x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Hagel's confirmation is rare victory for Arab Americans

The American right has long chided politicians who look for support from the Arab-American community. Chuck Hagel, the new US defence secretary, resisted these nasty overtures.

Former Senator Chuck Hagel's confirmation as secretary of defence last week was important for several reasons, many of which have been exhaustively examined by media commentators in the US. But for Arab-Americans, there was another reason to celebrate the final vote: it represented vindication.

I have known Mr Hagel for many years, and while there are areas where we have disagreed, I have always respected and valued his insights and his willingness to engage in thoughtful and reasoned discourse. I have also appreciated the fact that he never shied away from appearing before and sharing his views at Arab-American community gatherings.

Mr Hagel is a valued friend; it was profoundly disturbing to me and members of my community when some of his opponents attempted to make his appearances before Arab-American groups an issue in his confirmation process.

Some right-wing lobbyists demanded that we produce copies of his speeches and asked for our tax filings. Republicans put his confirmation on hold while the search for new speeches by Mr Hagel continued; opponents were looking for signs that he had made more "anti-Israel" comments, proving a pattern of bias.

New allegations were made about his ties to Arabs and possible "Arab funding". All of this was nothing more than a witch hunt.

Throughout this entire sordid affair, groups like the Arab American Institute remained silent. We complied with requests, when they were legitimate. But we refused to take the bait. Our assessment of the situation was that we couldn't help Mr Hagel by striking out at his critics. We knew they would not be swayed by our protestations, nor would his confirmation be aided by our engaging his attackers in a side show fight.

This was, of course, not the first time that a candidate for office has been attacked for connections to the Arab American community.

We have had a difficult history of dealing with this painful targeting. In 1983, then candidate for Philadelphia mayor, Wilson Goode, came to an Arab-American fund-raising event. He accepted our money and pledged to be the "mayor of all Philadelphians". After being attacked by his opponent for speaking with us Mr Goode returned the money.

Much the same happened to Walter Mondale; his presidential campaign returned contributions from a group of Arab Americans in 1984. Also in the 1980s, Republican lawmakers Chuck Percy and Ed Zschau, and Democrat Dave Dinkins, took insulting preventive measures urging us to warn our community not to support their campaigns with nearly identical messages.

In all these instances, I didn't know what outraged me more: the deliberate and hurtful insults to Arab Americans, or the "anti-Semitic" assumptions about a monolithic intolerant Jewish community.

This practice didn't die two decades ago. Just last year, when Arab Americans in New Jersey rallied to re-elect Congressman Bill Pascrell Jr, a pro-Israel group attempted to make our support an issue by releasing an ominous warning about Arab Americans becoming politically involved.

Fortunately, this has not been the entire story. As Arab Americans have grown in political sophistication, our empowerment has been championed by many smart and courageous politicians.

Take, for example, Ron Brown.

In 1989, shortly after assuming the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Mr Brown accepted my invitation to address a conference sponsored by the Arab American Institute. He was to be the first national party official to come to an Arab American event. On the day of the conference, as we were about to begin, our guest leaned to tell me that on his way over he had been intercepted by one of the leading pro-Israel Democratic fund-raisers who warned him that should he even walk into the room to speak to our group, Jews would stop contributing to the party.

Mr Brown, to his credit, knew the threat was nonsense. He ignored it and delivered a wonderful address welcoming Arab Americans into the party. He knew that he could be a friend to both communities and would not accept zero-sum blackmail.

Much the same could be said of President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore, both of whom rejected efforts to sideline Arab Americans. And there are many more Democrats and Republicans on the national and local levels who have reached out to and respected our community.

But what the attacks on Mr Hagel demonstrated was that this type of race-bating is, at least in some quarters, still alive.

Arab Americans can be proud of the fact that Mr Hagel wouldn't distance himself from our community. And we have every right to feel vindicated by his confirmation. But while we can hope that this might spell the end of these types of attacks, sadly, we know better. We know that there are still other, less courageous politicians out there who will look at this entire affair and learn the wrong lessons.

When asked to sign the kinds of letters that Mr Hagel objected to, these people might decide that it probably isn't worth resisting. And when invited to engage with Arab Americans, they will look at the attacks on Mr Hagel and decline.

Arab Americans won a battle, but the struggle for respect and inclusion, and for a sane and honest discussion of American foreign policy, lives on. We still have much work to do.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa