West Beirut.

Today the pain and dread are the same, and the loss of life equally horrific and devastating. But in one important regard 2024 is quite different from 1982. We don’t feel as powerless— for three important reasons. First, during the intervening four decades, Arab Americans have become empowered and recognized as an important political constituency. As a result, Arab Americans have developed allies among other critical political constituencies. And finally, a new generation of Arab Americans have become emboldened and skilled in coalition-building and direct political action.

While there is still pain and dread, powerlessness has given way to protest and political engagement. This story can best be told by Arab American progress in three cities: Chicago IL, Dearborn MI, and Paterson NJ.

Chicago is home to the US’s largest Palestinian community. Overall, Arab Americans make up as much as four to five percent of the city’s electorate. When the first Arab American Democratic Club was launched in the 1980s, we struggled to get the 20 members needed for a charter. Because of persistent anti-Arab bias, only a handful of candidates for public office would come to events seeking the community’s support. This has changed. For several years now, the Club’s annual brunch has been on the to-do list of the city’s political leaders— evidence of the growing political clout and savvy of the Arab community. This and similar events hosted by other Chicago-based Arab American political groups now draw practically every candidate for public office.

Currently, there is one Arab American serving in the state’s assembly with another poised to be elected in the fall.

As the magnitude of Israel’s bombing and ethnic cleansing became evident, demonstrations sprang up around the city, with young Arab Americans joining progressive Jewish, Muslim, and Black activists to push back. They also worked together to pass a City Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, which was resoundingly endorsed by Chicago’s mayor. And three of the city’s members of Congress have taken the lead in endorsing a congressional bill calling for a ceasefire.

So what makes this year different from 1982? Quite simply it’s that Arab Americans have greater capacity, more allies, respect, and political power, and we’re using them to make our voices heard.

Southeast Michigan, which includes Detroit, Dearborn, and surrounding communities, has the largest Arab population of any similar area in the USA. Four decades ago, the candidate campaigning for mayor of Dearborn ran on the platform of what to do about the “Arab Problem.” He said that Arab immigrants didn’t share our values and “were ruining our darn good way of life.”

Today, Arabs are more than half of Dearborn’s population. The mayor is Arab American, as is a majority of city council, the state representative, the police chief, and a number of other local elected officials. Detroit, Dearborn, and other southeast Michigan municipalities have passed ceasefire-in-Gaza resolutions.

Michigan’s Arab American population is so large and well organized that they can be the margin of victory or defeat in a close presidential election. That is why the Biden Administration has sent White House and Biden campaign delegations to meet with the community. Several of these meetings had to be cancelled because the politically mature local community understands the difference between politics and policy.

What Michigan’s Arab American leaders, including elected officials, are doing now is encouraging community members to vote “uncommitted” in the state’s Democratic primary on February 27th. If enough do so, it will send a clear message that the community’s votes matter and they must be earned.

While the problems faced by Paterson NJ’s Arab Americans were the same as those faced by the communities in Chicago and Dearborn, their progress is even more substantial. Paterson has the largest per capita Palestinian population in the USA— almost seven percent of Paterson is Palestinian American. Forty years ago Paterson’s Arab community was not fully politically engaged. That has changed.

On Presidents’ Day, Paterson’s mayor, an Arab American, and the members of the city council, will host a press event appealing to Biden to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. This builds on ceasefire resolutions passed by Paterson and two other nearby communities and the historic decision a few years back to rename Paterson’s Main Street. It is now called “Palestine Way.” And Paterson is a Sister City to Ramallah, Palestine.

In these three cities, the Arab American communities are large, politically engaged, and in addition to being committed to making their cities safer and more prosperous, they are also demanding that their concerns be respected by Congress and the President.

So what makes this year different from 1982? Quite simply it’s that Arab Americans have greater capacity, more allies, respect, and political power, and we’re using them to make our voices heard.

Dr James J Zogby
Dr James J Zogby
The writer is President, Arab American Institute.

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