Dingell a powerful supporter of Arab rights in US Congress
Long before the headlines were filled with debates over Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, Arab-Americans found a voice in John Dingell Jr., who was a strong supporter of Arab-American, Palestinian and minority rights.
Dingell, who died on Feb. 7, came from a family with a long legacy of public service in the US Congress and a history as champions of human and civil rights, not only for African-Americans in the Detroit area, but also for the Arab immigrants who made the region their home.
As they settle into their first terms in the US House of Representatives, both Omar and Tlaib can look to Dingell as an inspiration and a blueprint for how to challenge the anti-Arab biases that dominate the American landscape. They can do it from the sidelines or they can do it from the center of the political court, where Dingell built his own career supporting many mainstream American concerns, using that as a base to champion Arab and Palestinian rights.
The Dingell family strongly identified with the challenges that minorities and immigrants, including Arab-Americans, faced. His own mixed ancestry included Polish, Austrian, Irish, Scottish and Swiss heritage. His original family name was Dzieglewicz.
Dingell earned the title of “Dean” of the House of Representatives by virtue of serving longer than any other member. He held the role for 20 years. When he retired in 2015, he was succeeded by his second wife, Debbie Dingell, who continues his legacy of support for Arab-American and minority rights.
At about the time that Dingell was first taking office in the 1950s, emigrants from the Middle East were taking root in the greater Detroit region, seeking the same dream that motivated millions of others from countries around the world. Detroit became an Arab-American hub, while the neighboring suburb of Dearborn, which also has a large population of Arab-Americans, has since become a powerhouse voice for the community’s voters and Palestinian rights. Dingell amplified the concerns of Arabs in Michigan and the Midwest, giving their voice a champion in the nation’s capital.
Dingell identified with the cause of the Palestinians, defining it not as an anti-Israel movement but rather as a fight for human and civil rights. He supported the two-state solution and was praised by moderate pro-Israel and pro-peace organizations including J Street, which noted this week that Dingell had “worked tirelessly alongside us to advocate for a peaceful two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Dingell’s career should be a model for Arab-Americans like congresswomen Omar and Tlaib.
He was fearless in adhering to principle, speaking out against legislation in the House whenever it targeted Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians. In June 1999, Dingell expressed concerns in a letter to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about Israel’s military assaults in southern Lebanon, which were a concern of the large Lebanese-American population in Dearborn.
Dingell was one of only 66 House members who voted against the Patriot Act in October 2001, saying it would deny constitutional rights to many Americans on the basis of their religion, race and national origin. He also voted against the Iraq War. And Dingell was one of only 37 members of Congress to vote against the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act in May 2006, calling it “too one-sided.”
In speaking out against hate crimes inflicted on African-Americans, the largest minority group in Michigan, he always included Arab-American victims.
Despite his strong support for Arab and Palestinian rights, he was a recipient of lobbying money from pro-Israel political action committees (PACs), receiving about $34,000 since 1989, which was slightly more than former Arab-American congressman John Sununu, who received $33,550, and Lebanese-American Darin LaHood, who received $25,300 during the same period.
He didn’t support Arabs and Palestinians because they were Arab or Palestinian, but rather he supported them on the basis of applying the principles of justice, fairness and respect. For example, in the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, Dingell took a neutral stand, refusing to blame either side for the conflict, though he described Hezbollah as a “terrorist organization.” He spoke out strongly in support of Israel’s “right to exist” and its need for security.
Dingell’s career should be a model for Arab-Americans like congresswomen Omar and Tlaib. His broad support for mainstream issues made it easier for him to stand up and speak out in support of narrow-focused issues such as Palestinian rights. By building a reputation as a champion for wide-ranging civil and human rights issues for all people, including for Christians, Muslims and Jews, Dingell strengthened his voice in support of the fair and just treatment of Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese and other Arabs.
Dingell defined himself as a “centrist” Democrat, cautioning the growing extremism of some in the party by saying: “The Democratic Party needs to look carefully at moving toward the middle, where the American people are.”
Those are words of wisdom that would greatly help those who fight for Arab and Palestinian rights. Doing it from the extreme sidelines weakens the Arab and Palestinian cause, but doing it from the center of the American consensus empowers those words.
- Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall political reporter and columnist. Twitter: @RayHanania