Protecting the Arab American identity

Ethnic, not sectarian

Washington Watch

It took over a half century to strengthen the Arab American identity and build organizations to meet community needs. Today this work is under assault by those who seek to erase our gains, fracture the community along sectarian lines, or silence our voices in US politics.

First, a bit of history:

Just six decades ago there was no organized Arab American community. There were people of Arab descent in America— most being descendants of World War I era immigration. As that wave had come primarily from Syria or Lebanon, the organizations they formed emphasized their country-specific or village identities. Palestinian clubs also brought together descendants of a few Palestinian villages. As was the case with many other immigrant communities of this era, churches or mosques were the major institutions that organized the early immigrants of Arab descent.

After the freeze on immigration from the Arab world was lifted in the 1950s, the numbers of Arab immigrants increased and grew more diverse with respect to their countries of origin and religious affiliations. This change in the community’s composition, coupled with the growing population of children and grandchildren of those who had come prior to and during the WWI era, accelerated the formation of an Arab American identity.

The new and more diverse group of Arab immigrants and students who came to the USA during this time brought with them ideas of political pan-Arabism that had gained currency across the Arab world. The offspring of the WWI generation of immigrants came to embrace an Arab American identity for different reasons. They were mobile, more integrated into American society, and coming of age in a period of American life when a number of ethnic identity movements were born. Instead of the narrower country, village, or sect-based identities, they were drawn to those who shared their cultural heritage of language, music, and even food. It was not ideology that brought them together, but a shared heritage. Importantly, it was also Palestine— an issue that was a part of the community’s shared heritage, for two reasons.

First, it was understood to be an issue of a grave injustice done to the Palestinian Arab people— many of whom had family in the USA, with their numbers growing as a new wave of immigrants came after the 1967 War. A second reason for Palestine growing in importance in shaping the Arab American identity was the discrimination and exclusion encountered by many Arab Americans— regardless of their country of origin— if they expressed sympathy for the Palestinian cause or even if they said nothing but were presumed to be pro-Palestinian because they were of Arab descent. The “injustice over there” was compounded by an “injustice over here.”

While the earliest major national organizations— the Association of Arab American University Graduates and National Association of Arab Americans— were different in focus and composition, they shared a commitment to building a community based on a shared heritage and identity, including the issue of Palestinian rights.  They deemphasized divisions based on religious affiliation, national origin, or immigrant/native-born status.

This effort to build a unified voice proved easy for some, yet challenging for others, especially during Lebanon’s long civil war. Some who fled that conflict brought their sect identity and grievances with them. Tension between those who principally identified as Lebanese, Palestinian, or Syrian, or those who emphasized their Christian or Muslim identities also took a toll on the efforts to build a unified community. Still, we persisted.

In 1980, former Senator James Abourezk and I launched the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to combat negative stereotypes of Arabs in media and popular culture, and discrimination in all areas of life. The community was ready. As we traveled from city to city, the events we held brought into our fold tens of thousands of Arab Americans from every generation, country, and religious affiliation. I recall a 1981 dinner in Chicago of about 1,500. The local organizer began the night asking, in turn, for those from Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, and down the line, to stand. He finished by noting how wonderful it was that we had brought together such a diverse crowd with a shared identity and unity of purpose.

Our national organizations have been united in rejecting this effort to erase our non-sectarian ethnic Arab American identity and drag us back to the days of division. We maintain the right to define ourselves based on our history and our shared heritage. We remain unified in our efforts to fight against discrimination and political exclusion, and our shared commitment to fight for justice for Palestinians and a more balanced American foreign policy that promotes peace, security, and prosperity for all of the countries of the Arab world.

After the devastation wrought by Israel’s bombardment of Beirut, we launched a project “Save Lebanon” to bring wounded Lebanese and Palestinian children to the USA for treatment unavailable in Lebanon given the destruction of West Beirut’s hospitals. After the children came and were sent to US hospitals and to the Arab American communities that had offered to host them, I heard complaints from a few in the community. In one place they said, “we’re Palestinians and you sent us a Lebanese child (or vice versa).” Or “we’re Christian and you sent us a Muslim boy (or vice versa).” Still, we persisted.

In the end, each of the communities fell in love with the children they hosted and embraced with pride what they had done for these innocent victims of war. As I went from city to city raising money to bring more children, I spoke about this embrace: “We brought the children here to heal them, but in the end, they healed us.”

During the next decade we witnessed several key developments: the Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns, the first to welcome Arab Americans into the political mainstream; the strengthening and growth of Arab American institutions focusing on social services, preserving and promoting  our history and culture; the  intense pushback by major pro-Israel American Jewish groups who called our community a “fiction” and pressured others to exclude us; and the creation of the Arab American Institute focusing on mobilizing Arab Americans in all areas of US politics and public service— voter mobilization, candidate support, and engagement in domestic and foreign policy deliberations.

The past three decades have witnessed both significant accomplishments and new challenges for the Arab American community. We’ve seen: Arab Americans emerge as an important constituency that is courted by political campaigns; Arab Americans elected to federal, state, and local levels of government; social service and cultural agencies care for new immigrants and educate others about our contributions to American life; and Arab American Heritage Month become formally recognized by a presidential proclamation, and celebrated by governors and legislatures in almost every state, due in large part to the work of the Arab America Foundation.

Of course, with this increased recognition has come increased pressure from those forces who seek to stymie our growth and silence our voices. We’ve come to expect it and have steeled ourselves to fight. More difficult to combat has been the effort to divide the community.

Beginning with the George W. Bush administration, continuing into the Obama administration, and now accelerating during the Biden White House has been the effort to sectarianize the community by conflating Arab Americans with American Muslims, and then dividing outreach efforts to “Christian Arabs.”  Because this effort has been initiated at the highest levels of government, it’s spilled over into the media and even some civil society initiatives.

Our national organizations have been united in rejecting this effort to erase our non-sectarian ethnic Arab American identity and drag us back to the days of division. We maintain the right to define ourselves based on our history and our shared heritage. We remain unified in our efforts to fight against discrimination and political exclusion, and our shared commitment to fight for justice for Palestinians and a more balanced American foreign policy that promotes peace, security, and prosperity for all of the countries of the Arab world.

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

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