CHICAGO: Arab Americans have faced decades-long challenges to be recognized as a community, and while several hurdles continue to exist, they are making tangible progress on the political front and in elections, Jim Zogby, the president and founder of the Arab American Institute, said Wednesday.
During an interview on The Ray Hanania Radio Show, Zogby explained that although the advances may not seem so, they are certainly measurable, and have resulted in important changes that have strengthened the Arab American community.
Zogby noted that Arab Americans now have one national month, April, in which their culture is recognized and celebrated in most states. There is also progress in giving Arabs a presence in the next US Census, despite the continued slow pace on this issue over five decades of activism.
He said the appointment of Hady Amr — by President Joe Biden as the deputy assistant secretary of state for Israeli and Palestinian affairs at the department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, one year after Biden became president — has opened significant doors that are moving the interests of Arab Americans forward.
“Having Hady Amr as deputy assistant of secretary of state (as) an envoy is a huge thing. That was inconceivable. That position was always Jewish. Always Jewish. And now it is an Arab American,” Zogby said.
“And sure, he hasn’t changed Biden’s policy. He hasn’t changed (Secretary of State Antony) Blinken’s policy. But if you looked under the surface and see what little things Hady has been able to do that wouldn’t have happened had he not been there, it’s big.”
Amr is one of several dozen Arab Americans who have been given important positions both in the White House and in the US State Department that puts the community “at the table” where decisions are made.
“There are things that happen there that would not have happened had he not been there,” Zogby said.
“I look at the stuff that Hady has been able to do. It’s not great. Not perfect. But if it hadn’t happened those hospitals in East Jerusalem wouldn’t have gotten the money. UNRWA wouldn’t have gotten the money. The partnership program wouldn’t have gotten the money. There are things that he has actually helped make happen. It’s always better to have someone sitting in the room at the table than not being in the room at the table.”
Zogby has held many top tier positions with the Democratic Party and with past Democrat presidents.
In September 2013, President Barack Obama appointed Zogby to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. He was reappointed to a second term in 2015 and concluded his service in May 2017 having twice served as the agency’s chair.
Zogby has also been personally active in US politics serving in 1984 and 1988 as deputy campaign manager and senior advisor to the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign.
In 1988, Zogby led the first-ever debate on Palestinian statehood at that year’s National Democratic Convention which was held in Atlanta, Georgia. And, in 2000, 2008, and 2016 he served as a senior advisor to the campaigns of former Vice President Al Gore, Obama, and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Arab Americans, Zogby said, are often restricted by being stereotyped or “narrowcast” in US society. When they get into positions of influence, they are often forced to speak only to “Arab” or “minority” issues rather than to the bigger, national issues of concern to the public.
“When you get narrowcast you get typed. Coupled with the fact that being of Arab descent means that if you do get a chance to weigh in on something other than that (the Middle East) you’ve got the fear of the ADL or some group coming after you saying: ‘Do you know who he is?’ One of the first breaks I got to do something beyond the narrow scope was (with) the National Italian American Foundation. And (former executive director) Fred Rotondaro, a great friend of mine, called back in the early 80s and asked me to co-chair a group that Jeno Paulucci, the guy who founded Jeno’s pizzas, was creating to deal with ethnic issues across the board, things that effected ethnic immigrant communities,” Zogby recalled.
“And one of them was media stereotyping. Because Italians have got issues with that. We have issues with that. Lots of people do. He asked me to chair the group. The ADL went ballistic (saying): ‘If you include them then we will have nothing to do with you.’ Fred stuck by me, but it always was an issue. If you were in that box, they had you cornered. If you got out of that box, they tried to push you back into that box. It was damaging to a lot of folks.”
Zogby said that despite many decades of trying to get Arabs counted in the US Census going back to the 1970s and 1980s, progress is being made. He defended the use of the term “MENA” which stands for Middle East and North Africa rather than “Arab” which is being pushed by Biden for Census inclusion.
MENA is a broad definition on the Census but it doesn’t exclude being identified as “Arab,” Zogby insisted.
“Now that doesn’t mean we’re MENA Americans. Some people have latched on to that. But that is nonsense. There is no such thing as a MENA American,” Zogby said.
“We decided to create the category on the Ancestry one (in the Census). You would put down Ancestry MENA. But then under it they would say, which country. We would still get an Arab category but it would allow the Turks, the Iranians, maybe the Armenians, too, to get counted. And the Israelis to get counted in that. But it would not say there was a MENA group. It would say there is a MENA, simply a rubric under which these unique ethnic groups get counted. So we can pull up still a Lebanese number, an Assyrian number. And a Libyan number. But we could also pull up an Arab number by lumping them all together, which gives us a sense of number.”
Not doing so, Zogby said, would reduce the Census count by more than 60 percent, Census officials have told him.
“Progress,” Zogby said, “often comes in small steps” and the Arab American community is inching towards bigger successes.
Also appearing during the radio show was Republican activist and former GOP candidate for the Michigan legislature Paul Sophiea who discussed the challenges Arabs face in the Republican Party.
Sophiea said that Arab Americans are traditionally conservative but the largest populations of Arabs thrive in Democratic Party dominated regions like in Dearborn and Detroit.
The Ray Hanania Show is broadcast live every Wednesday at 5 p.m. Eastern EST on WNZK AM 690 radio in Greater Detroit including parts of Ohio, and WDMV AM 700 radio in Washington D.C. including parts of Virginia and Maryland. The show is rebroadcast on Thursdays at 7 a.m. in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 and in Chicago at 12 noon on WNWI AM 1080.
You can listen to the radio show’s podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow.