Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 7, 1985, Page 1

Special Report

Time to Cast a Wider Net

By Robert G. Hazo

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's September convention was unquestionably one of the most successful gatherings devoted to the Middle East in recent years. From the brilliant keynote speech by George Ball through the summary presentation by ADC National Chairman James Abourezk at the Grand Banquet to the final meeting highlighted by Vanessa Redgrave addressing the convention via satellite hookup, the level of political dialogue maintained by the speakers and the enthusiasm sustained by the audiences were truly remarkable.

There was also a sense of something different, a feeling that verged on optimism. It was present at the beginning and became increasingly evident as the convention went on. Participants not only seemed glad to be there, but most left with a perceptible sense of purpose and confidence that was quite new, even unique. In discussions among veteran Arab-American activists about this fresh and unmistakably uplifting spirit, all eventually focused on one development: Well over a third and possibly even half of the large number of attendees were not Arab-Americans.

If this was the key to the difference, then this convention is likely to become, in retrospect, a watershed. It may someday be seen as the first unmistakable evidence that awareness of U.S. policies in the Middle East has broadened, and that the public concerned about the impact of these policies on U.S. interests has ceased to be primarily ethnic, and has become unqualifiedly American.

The emergence of a substantial, unhyphenated American constituency seriously interested in Middle East affairs was not entirely unanticipated. Among its early advocates was Alfred Lilienthal. Later this writer was among others who supported the notion that the ethnic approach, by itself, would not be wholly effective. The case was made on the premise that, despite strong and legitimate concerns about and sympathies for the plight of overseas cousins, no room should be left for doubt that primary allegiance, as loyal U.S. citizens, must be to American interests which, appropriately understood, include peace and justice for all the inhabitants of the Middle East.

Practically it was argued that it would be some time—too much time in fact—before Arab-Americans could hope to match the power, unity, organizational genius, financial resources, pandemic influence, political sophistication and even the sheer numbers of the Zionist adversaries and their fellow travelers. To achieve a genuinely balanced policy, therefore, it was necessary to reach out to forces as strong as the Zionist ones that by now have dominated American Middle East policy for close to half a century.

In retrospect, it is not hard to see why what we may call "secularization" of the Arab-American political movement has been late in emerging. Most of the Jewish-American community was mobilized by the late 30s or early 40s, and already exerted considerable influence by the time the state of Israel was founded in 1948. During the same period there were perhaps only a half million Americans of Arab extraction. Most were immigrants, living in ghettos. The vast majority were Christians from Syria and Lebanon. In a new country, and just beginning their struggle for assimilation and advancement, they were in no position to mount more than token opposition to the formidable Zionist presence within the American political system.

Thus, for about a quarter of a century the only opposition to Zionism in the United States came from courageous, isolated private individuals and public officials—the occasional spokesman for a corporation doing business in the Arab world, or the outspoken missionary, traveler, or career government official who knew the Middle East. By themselves they were never enough to make any difference. Neither could the mixture of immigrants and first generation Arab-Americans seriously expect to affect national policy towards the Middle East. Not only were they in direct opposition to what many regard as the most powerful political force in America, but they were addressing their appeals to a country that had been a world poweronly since World War II. Americans were, therefore, largely ignorant of any but the omnipresent Zionist version of events occurring in the Near East. Consequently, in the first postwar years the general public preoccupied itself almost exclusively with communist threats to Europe and then, after U.S. military involvement in Korea and Vietnam, with communist threats to the Far East.

A Whole New Ball Game

But Arab-Americans—now three million strong, according to some estimates—have come a long way in the 20 years since they first began organizing and speaking out collectively. However slow their political development as a group, as individuals their economic and professional integration into American society now compares very favorably with every other ethnic group late to arrive on the American scene. Arab-American organizations have sought to raise the consciousness of the American people not only to injustices being perpetrated in the Middle East but, equally important, to the growing threat to American interests there. Arab-Israeli wars in 1967 and, especially, in 1973, when U.S. forces were put on nuclear alert, drew increasing public attention to the area and had some real, if modest, effect in raising questions about the pervasive and persistent pro-Israel bias, especially in the media. Outspoken elected officials including Senators Fulbright, Abourezk and Hatfield and, more recently, Senator Percy and Representatives Findley, McCloskey, Rahall and Oakar, went on to raise those same questions, often at great political risk.

The greatest breakthrough, however, came with the media's—particularly TV's—extensive coverage of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Israel's made-for-export image as a beleaguered democracy struggling to be a "light unto the nations" and its self-proclaimed ideal of "purity of arms" were widely seen as a crude hoax as Americans watched the helpless inhabitants of a great world capital being ruthlessly pounded to death, not with Soviet but rather with U.S.-supplied modern weaponry. The horror, brought night after night into American living rooms, created an atmosphere in which, for the first time, the formation of a wider constituency of Americans concerned about U.S. Middle East policy became possible. The fate of the U.S. Marines in Lebanon only served to confirm that constituency's growing suspicion that something was deeply wrong with American Middle East policy.

The new factors beginning to enter the Middle East equation are becoming explicit. Former Undersecretary of State George Ball, in memoirs published several years ago, concluded that his own extensive writing and lecturing on the Middle East had had little effect. At the just-concluded convention, however, he noted to this writer that he now believes a new and general interest is there and growing.

That this new interest revealed itself at the convention of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is no accident. Arab-Americans, led by Senator Abourezk, organized this group in 1980 to do something about the pandemic calumny then being heaped with impunity on the Arab image in this country. As a matter of practicality, organized Arab-American political activity needed to coalesce under the banner of anti-discrimination because it was a practice no American could defend, and an issue that all Arab-Americans, and their friends, could support.

Although focusing on an ethnic issue ensured ADC a solid political base, from its inception ADC membership was open to any American. This foresight paid off handsomely as membership grew dramatically. It promises even greater dividends if the ADC continues to widen its scope in dealing with foreign policy issues. These encompass both Middle East concerns and related subjects. One such derivative is South African apartheid, which at the working level so closely resembles Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Another is the curtailment of domestic economic and social programs while our government increases aid to Israel. The result has been that within five years ADC has become by far the largest U.S. non-Jewish group expending major efforts on Middle Eastern issues.

ADC's success in comparison to other Arab-American groups is in particular due to the unconditional welcome it extends to all Americans. Leaders of all Arab-American groups would be well advised to consider the fact that all of their organizations, unlike those of other ethnic groups in America, are in the happy historical position of seeking to redress Middle East wrongs that at present impact unfavorably on virtually everyone in this country. Since there is and will continue to be a ground swell of interest in such issues, will not opening the doors to all like-minded parties advance the cause of fashioning a truly even-handed and distinctively American foreign policy for the Middle East? There is a constituency out there, the mobilization of whose energies, talents and resources would immeasurably enhance the effects of the efforts made.

The Need for 'Secularization'

There are other advantages to be gained through enlarging the constituencies. Enhancement of credibility is one. It is a cultural fact in this country that any perceived "interest" on the part of a witness—in the sense of a more or less predictable bias—will lessen the value of his testimony. Other Americans expect Arab-Americans to argue on behalf of the Arabs and, thus, don't give the arguments the attention they merit. For this reason alone, the impact on the general public of a non-ethnic advocate of a more balanced Middle East policy—be it George Ball or a person of humbler status—is far greater than that of an Arab-American. This is not to suggest that "secularization" is a veiled attempt to upgrade the Arab-American constituency by cross pollinization with other groups. It is only to claim that, in a label-conscious society, a distinctively "American" effort is likely to have a greater effect than an Arab-American one.

The contrary proposition that an American constituency would somehow be made more perceptive because of Arab-American participation is equally offensive. Ethnicity does not bestow any special prudential advantages. Nature seems to be genuinely egalitarian when it comes to ethnic groups, having endowed each with a comparable share of fools and wise men.

In any case, there is certainly ample precedent for this kind of secularization. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) began as an integrated organization with an ethnic focus. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference is another case in point, as is the more recent Rainbow Coalition. NOW realized that it could hardly have as its raison d'etre opposition to discrimination while practicing it. Accordingly, it emphasized that it was not the National Organization of Women but the National Organization for Women, and was open to male membership.

One frequent objection to secularization of Arab-American groups is that the lunatic fringe would be permitted to infiltrate. Screening techniques already employed, however, will keep out crazies—Arab-American or otherwise—who might embarrass the organizations.

The cardinal point about secularization is that it does not require the Arab-American organizations to alter their goals, since American concern for Middle Eastern developments is no longer only ethnically-inspired or ethnically-limited. That Arab-American organizations in fact already pursue American political goals from a purely American and independent viewpoint is confirmed by stands they have taken in opposition to those of one or another Arab government. As a result, there is no reason to believe that anyone now seeking a more balanced Middle Eastern policy has motives any less respectable or durable than those of Arab-Americans. The zeal and courage of those who take this position not because of ethnic inclination (or in spite of such inclination, as is the case of the American Jews who publicly criticize Israel) should not be underestimated.

In practice, concessions have already been made to the secularist principle by some other Arab-American organizations in addition to the ADC. At least one offers associate membership to those not of Arab extraction and, for some mysterious reason, full membership to spouses of Arab-Americans. None discriminates ethnically in employment. Further, all have been reaching out for some time to other citizens for understanding and support. It requires little imagination or audacity to move from reaching out to other Americans to inviting them in, or—to put it bluntly—to move from the politics of genealogy to the infinitely more promising politics of conviction.

Inviting other Americans in would also remove any possible future suspicion, however unwarranted, of double loyalty or political bigamy—a charge increasingly being leveled against Zionist organizations. Should some dramatic event further arouse general interest in the Middle East concurrent with an upsurge in nationalistic sentiments, this perception could rapidly intensify.

The Use and Abuse of Ethnicity

Ethnicity is used most often by sociologists to describe a form of tribalism. Tribalism may have some utility in pursuit of certain cultural and social ends, but as a political principle of inclusion and exclusion it is decidedly incongruous in a nation whose highest traditions are those of unfettered choice leading to a broad consensus of purpose and action. And it is no less incongruous because we are so familiar with it.

The 1960s and early 1970s are a period in U.S. history that many of us would like to forget. They represent the most recent heyday of ethnic politics in America, although some form of ethnicity has been a part of the American political process from the beginning. That era, best symbolized as a political Tower of Babel, obviously constitutes a worst case scenario for divisiveness. Although factors besides ethnicity must be invoked to explain its workings, recalling it reminds us of the abuses that occur when ethnicity is invoked as a sovereign political principle.

At the other extreme, complete homogenization is unrealistic. The American melting pot still contains quite a few stubbornly insoluble lumps. Ethnicity, therefore, can generate and focus interest, but when elevated to the level of a dominant political matrix, it results in isolation and insulation.

The presumption that ethnicity conveys some special view or "perspective" that cannot be fully achieved by anyone outside the ethnic group is refuted by transcultural intellectual efforts of astounding excellence and authenticity. Many will still argue, both pro and con, whether Lawrence of Arabia, for example, may have understood the Arabs at least as well as they then understood themselves. Few would deny, however, that the best book on the race problem in the United States for his time was written by Gunnar Myrdal, a Swede. And the very best work on the American experience—for his time or our own—was authored by a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who spent only a little over a year in this country. These precedents suggest that what everyone should strive for regarding the Middle East is not an ethnic perspective but the right perspective. And the right perspective does not require validation by pedigree.

Cultural multiplicity is a fact, but it need not be one that is certified along rigid, associational lines. A result of doing so is the repulsive habit of identifying others as the negation of a particular ethnic group, e.g., non-Arab-Americans. Another unattractive byproduct is the proliferation of not only ethnic but sub-ethnic categories—Lebanese-Americans, Palestinian-Americans, and so forth. When these categories, in turn, start acquiring adjectives such as moderate, radical, Maronite, Druze, Orthodox, Sunni and Shia, the problem is compounded. Any thought of first defining and then orchestrating such a variety of factions into a harmonious, multi-faceted assault on a common problem seems, at best, fanciful. Marginal or even sectarian differences do not warrant institutional separation in this case. On the contrary, given the power of the Zionist opposition, Arab-Americans would do well to consolidate rather than dissipate their limited resources and, minimizing fussy embroideries, unify and strengthen their efforts by adopting the largest and most powerful political identity available to them—that of Americans.

In fact, the process of Americanizing Middle Eastern issues is well under way, and none too soon. Since it is bound to continue and grow, we will be witnessing the emergence of a new and powerful factor affecting U.S. Middle East policy. The ethnic organizations can welcome and encourage it, or go on with business as usual and run the serious risk of eventual irrelevance. Arab-American organizations played an indispensable role in unmasking the Zionist domination of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. That task, however, has been overtaken by growing public awareness of the catastrophic consequences of such Zionist domination. If this awareness is to be translated into effective political action by mainstream Americans, Arab-American organizations must cast a wider net than some have thus far been willing to do. Now that the long courtship by Arab-Americans is eliciting a tentative but positive response from the general American public, let us turn this nascent affair into a love match, not just an arranged marriage. 

Robert G. Hazo is Chairman of the Middle East Policy Association and Senior Public Policy consultant of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.