Arab Americans begin political awakening

DEARBORN, Mich., Nov. 20 (JTA) – Ali Baze, 29, a Lebanese American who immigrated to this country 12 years ago, worked behind the counter of Cafe Ananas on Election Day, preparing shwarmas and mango smoothies.

The cafe is located in this Detroit suburb that is dominated by the shadow of a sprawling Ford auto plant – and by its 300,000 Arab American residents.

Dearborn is home to the largest concentration of Arabs outside the Middle East. Its storefronts and sidewalks feature Arabic signs advertising halal meat – the Muslim version of kosher – and women covered head to toe in traditional Muslim dress.

Baze took his time with the orders. So his customers hung out near the counter, trying to make sense of the election returns on the big-screen TV. Baze looked up and asked, in broken English, who everybody voted for U.S. president.

“Bush,” was the immediate, universal response.

About a mile away, at Lowrey Middle School, a woman wearing a traditional Muslim headscarf and a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Yalla, Vote!” guided a large crowd of Arab Americans toward the voting booths.

Most of these voters were recent immigrants to the United States or first-generation Americans. For many, it was their first time voting as American citizens. Most of them voted Republican.

With the country still riveted on the legal wrangling that will determine the outcome of the presidential elections, Jewish and Arab analysts are still assessing the impact of the Arab American vote and the unprecedented attention it got this election season.

For Jews, the issue raises important questions about the political leanings and new-found influence of the Arab American community – and to what extent, if any, Arab clout could come at the expense of Jewish interests.

For Arabs, the issue has drawn new attention to their community.

Arab American leaders said their community in Dearborn gave about 70 percent of their vote to Bush, with about 7 percent going to Ralph Nader, whose Lebanese lineage and criticism of Israel appealed to many.

Leaders also said the community surprised even itself in how many of them turned out at the polls – about 48 percent – and that the traditionally Democratic community went Republican this time around.

The reasons are many, among them the perception that Republican George W. Bush paid more attention to Arab Americans during the campaign than his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore.

Designating Michigan as a pivotal swing state, which he ultimately lost, Bush visited Arab American leaders, actively courting their support and even mentioning their community by name in the second presidential debate, when he said they suffer from racial profiling.

But the top concern for Arab Americans, say analysts, was the violence in the Middle East and the perception that President Clinton has not been a fair mediator in the peace process.

“Obviously the situation in the Middle East, with the new intifada, did not help emotions in this community and they linked the deterioration in the situation with the Clinton administration,” said Hassan Jaber, an Arab American activist in the Detroit area.

If it were not for the violence in the Middle East, the Democrats would be a natural ally for Arab Americans, Lebanese immigrant Houssam Dakhlallah said.

“Some people actually believe the Democrats are better for the country, but they’re thinking about the people who are dying,” Dakhlallah said. “They’re thinking that we can suffer a little bit, but they’re suffering a lot. We’ve got to do this for their sake.”

The more recent Arab immigrants are not only bringing to the United States their passion for Middle East issues, but are channeling it into the power of their vote.

It’s an embryonic political consciousness that began with their interest in the Middle East – that’s where their families are, where their passions lie – but is beginning to develop into a more complex structure of advocacy and education in foreign and domestic issues.

David Gad-Harf, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit, compares it to the American Jewish political awakening at the opening of the 20th century.

“There were so many different organizations moving in different directions that there wasn’t a clear voice and clear message that came out of the Jewish community,” Gad-Harf said.

“I see the same kind of evolution happening in the local Arab American community, with several different organizations representing different points of view, different nations of origin, different religious perspectives. Therefore there’s kind of a cacophony that’s occurring.”

The problem, Jaber said, is that Arab Americans have no vehicle by which to organize a clear-cut agenda. But that is apparently changing.

“All around us, we see a new group of activists in this community,” motivated by both domestic and Middle East issues, said Jaber, who also is deputy director of a local Arab American community center.

For the newer immigrants, the ones who have been here 20 and 25 years, “Middle East issues are No. 1 on their mind and everything else comes second. Maybe way second,” Jaber said.

But among the second and third generation, he added, “I believe they went heavily toward Gore.”

But without what Jaber calls a political “machine,” Arab Americans are casting their votes based on pure emotion – and sometimes rumor.

For example, word going around the polls in Dearborn on Election Day was that Gore had said he didn’t need the Arab American vote to win the presidency – a rumor that Jaber guessed came from Arab American Republicans.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and an ethnic adviser to the Gore camp, attributed the rumor campaign to political immaturity in his community.

“Frankly, my sense about this election is that we all learned a great deal and have a great deal yet to learn, one of which is there has to be a tolerance for diversity of opinion in the country and in our community,” said Zogby, who lives in the Washington area.

“This is a community that’s divided, it’s a community that has many different views,” Zogby continued. “We have Democrats, we have Republicans. I think that our vote probably tilted George Bush’s way. But I don’t think it did more than tilt.”

Zogby said this diversity was not reflected in the endorsement of Bush by many Arab American organizations.

“The United Auto Workers endorsed Al Gore,” Zogby said. “There are more Arab Americans in the UAW than there are in all the organizations that endorsed” Bush combined.

Zogby said that an important part of his community’s political awakening is not merely getting Arab Americans into the voting booth, but giving them power with more appointments to government positions.

He said the next president will have to “do better on appointments in the administration,” Zogby said, adding that he intends to push for that.

“We are beyond the point where Arab Americans do not find their place at the table.”

Gad-Harf, whose Jewish council has worked side by side with the local Arab American community on issues of common concern such as welfare and immigration reform, believes that politicians will pay more attention to the Arab American community in the future.

But, he said, that increased attention will not necessarily take away from the Jewish agenda, especially because much of it, particularly on domestic issues, is shared by the two communities.

He said that he hopes that politicians can get a common message from the communities – that they want the Mideast violence to end and a return to the peace table.

He also said that Jewish-Arab cooperation, which has declined in recent weeks as a result of the violence in the Middle East, can resume once things quiet down.

“Whenever there’s a crisis in the Middle East, we go through a period of estrangement,” Gad-Harf said. “It doesn’t sever ties, but it strains ties between our two communities. It makes it much less possible for us to do things publicly together.”

Jaber agreed that an Arab-Jewish political alliance on certain issues will have to wait until things calm down in the Middle East.

That was evident at the polling site in Dearborn on Election Day, when Ghassan Darwich, 46, a cook who originally came from Syria, said he voted for Bush “because Al Gore is Zionist.”

A group of young Arab American teen-agers overheard and said, reflexively, “Zionist? Kill him.”

But one of the teens, when asked to elaborate, apologized for the comment, and said, in a quiet, serious voice, “War is stupid. Killing is stupid over a piece of land.”

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