April is Arab American Heritage Month, and it has been gratifying to see the supportive proclamations issued by dozens of states, local governments, and the even the State Department and the Democratic Party.
Given this level of recognition of our community’s contributions in government, art, sports, and business, one might be tempted to say that we should forget past hurts, rest on our laurels, and move on. Not so fast.
To understand our present, it’s important to know the painful path we had to take to get here. And with newer immigrants still facing discrimination and hate, it’s vital to recognize that the lessons learned from the past have applications today.
I want to share some of my personal experiences.
My entire adult life and that of many Arab Americans of my generation was shaped by anti-Arab behaviors. I’m not speaking here about the cruel taunts we endured as kids when we were called “camel-jockeys,” “greasy Lebs,” or “sand-n******s.” What we’ve been subjected to has been more far more pernicious.
It came in a variety of forms: outright discrimination, maligning or denying our identity, and political exclusion. In some instances, the bigotry, though obvious to us, was shrugged off by others. But as former Senator James Abourezk would say, “Take what’s said about Arabs and substitute the word Jew. If it makes you cringe, then understand how wrong it is.” Examples abound:
In 1968, I was scheduled to speak at a rally against the Vietnam War. Someone objected, saying, “Why are we letting the Arab speak?” I then had to endure a debate as to whether it was appropriate for “the Arab guy” to speak.
A few years later, I received a death threat, “Arab dog, you’ll die if you set foot on campus again.” The campus police did nothing. Nor did they act when my classroom was attacked by Jewish Defense League “activists.”
In 1973, I was hired by a college to teach—only religion courses. Anything to do with the Middle East was off-limits, I was told, because “it would be too controversial to have a person of your ethnic background in that role.” A few years later, I applied to another college and was told that being an Arab might be helpful in getting some funding. I thought of Martin Luther King’s words—I was being excluded or sought out not because of my qualifications but because of my ethnicity.
In 1979, on Halloween at my children’s grade school, some classmates dressed as “Arabs,” carrying bags of money or toy guns. My children came home and said they were embarrassed and didn’t want anyone to know they were of Arab descent. When I complained, the principal didn’t deem it necessary to speak to the other children’s parents about how hurtful this was for my family.
In 1984, the late Senator Alan Cranston, on finding out that I was of Arab descent, asked me, “What kind of crazy Ay-rab are you?” His comment came at the end of a meeting he had with the Rev. Jesse Jackson where he lectured Jackson about the need to make another apology for reportedly using language insulting to the Jewish community. Apparently, Cranston didn’t think Arabs worthy of the same concern.
In 1990, during the lead up to the war to liberate Kuwait, I was on a national radio program debating an Australian affiliated with a US think tank. The host asked us, “What should the US be saying to Saddam Hussein?” The other gentleman answered first. When I began my answer with, “What we should be saying is…,” the host stopped me in mid-sentence and asked, “For our listeners, when you say ‘we’ whom do you mean?”
It wasn’t just the behavior of individuals or groups that plagued us. The media routinely defamed our heritage—or rendered us invisible. In the 1980s, while I served as director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, we published an exhaustive five-year study of portrayals of Arabs and Arab Americans on American network television. I found no positive portrayals of Arab American characters on any TV show; the only Arabs were terrorists or greedy oil sheikhs. When I met with one network’s vice president for programming and remarked how hurtful this was for our children, he threw up his arms, saying, “Everyone has a complaint. The potato folks were upset last week because on one of our shows someone said potatoes were fattening.” Evidently, he couldn’t understand that we were people, not potatoes.
Equally disturbing as the defamation of our heritage has been the misappropriation of our culture, as for example when Rachel Ray called tabouli, hummus, and baba ghanoush Israeli cuisine (the word “hummus” is Arabic for chickpeas) or when major grocery chains now regularly market our food as Israeli or Middle Eastern—never as Arabic, or even Lebanese, Palestinian, or Syrian.
When I protested, I was told, “Stop being so sensitive.” But when your ethnicity is vilified, appropriation of the one thing left to you becomes deeply hurtful.
Sometimes discrimination had a deliberately harmful intent. When Arab Americans first organized, respected Jewish organizations denounced our efforts. The Anti-Defamation League withdrew from a pan-ethnic committee on media stereotyping, telling the organizers that I had “suspect” intentions. Another major Jewish organization wrote that “Arab American” was a fiction. Instead, they claimed that we were really Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinians, etc., who, as a result of petrodollar funding, had formed an anti-Israel “Arab lobby.” We weren’t allowed to define ourselves as an American ethnic community. We only existed as the “other side” of a conflict in the Middle East.
As a result of this crude reductionism, we have long been plagued by other instances of painful exclusion. In 1983, after attending a fundraiser with Arab Americans and American Jews, a candidate for mayor in Philadelphia was attacked by his opponent for “going to the Arabs for money.” Instead of living up to his promise to be “the mayor for all Philadelphians,” he returned only the contributions made by Arab Americans.
In the late 1980s, David Dinkins, then a Democratic candidate for mayor of New York, and Representative Ed Zchau, a Republican Senate candidate in California, urged me to tell my community not to raise funds for their campaigns. Both said that they feared Arab American support would be used against them.
In 1988, when I was nominated by Jesse Jackson to fill a slot on the Democratic National Committee, party leaders asked me to step down, saying that Republicans would make my DNC position an issue in the November election. I reluctantly agreed. But even that apparently wasn’t enough. A month later, the party’s nominee, Michael Dukakis, rejected our endorsement.
In 2012, our nonpartisan Yalla Vote get-out-the-vote effort was targeted by Republicans in an ad declaring that adding 6,000 Arab American voters is “a little bit scary.” The ad closed with ominous music and “Don’t let them win.”
Because my community organized, fought back, and won many allies, we’ve seen Arab Americans win elective office and be appointed to administrative posts and federal judgeships. And in 1992, I was returned to my post on the DNC, where I continue to serve.
While we have overcome many of the obstacles that haunted us in the past, others remain. We now participate in politics and claim our ethnicity and heritage with pride. But the same bigotry still rears its ugly head when we advocate for Palestinian rights. We are able to voice our concerns about human rights in Arab countries, but when we condemn Israeli policies as inhumane or call for sanctions, we are denounced as anti-Semitic.
This, too, is a form of bigotry and discrimination. We are silenced and denied our full rights as American citizens because we care about Palestinians. And Palestinians’ fundamental rights to life and liberty are also denied.
Today, we face a new challenge. Beginning during the Bush administration and continuing during Obama’s term, Arab Americans were conflated with Muslims. The White House, instead of relating to us as an ethnic community, placed us in the “faith-based” group. Dividing us by religion was fundamentally wrong, internally divisive, and a denial of our right to define ourselves.
Unfortunately, this behavior has come to be accepted even by some of our liberal allies. Last week one of these groups, instead of acknowledging Arab American Heritage Month, tweeted a celebration of AMEMSA (Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, South Asian) Heritage Month. AMEMSA is not a shared heritage but rather a rubric created as a product of targeting by government national security policies. By choosing to recognize this invented category, they in effect canceled our decades of work to achieve recognition for our ethnic community.
This has a name: erasure. It has had painful and ugly consequences. When we receive death threats and are called “Arab dog” or “rag head’; when Arab Americans seeking public office are subjected to intense public scrutiny because of their support for Palestinian rights; when, for this same reason, we are excluded from policy discussions or government posts; when Arabs remain the one ethnicity that can still be negatively portrayed or vilified in popular culture with little or no consequence; or when our right to define ourselves is denied—then we must speak up as Arabs to demand that it end.
I’m proud to celebrate Arab American Heritage Month, and prouder still that so many have joined in celebrating our contributions to American life. We will not be canceled or erased, and we will not tolerate bigotry, hate, or the denial of our identity. We will continue to define ourselves—and defend our right to be called Arab Americans.