Saturday, July 29, 2006

Follow-up to my column of July 4: Wall Street Journal article on divisions in Arab Community

The Wall Street Journal published this feature by a reporter who is pro-Israel (read about his background in Israel and at a yeshiva). Yochi writes that the division is based on the claim that too much emphasis is placed on the Palestinian issue, but no research by the reporter was done into: 1) whether the groups invited were in fact singled out by the Bush administration which is extremely biased against most Arabs and Arab causes, or 2) that the split is really the result of many Lebanese feeling that "mainstream" Arab American organizations have been co-opted by the larger and faster growing Islamic organizations which have a religious agenda rather than a "Palestinian" agenda.

I wouldn't expect the article to address these issues since it is written by someone with a pro-Israel slant because the purpose of the article is to slam Palestinians and cause further divisions in the Arab American Community.

ADC National is a great organization, but there are SOME members who are fanatics who use their influence to exclude people. Chances are the Lebanese groups often are the victims of exclusion by the very groups not invited to this reported meeting. AAI is a secular group that is conflicted by the growing Islamicism and won't address it, so Zogby's comment is typical and intended to brush the issue aside rather than address it.

The fact remains Arab American organizations refuse to address their problems publicly and attack anyone in their community (like me) who addresses those differences. The attacks take the form of ostrcizing, calling eople names (like Mossad agent, mukhabarat, Jew-lover, Jew, etc). It's disgusting and it needs a far better analysis than this very shallow andf self-serving political slant offcered by the WSJ reporter.

The Dreazen feature should have been labeled a pro-Israel Op-Ed, and the feature should have been tackled by a far more objective reporter. (The WSJ is a great newspaper, by the way, but anti-Arab bias exists everywhere.)

Ray Hanania
Split Among Arab-Americans Curbs Political Clout
By YOCHI J. DREAZENJuly 28, 2006; Page A4

WASHINGTON -- When a coalition of Lebanese-American groups gathers on Capitol Hill today to condemn the Israeli offensive in Lebanon and push for an immediate cease-fire, the event will be as notable for who wasn't invited as for who was asked to attend.

The "Lebanese-American Leadership Conference" is expected to include representatives of a dozen small Lebanese political-action groups and at least one member of Congress. But the organizers pointedly chose not to invite representatives of high-profile advocacy groups like the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Arab American Institute. The decision to shun the groups -- which have large professional staffs, significant financial resources and savvy media operations -- highlights the growing tensions roiling the Arab-American community as the conflict in the Mideast grinds on.

Although often seen as homogeneous, the Arab-American community of 1.2 million is deeply divided by nationality -- and by fierce arguments over how it should flex its political muscle. Arab-American groups lack the resources of pro-Israel organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and have traditionally contributed far less to political campaigns and parties. The Arab-American groups are working hard to narrow the gap financially and build lobbying arms modeled on AIPAC, capable of exerting greater influence with the administration and on Capitol Hill.

However, many Lebanese exiles and their families complain that Arab-American advocacy groups focus disproportionately on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the exclusion of all other causes. The leaders of the mainstream Arab-American groups counter that the Lebanese are placing parochial concerns above the interests of the broader community, which sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the root cause of the region's chronic instability.

"The major Arab-American organizations focus on Palestine first and foremost, and they really have very little interest in Lebanon," says Joseph Gebeily, the Lebanese-American activist organizing today's event. "That shifts the public and political attention, to be honest. We feel like we're out there pushing one thing, and they're out there pushing something completely different."

The upshot is that the dispute is preventing the advocacy groups from presenting a united front at a moment when Arab-Americans are trying to find a strategy to respond to explosions of violence in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

The larger Arab-American groups acknowledge the tensions but deny that they focus too heavily on the Palestinian cause. Officials at the groups note that the organizations have held an array of public events in recent weeks designed to raise funds for humanitarian relief work in Lebanon or to call attention to the civilian suffering there.

"We can walk and chew gum at the same time," says James Zogby, a Lebanese-American who heads the Arab American Institute, a large political-advocacy organization that is leading its own Capitol Hill event today focusing on Lebanon's humanitarian crisis. "For anyone to say that we're not concerned with Lebanon is just nonsense."

The strains between Lebanese-Americans like Mr. Gebeily and the leaders of the higher-profile Arab-American organizations have been building for a long time, in part because of the demographic differences between the Arab-American community here and the Arab communities in the Middle East. Arabs as a whole are overwhelmingly Muslim, and nations like Iraq and Egypt account for a much larger share of the region's population than smaller countries like Lebanon. The Arab-American community, by contrast, is predominantly Christian, with people of Lebanese descent comprising the largest single block -- 37% of the 1.2 million Arab-American population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That has led many Lebanese-Americans to expect that they could make Lebanon's fate a key priority for the Arab-American community as a whole and sparked fierce feelings of anger and disappointment when the broader community refused to go along.

The Lebanese community here has long focused on a series of discrete goals: ending Syria's occupation of Lebanon, disarming groups like Hezbollah that have taken refuge there and pressuring Israel to respect Lebanon's borders. The broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a far lower priority, largely because Lebanon has bad memories of the years it spent under de facto Palestinian military control in the late 1970s and because Lebanon largely sat out the Arab-Israeli wars of the past few decades.

The tensions between the groups first peaked in 2003, when Lebanese-American groups flooded Capitol Hill in support of the Syria Accountability Act, which imposed travel and economic sanctions on Syria because of its long occupation of Lebanon and its support for anti-Israel groups like Hezbollah. The legislation had been a top priority for many Lebanese-American groups.

The larger Arab-American groups, by contrast, strongly opposed the bill, which they saw as overly punitive of Syria and as an improper congressional attempt to dictate foreign policy. The Arab-American groups lobbied against the bill and denounced it in op-ed columns and public speeches, though they made clear that they also opposed the Syrian occupation.
"We didn't think it would work, and we didn't think it was the right approach," says Laila al-Qatami, a spokeswoman for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, one of the oldest and largest Arab-American organizations in the country.

The legislation passed and was signed into law, but the bad feelings continued to build. Many Lebanese-Americans were infuriated when an Arab-American delegation led by a senior official in Ms. Qatami's organization visited Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus in late February 2004, just as the United Nations had begun considering measures demanding that Mr. Assad end Syria's occupation of Lebanon.

"The Syrians killed more Lebanese in one month in 1978 than Israeli has done in 30 years of war, but these big groups appear to believe that it's OK for one Arab country to invade another Arab country and abuse people there," says Joseph Hage, a wine merchant in Miami whose American Lebanese Coordination Council is an organizer of today's event. "They see Lebanon only through the context of the Palestinian cause, and it's really totally different. For us, Lebanon is what matters most, not Palestine."

Write to Yochi J. Dreazen at yochi.dreazen@wsj.com1

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