The Arabs arrive in Atlanta

From The Jewish World
July 29 – August 4, 1988

ATLANTA—One of the central motifs of the 1988 Democratic Convention was a palpable sense of empowerment among blacks and Arab-Americans—two groups that form- ed the backbone of support for the candidacy of Rev. Jesse Jackson. The emergence of the Arab-Americans was especially striking. Previously a notoriously apathetic political community, the Arab-Americans were propelled by a successful effort to bring the Palestinian issue to the convention floor. They plunged enthusiastically into the political process, increasing the umber of Arab-Americans delegates and convention officials nm five at the 1984 Democratic Convention to 50 this time. We began our first voter registration drive three years ago,” said Ishmael Achmed, director of the Arab Community Center of Dear- born, Michigan, a town in the center f the largest concentration of Arab- Americans in the United States. “At first, we concentrated on local issues, like Arab-bashing by the mayor of Dearborn, and lobbying for human services. We pressed the United Auto Workers, where we have many members, about its holding of [low-yield] Israel Bonds. Our involvement in those issues led to a linking up with the Jesse Jackson for President campaign. Our rise wouldn’t have been so dramatic without their involvement. The Palestinian question went from being our issue to being their issue.’’ The American style of these Arab activists is distinctive, and a powerful tonic against the stereotype many Americans have about Arabs. With their earnest calls for dialogue and conciliation based on mutual recognition and an Israeli and Palestinian state coexisting peacefully, they pose a more daunting political challenge for pro-Israel advocates than earlier, more obdurate and heavy-handed Arab politicians. Mohammed Said, a physician from Washington state, is a prime example of this new breed. Born in Haifa, Said came to the United States after being schooled in Spain. At the state level, Said was the prime mover in convincing his delegation to unanimously adopt a Palestinian statehood resolution that included an accompanying declaration in support of Israel’s right to a secure existence. Asked about the PLO’s charter, with its clause denying Israel’s right to exist, Said replied: “I favor removing [the clause] from the charter. Likud [Israel’s right-wing party] simply exploits it as a red flag.” The Palestinians, Said averred, just want to live in peace in their own state alongside Israel. But pressed about the vehement opposition PLO leader Abu Sharif recently encountered from his colleagues when he issued a statement along these lines, Said admitted there was “no consensus” on this among Palestinians. “There are always extremists,” he said, “but 70 percent want peace.” Said also spoke out clearly against terrorism, saying, “this kind of action, like hijackings, we completely oppose, and our understanding is that the PLO completely opposes it, too. Only some extremists commit these things.” He condemned at- tacks on civilians within pre-1967 Israel, as well. In fact, Yasir Arafat’s mainstream PLO wing, Fatah, claimed credit for one such an attack earlier this year. As for Palestinian attacks on Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, Said said, “1 don’t approve of the in principle. But these people have to get out. Their settlement is a provocation.” Of his group’s relationship with the PLO, Said said he would be going to the Middle East, where he would •be talking with the PLO’s “top leaders, and trying to moderate them, too.” “We give them our assessment of the situation here. But we don’t take orders. We’re independent intellectuals who make up our own minds.” Arabs continued from page 2 In fact, Said appears to be just that, staking out distinctively individualistic positions on the conflict. While asserting his people’s right to either return to their homes n pre-’67 Israel or be compensated, for example, he likewise argues that Jews expelled from Arab countries are entitled to the same. Said attributed his success in recurring unanimous backing for his plank supporting Palestinian• statehood to the effect of the intifada on public opinion. In 1984, he noted, the Washington delegation only barely passed a broadly worded human rights resolution on the Mideast that did not even mention the Palestinians by name. But this year’s resolution also succeeded, he said, because he introduced it with a Jewish delegate. When his is possible, he said, “The gentiles follow.” l It was a point echoed by Achmed, the Michigan-based Arab activist. “Part of our success in being able to reach beyond the Arab community has been our determination to articulate reasonable and moderate positions. We have work- ed well with a segment of the American Jewish community which believes in the same principles we believe in. The New Jewish Agenda has played an especially pivotal American Jews were, in fact, an important presence in the Jackson campaign’s Mideast plank effort. They reportedly numbered 31 out of the approximately 200 white Jackson delegates and 1,200 total delegates. Lisa Baskin, an art editor from Massachusetts, was one of these 31. “Jesse’s position on the Middle East is very middle of the road—very close to the position of the [Israeli] Labor Party,” she said. “Jesse never denied the necessity for providing for the safety and security of Israel” Baskin, 45, grew up in Brooklyn in the Reform youth movement. “I was an Al Vorspan kid,” she said. “My whole sense of morality came out of that experience.. .a sense of commitment to how the world should be restructured. “Four years ago I went to hear Jackson speak at Smith College.. .He articulated positions and issues very close to what I felt in my head… I realized that his agenda was my agenda.” As for Jackson’s anti-Semitic remarks during his first run for the presidency, Baskin said, “He’s not perfect.. .The Hymietown statement was wrong. ..But to me it doesn’t represent anything deep or fundamental. Otherwise I couldn’t sup- port him. “It is true the campaign hasn’t had outreach to the right-wing part of the [Jewish] community,” she said. “But there are Jews with whom Jesse can talk.” Curiously, support for Jackson’s stand on the Mideast appeared weakest among the blacks in his constituency. Three blacks—Ron Brown, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Rep. William Gray (D-PA)–were among those most clear in opposing making a floor fight over Jackson’s minority plank on the Middle East. They eventually engineered the com- promise that allowed James Zogby, of Jackson’s Arab caucus, to debate the issue on the floor but avoided putting it to a vote. The relative black disinterest in the issue showed up in other ways. Mustapha Khosroshshahi, a young Iranian-American Jackson delegate worked with the Arab group in circulating a petition calling for Palestinian statehood. “I’ve been trying all day to get blacks to sign the petition,” he said. “They won’t do it. This is not their issue.”