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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2012, Pages 50-53

Arab-American Activism

ADC National Convention: "Taking Charge; Moving Forward"

(L-r) ADC President Warren David and Ambassador Clovis Maksoud present Anas “Andy” Shallal, an Iraqi-American artist, activist and restaurateur, with the Hala Salaam Maksoud Leadership Award, given to an individual who has shown outstanding commitment and leadership in the community. (Photo Courtesy ADC)

From June 21-24, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) held its annual national convention at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Washington, DC. Throughout the four-day conference, attendees participated in a wide array of discussions that focused on issues such as civil liberties, the 2012 U.S. elections, and combating discrimination.

Civil Rights and Economic Opportunity

Following a day of advocacy on Capitol Hill, the convention's formal proceedings began on June 22 with a White House Round Table Discussion. Ari Matusiak, executive director of the White House Business Council, began by giving a concise yet informative speech on the Obama administration's plans for the economy. Matusiak stressed that while "jobs aren't where we need them to be, in almost every single sector we are experiencing growth." Despite his optimism, several audience members were not convinced that the economy is where it needs to be.

One man, who identified himself as an Arab-American business owner, mentioned that his businesses were having a hard time finding qualified candidates for employment. He asked Matusiak what the administration is doing to help young people get involved with the economy. This gave Matusiak the opportunity to detail the president's support of the American Jobs Act, a three-part plan that focuses on "efficiency, investing in infrastructure, and unleashing innovation in America." Matusiak went on to cite the administration's commitment to investing in community colleges and other higher education programs aimed at preparing the American workforce for the 21st century economy.

Matusiak also was grilled on the business community's relations with Arab Americans. One particularly passionate man demanded to know why "Arab Americans are never consulted on domestic issues. With all of the problems currently taking place in the Middle East, it seems as though our community is ignored on the domestic side," he complained. This comment received loud applause and reflected the overall sentiment in the room: that President Obama should be doing more to help Arab Americans fight discrimination and participate actively in the economy.

The morning's second discussion focused on the New York City Police Department's (NYPD) surveillance of Arab-American communities.

Jumana Musa, deputy director for the Rights Working Group, opened the panel with a short video of a young Kurdish-American man who was stopped and strip searched—"for no reason other than being in the wrong neighborhood," according to Musa. The video served to frame the discussion, which sought to humanize policies that affect a sizeable chunk of Americans. "It's not about policy and theories," explained Musa. "It's about people and impact."

Within New York City, the anti-Stop and Frisk movement is a key issue on which different races and ethnicities can unite, Musa said. "We're never going to win this…by ourselves," she said, referring to the lack of cooperation among different ethnic communities when it comes to confronting their shared issues.

While Musa's descriptions of the various institutions that practice racial profiling for data-gathering and surveillance could have left listeners hopeless and weary, Musa ended the discussion by offering solutions. She identified two main areas that activists should focus on: Addressing inner divisions between ethnic groups, and ending collaboration and cooptation between the local police and the FBI.

The theme of civil rights extended into Friday's luncheon and awards ceremony, titled "Civil Rights, Moving Forward." Addressing the issue of discrimination, Los Angeles police Sheriff Lee Baca noted that "The United States is an incredible place," commending it for being a "very diverse" country. He went on to lament, however, that too many Americans, particularly politicians, express intolerance toward Islam.

Those accepting awards also condemned intolerance toward Arab Americans. David Lopez, recipient of the Friend in Government Award, regretted the fact that in a recession "there is often an effort to scapegoat certain communities." Pro Bono Attorney of the year Anton Hajjar emphasized the importance of community, remarking that "the law is a tool, the law helps, but the most important thing is solidarity."

Abdeen Jabara, recipient of the Civil Rights Pioneer Award, differed somewhat with Sheriff Baca, arguing that intolerance has "little to do with religion," and more to do with politics.

Michael Moore Addresses ADC

Filmmaker Michael Moore speaks to ADC. (Staff photo A. Begley)

For many attendees, the convention's highlight was documentary filmmaker Michael Moore's June 22 one-on-one conversation with film scholar Dr. Jack Shaheen.

Moore fondly recalled an ADC fellowship he received in 1985 to visit the Arab world, saying the trip had a transformative effect on his activist activities. In order to thank the organization, Moore said, "I offered a premiere [of the film 'Roger and Me'] in Washington, DC and 100 percent of the proceeds went to ADC."

The trip to the Arab world planted a seed of Palestinian solidarity that has stuck with Moore. He told a story about his 1989 experience at the Jerusalem Film Festival, which featured "Roger and Me." The festival committee had used only Hebrew and French subtitles on the film, but Moore insisted that, "Unless you're going to put Arabic subtitles on it…in good conscience I can't participate." His strong stance compelled the festival committee to switch from French and Hebrew subtitles to Arabic and Hebrew subtitles the following year.

Moore said that all of his documentaries combat fear and ignorance. Explaining that "fear works best when you can keep a people ignorant," he added that "We need to open up these closets and show that there are no monsters."

In the question-and-answer session several attendees asked Moore if he would ever make a documentary about the Palestine-Israel conflict. The filmmaker expressed interest, saying, "I have spent a lot of time in recent years [thinking] about not just showing the problem.…I would like to provide some suggestions for solving this thing. I do not want this to last beyond my lifetime."

U.S. Foreign Policy

Ambassador Philip Wilcox (l) and Prof. Noura Erakat discuss international law and the future for Palestinian refugees. (Staff photo D. Sprusansky)

While Moore's remarks were greeted with laughter and applause, the June 22 foreign policy caucus left many feeling agitated and angry. Author and Institute for Policy Studies fellow Phyllis Bennis opened the caucus by assessing U.S. policy in the Middle East.

"U.S. power is less than it used to be," Bennis said, "however the U.S. remains uncontested on the military side. This is our most powerful tool, and it's a huge problem." She concluded by stating that if U.S. foreign policy is ever going to succeed in the Middle East, "the key has to be diplomacy."

Ben Rhodes, Obama administration speechwriter and deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, requested that his comments be off the record, which did not sit well with many audience members. The fact that his comments were consistent with stated Obama administration policy further upset people in the audience, who wanted answers to the myriad of problems currently threatening Middle East stability.

(L-r) William Younes, Phyllis Bennis and Ben Rhodes discuss the direction of American foreign policy. (Staff photo A. Begley)

Indeed, the question-and-answer session, which focused heavily on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, became rather contentious. Ignoring the moderator's instructions, several members of the audience began shouting questions directly at Rhodes. To his credit, Rhodes attempted to answer every question to the best of his ability, but by this time many members of the audience seemed too angry or frustrated to care. As the caucus ended, there were still many people clamoring for a chance to question Rhodes.

On Sunday morning, June 24, attendees were given the opportunity to revisit the topic of Palestine with a panel discussion titled "The Future of Palestinian Refugees in the Wake of the Arab Uprisings."

Ambassador Philip Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, cited as a major obstacle to peace the fact that "the Israeli government…does not want to forfeit the conquest they have achieved over these very many years." He went on to note that "the American-Jewish community is deeply divided," and expressed his hope and cautious optimism that liberal Jews will "ultimately prevail….[and] offer the only real way out" of the intractable conflict.

Noura Erakat, professor of International Human Rights Law at Georgetown University, proclaimed that "the Nakba…is not a historical moment…[but] an ongoing process," because evictions of Palestinian families continue to occur. She concluded by urging people to support the BDS movement as long as Israel fails to comply with international law.

Describing the current state of Palestinian refugees, Matthew Reynolds, Washington representative for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said that refugees feel "abandoned and forgotten." UNRWA, he said, provides "the services to Palestinian refugees that others cannot and will not provide."

Key Concerns for Arab-American Voters in 2012 Elections

NAACP President Ben Jealous. (Staff photo M. Patkar)

The November 2012 U.S. elections proved to be an important topic throughout the convention.

At a June 22 panel titled "U.S. Elections Forum: Decision 2012," NAACP president Ben Jealous and ADC president Warren David discussed what the key concerns of Arab Americans should be when they cast their ballots.

In Jealous' opinion, racial profiling is an important election issue that is "a common consternation in both the black and Arab communities." The big question on everyone's mind, he said, should be, "if profiling endangers [minorities], can we stop it?"

Jealous said he believes the most effective way to achieve progress is to form common interest coalitions and focus on one issue. It is important that everyone "knows the Constitution and owns it," he added, because the U.S. is "a country of laws, not just people."

To David's concern that there is no "momentum" in the Arab-American community behind one presidential candidate, Jealous observed that "there is potential for progress either way." If Mitt Romney is elected, Jealous said, "civil rights will be one big question mark," while if Obama is re-elected, Arab Americans and black Americans must be prepared to be "more aggressive in terms of getting anti-profiling legislation passed."

A June 23 panel on "Civil Rights in a New Administration" built on the previous day's discussion by exploring the impact that a second Obama term or a Romney presidency would have on Arab- and Muslim-American communities.

Arsalan Iftikhar, a human rights lawyer and global media commentator, defended the Obama administration, urging the audience to "look at things in the contextual framework…the Obama administration was working with an obstructionist Republican Congress that made it its mission to block any legislation [put forth by Obama]."

When asked what a Romney-led administration may look like, Iftikhar exclaimed: "I have no idea, and I don't want to see it!" Cyrus McGoldrick of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)-NY also was wary of Romney's views on civil rights, both domestically and abroad. He suggested that a domestic policy of racial profiling has resulted in a racially tinted foreign policy, to which Iftikhar adamantly disagreed, arguing that "to conflate [domestic policy] with…extra-judicial killings and drone strikes…is quite problematic."

Celebrating Arab-American Heritage And Identity

Moroccan musicians (l-r) Mohamed Reda, Nouamane Lahlou and Nidal Ibourk help the ADC audience celebrate their rich heritage. (Staff photo R. Langley)

The annual ADC conference is about more than panel discussions and policy issues; participants also like to have some fun while celebrating their Arab-American heritage. ADC thus provided a superb show on Friday, June 22 that consisted of live music and dance, as well as the presentation of the Jack G. Shaheen Scholarships and Achievement Awards.

In between singing along to live music, the audience recognized individuals receiving awards and scholarships on stage. Dr. Jack Shaheen presented the Achievement Award to Jackie Reem Salloum and scholarships to Dr. Evelyn Alsultany, Diana Aqra, Faisal Attrache, Ziad El-Bayoumi Foty, Valerie Bishrat, and Claire Stevens.

Organizing Effectively

(L-r) Samer Korkor, Merrie Najimy, Josh Ruebner and Hasan Newash advise attendees on organizing effectively. (Staff photo K. Duffey)

Yet another component of this year's conference was assistance to Arab Americans of all ages seeking to organize events. At a June 23 student brainstorming session, former University of Michigan ADC Chapter president Will Youmans and ADC staff attorney Nicole Saleem discussed how to organize effectively on campus.

Saleem began the session by expressing ADC's desire to "get more involved and provide support to Arab-American groups on college campuses."

One of the attendees, Alaa Yousef, an organizer of Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine (SPJP) at New York University, shared how her group got involved in the TIAA-CREF campaign, which urges financial services organizations to stop investing in companies, such as Caterpillar, that profit from the Israeli occupation. Due to its efforts, Yousef explained, the group became "a presence not just on campus, but in the New York community."

Workshop participants reached a general consensus that having a regional point of contact from an outside organization could help drive on-campus organizations.

Another June 23 workshop focused on the skills needed to become an effective community advocate and organizer. Teacher Merrie Najimy, president of ADC's Massachusetts chapter, discussed organizing efforts in her local teacher's union. Emphasizing the differences between organizing and mobilizing, she explained, "Organizing leads to mobilizing and then when you are done you go back to being organized." She emphasized the importance of networks, saying, "Organizing is about building relationships."

Josh Ruebner, the national advocacy director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, pointed out the importance of raising awareness by making information more readily available. Hasan Newash, a former executive engineer at Chrysler Engineering Center and co-founder of numerous Arab-American and Palestinian activist organizations (including the Palestine Cultural Office in Michigan, which in May gave an award to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,) described the mental and emotional challenges of organizing—"You will get depressed, you will get lonely," he said. Despite these challenges, he called on everyone in the room to take action.

—Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Staff and Interns