Arab-Americans Must Get Involved

By George S. Hishmeh

A few months after arriving in the US in 1968 and joining the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times, I was invited to speak at an Arab-American community gala dinner. My punchline that evening was an appeal to the community that their children study journalism and get more involved in the political process there.

Knowing that many did not trust their English or shied away because of the prevalent stereotyping, I recommended two things: Instead of writing long-winded letters to the newspapers, as some I know have done, limit them to two or three paragraphs. Better still, cut out negative news items or commentaries and mail them to the paper with the words "erroneous" or "nonsense" written on them in red ink and follow this up with a request for a meeting with the editors. A large number of such letters would at least be impressive, if not persuasive.

I have also urged Arab-Americans to volunteer in political and election campaigns or, better still, seek internships in the offices of congressmen. Graduating college students should sit for the Foreign Service entrance exam in the hope of gaining a position at the State Department.

I have no idea how many have done so, but I note that there are several Arab-American journalists nowadays. One of them, Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post, won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 2004. Of course, there is also the Lebanese-American media icon Helen Thomas, who has been present at the daily White House press conference for decades and asked those pithy questions that sometimes angered former president George W. Bush. Today, there are also several interns or staffers working in congressional offices.

Their presence in the media and on Capitol Hill is still small, however, and many more are needed. But what would be equally effective is if the growing community of Arab-American academicians could be encouraged to write op-eds in newspapers or participate in TV or radio talk shows. Admittedly, this is not an easy task, as many who have taken part would readily confess, particularly if their opinion is a little offline. But once one manages to penetrate this wall, one is in for good – as has been proven by the case of several Arab-Americans or others who write on Middle Eastern issues, contrary to the views of the pro-Israel lobby, neoconservative pundits and even former administration officials.

The last two or three decades have seen the establishment of a few Arab-American advocacy groups, mostly based in Washington, D.C. The first was the National Association of Arab Americans, but this folded after its meteoric rise – in part due to a lack of adequate funding. Others included The Palestine Center and its mother organisation, the Jerusalem Fund, the Arab American Institute, the American Task Force on Lebanon, the American Task Force on Palestine and the American Arab Anti-discrimination Committee – which this year had as its keynote speaker none other than former president Bill Clinton, an event that attracted surprisingly little attention from the printed media in Washington or New York.

This shoddy treatment afforded Arab concerns by the American media was highlighted by Saree Makdisi in a column published last week in the Los Angeles Times. A professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, Makdisi was understandably ticked off by the welcome accorded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acceptance of a toothless Palestinian state, "viable" but not sovereign.

"Reality," he wrote, "can be so easily stood on its head when it comes to Israel because the misreading of Israeli declarations is a long-established practice among commentators and journalists in the United States."

He cited several examples of the "subtle differences" that are used in labelling Palestinian or Israeli actions, "making it difficult for readers to fully grasp the nature of those stories – and maybe even for journalists to think critically about what they write".

He explained, "The ultimate effect of this special vocabulary is to make it possibly for Americans to accept and even endorse in Israel what they would reject out of hand in any other country".

It is here where Arab leaders and financiers must step in to persuade institutions in the US to discard the distorted yardstick that is used to measure performance in the Middle East, much to the disadvantage of the Arab and Muslim world.

Unexpectedly, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak took a commendable step last week in offering an op-ed to The Wall Street Journal. There are several others who could help to change opinion in think tanks, the White House and the State Department.

"Among the host of challenges before us," the Egyptian president wrote, "is the Palestinian issue that requires great urgency, given the precarious state of the peace process after years of stalemate." He urged that the "priority should be to resolve the permanent borders of a sovereign and territorially continuous Palestinian state, based on the 1967 lines, as this would unlock most of the other permanent status issues, including settlements [colonies], security, water and [Occupied] Jerusalem".

In an article in Haaretz, Antony Loewenstein, author of My Israel Question, agreed that "the Palestinian narrative is routinely ignored or dismissed in the US and beyond". He stressed that "this must change quickly for any chance of peace to break out in the Middle East. However, peace without justice is guaranteed to fail".
-George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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