Open Zion

11.13.12

We Already Are Politically "Normalized"

There is a wonderful old Indian tale about three blind men who come upon an elephant and ask, "What is this?" One grabbing the elephant's tail says, "I think it is a rope." Another putting his arms about the elephant's leg says, "No, it is more like a tree." While the third touching its side says, "I think it is like a huge, smooth rock." The elephant, of course, is more than it's individual parts. By focusing on just one part, and assuming it's the whole, you make a colossal blunder.

There can be no doubt that the divided, paranoid, disengaged Arab Americans Hussein Ibish describes do exist. I've met a few. But they do not define the Arab-American community any more than the elephant's tail or leg define the elephant. My friend Hussein, whom I like very much, has been hanging around with the wrong crowd and is letting them get under his skin. He should get out more—there's a world to see, and a community to meet.

If, for example, he had visited communities across the U.S. this year, had been at the Democratic convention, and had worked in a few campaigns this past  fall, he would have been able to write a different article about Arab Americans and their political involvement.

In Patterson, New Jersey, for example, Arab Americans supporting their friend, Congressman Bill Pascrell, defeated an AIPAC-backed challenger, Congressman Steve Rothman. The northern New Jersey Arab-American community has been growing in size and political savvy—with a a half-dozen mayors and city council people already in office. So when Rothman decided to take on Pascrell, they rose up and out-performed all expectations in new voters registered, money raised and work done.

The same was true all over, from Illinois to Florida, Northern Virginia to Toledo, where "candidate's nights" hosted by these substantial Arab-American communities and others brought out scores of aspirants seeking endorsements and support. In Dearborn, Michigan, the ArabAmericanPAC dinner is a must-do event for candidates.

If Hussein had come to our luncheon for Arab-American delegates at the Democratic Convention, he would have met some remarkable people. This year there were a record number of Arab American delegates—55 of them from 21 states. They were an incredibly diverse group—representing different generations, religions, and countries of origin. They included the first Somali American woman elected delegate; a former Iraqi prisoner, who became a U.S. citizen in 2005 and a delegate to the 2008 convention; a voter protection lawyer from Wisconsin; and long-time party leaders from across the country.

Had Hussein been at the Convention, he might have joined the majority of the delegates on the floor who three times voted down the party leadership's ham-fisted effort to force a "Jerusalem plank" into the party platform. The leaders got their their way - but it was a hollow victory, at best.

This is but a taste of the real activity of Arab Americans nationwide who are engaged and making a difference in their communities. And it's not new. It has been developing over the past three decades and is a record to be proud of. It represents the collective work and the political inclination of the majority of Arab Americans.

From our polling over the past decade and one half, we have learned the following, that is relevant to this discussion:

  • about 70 percent of Arab Americans are born in the U.S.;
    more than 60 percent identify as Arab Americans;
  • Arab American voter registration and participation are higher than the national average;
  • over 70 percent have a strong party preference—with more than 2 to 1 favoring the Democratic Party;
  • far and away the top issue (80 percent) for Arab American voters is the economy.

All this sounds pretty "normal" and very "American" to me.

One final note: I chair the Ethnic Council in the Democratic Party. Our council represents 19 European and Mediterranean ethnic communities. Every ethnic community with whom I've worked has its self-marginalized, alienated elements. Political empowerment is a process—not just for communities, but for individuals within communities. But guess what? Arab Americans are one of the better organized and better performing ethnic communities in the country. That's the lesson to be learned if you take your focus off one part of the Arab American community, and see the whole community, as it is.