James Zogby and the Politics of Perception

By Remi Kanazi

James Zogby isn’t just an Arab American with an opinion. He is the president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a well known writer, and an esteemed leader within the Arab American community. Many non-Arab Americans highly regard his analysis and look to his articles as a resource to understand the Middle East.

This is precisely why his latest article, "Rahm Emanuel and Arab Perceptions" is so disturbing. In the piece, Zogby tries to calm the fears of Arab Americans about Barack Obama’s first appointment, Rahm Emanuel, to White House Chief of Staff. Zogby expressed shock and dismay that his constituency, once euphoric over the election of Obama, was now sending him angry and cynical letters. Zogby described the emails and calls to his office as "troubled and troubling—because much of the reaction was based on misinformation and because of what the entire episode reveals about the larger political dynamic."

Zogby immediately followed up with what he calls "the facts" (i.e. a long list of Rahm Emanuel’s accomplishments), while conveniently leaving out any of his troubling positions related to the Middle East, namely that he was a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq and he has expressed hawkish pro-Israel views. The forcefulness of Zogby’s tone is elucidated in phrases such as "he knows how to get the job done" and "it’s as simple as that." Right off the bat, Zogby informs his readers that if they don’t understand what a gem Emanuel is, they either cannot properly discern the facts, or their judgments are based on wild misinformation.

Zogby assumes that his constituency and the greater Arab American community are generally ignorant and know nothing of Emanuel (aside from the "myths"), and could not possibly come to a rational judgment on an individual who has been vocally pro-Israel, fought for Israel diplomatically, has supported Israeli militancy, and was an unabashed supporter of the war in Iraq. Zogby criticizes the Arab American community for ingesting defamatory myths, such as the claim that "he served in the IDF." In fact, Emanuel did donate time during the Gulf War to repair IDF tanks; one could argue that, as an American, volunteering to help out a foreign occupying force is much worse than serving as an Israeli who is mandated to do so by law.

Another rumor that Zogby chastises Arab Americans for is the notion that Emanuel is an Israeli spy, which should make them "wary of the slanderous attacks smacking of anti-Semitism." It is legitimate to debunk falsehoods, and it is right to hold any community to a proper standard, but to infer that Arab Americans should tread lightly or risk being consumed by anti-Semitism is an irresponsible way for an Arab American leader to silence dissent. There are a great many educated Arab Americans who are concerned about Emanuel’s record, and the notion that if you believe Emanuel served in the IDF, you are anti-Semite, is ridiculous. The falsehoods about Emanuel should be rejected, but they have absolutely nothing to do with anti-Semitism and to suggest otherwise is shameful.

Zogby then swerves in a bizarre direction by praising Emanuel’s involvement in the Oslo Accords. Emauel is the person who coordinated the shaking of hands between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn. The Oslo Accords (which Zogby endorsed) were a complete failure. During the Oslo years, illegal Israeli settlements doubled and the policy that emanated from the accords helped destroy the Palestinian economy. It is the equivalent of proclaiming that Emanuel was the ribbon cutter, unveiling the "bridge to nowhere." 

More, Zogby incorrectly equates right wing allegations that "Barack Obama is a Muslim" with rumors that Emanuel served in the IDF. It is notable that in 2006, when MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell referred to Rahm Emanuel as someone who served in the Israeli army in an interview, Emanuel did not dispute the claim (if it was such a slanderous attack, one would think Emanuel, the "practitioner of hard-ball politics," would have spoken up).

Making his frustration crystal clear, Zogby asserts, "that stories such as these have been circulating, and have taken hold, is as reprehensible as the ‘Barack Obama is a secret Muslim/Manchurian candidate’ tale, or the anti-Arab anti-Muslim canards to which I and many of my colleagues have been subjected over the years." What Zogby fails to mention is the fact that there is nothing wrong with being a Muslim, yet there is something fundamentally wrong with the IDF illegally occupying 3.8 million Palestinian people, subjugating them to incessant collective punishment, and cordoning the people of Gaza into an open-air prison.

Ending his lesson on "the facts," Zogby seems to contradict his own assertions. He contends that Arab Americans should understand the "political realities," and that just about all members of Congress are pro-Israel. Is Zogby suggesting that Arab Americans just suck it up, sit on their hands, and get used to the status quo? What happened to the change Barack Obama was going to usher in?

It is strange that the man behind the Yalla Vote! campaign is using these tactics to push his constituency into giving Emanuel a free pass. Whether these appointments are to be expected or not, wouldn’t Arab Americans expressing their concerns be a good thing? Isn’t that part of the democratic process and the reason why they engaged in this election cycle to begin with: to bring change to Washington.

While Zogby wants us to be aware of the "political realities," the actual reality for many Arab Americans is simple: this appointment represents more of the same—whether it is the hawkish policies of the Bush administration or the destructive Mideast policy that was wrapped in nicer packaging during the Clinton years. Americans worked tirelessly for two years to elect Barack Obama. Now is the time to work tirelessly to ensure that the change that he promised comes to fruition.

The mission statement of the AAI reads in part, "The Arab American Institute (AAI) represents the policy and community interests of Arab Americans throughout the United States and strives to promote Arab American participation in the U.S. electoral system." Perhaps Zogby should reread his own organization’s mission statement.

-Remi Kanazi is a Palestinian-American writer, poet, editor, and actor living in New York City. He is editor of the recently released collection of poetry, spoken word, hip hop and art, Poets For Palestine. For more information, visit www.PoetsForPalestine.com or Amazon.com.

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