Grass-roots organizing, voter registration, precinct walking, ward captains, school board elections, city council races, political patronage-- the political process. A familiar story in this country, familiar signs to ethnic groups as they proceed along the American Way, signals that they are on the right path to the mainstream.
Not all that familiar, however, to Arab-Americans, at least not until now. That is the contention and the concern of James Zogby, an Arab-American of Lebanese descent from Upstate New York, who is executive director of the Arab American Institute.
Zogby, a Democrat who was deputy manager of Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign, and George Salem, a Republican who was executive director of the ethnic voters division of the Reagan-Bush campaign, founded the Washington-based bipartisan institute last year. Their aim, according to their literature, is to organize Arab-Americans into a political constituency able "to claim its place in American politics, just as other ethnic groups have done."
Zogby recently spoke at the founding dinner of the Arab-American Republican Club in Orange County. The institute is supporting an effort, headed by Mounzer Chaarani, president of the Orange County club, to form 10 such countywide clubs in California and then, a state chapter.
After Detroit and its environs, Southern California has the highest concentration of Arab-Americans in the country, an estimated quarter-million, Zogby said during his visit here. Later, when the time is right, he said, the institute will be just as supportive helping Arab-American Democrats form California chapters. He is not talking about the distant future.
"We're a community coming of age," he says frequently, convinced that until recently such organizing efforts would have been premature. Now, he says, as of 1984--a watershed year for Arab-Americans who were a presence in the presidential campaigns to a degree unprecedented in their history--they are on target.
"It was an exciting experience. We had a taste of national politics. It felt right. In 1980 we would not have been ready."
Until 1984, he said, Arab-Americans, whether they came in the initial wave 60 years ago, or in the more recent group than began arriving 20 years ago, were outside the political process. The earlier immigrants, he said, were largely peasants or others with rural backgrounds and little or no experience with democratic processes or politics. Their efforts were concentrated on making it economically here, which they largely did, in small business, the professions and farming. Recent immigrants, he said, often more urban and professional, have been occupied thus far with making their economic adjustment.
To the degree that there was any political activity among Arab-Americans, Zogby said, it was along more national, factionalized lines. People identified themselves as Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians rather than as Arab-Americans, and that is how they formed their societies, including their few political clubs.
That has been changing, he said, to some extent because of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, where Arab-Americans found themselves more united than divided in their opposition to the United States' Middle East policy. Also, he said, it has been changing, thanks to earlier organizing efforts, some of which Zogby himself had a part in.
Zogby was the original executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee founded in 1980 by former U.S. Sen. James Abourezk of South Dakota. That group seeks to organize Arab-Americans to fight ethnic stereotyping and discrimination. In doing so it, as well as the older National Assn. of Arab Americans, he said, has promoted a sense of Arab identity, pride and community.
"Our hope," he said of the institute's plans, "is sometime within the next six months to bring together the Democratic and Republican leaders from all over the country and develop a strategy for the Arab community. We don't want to see a new form of division," he said, referring to political and religious divisions that exist in the Middle East and that have, at times, carried over to Arab-Americans here. Commenting that "there is a layering of identification to the way people's consciousness is shaped," he offered a hypothetical example of what it boils down to: "Yes, I feel more strongly about Lebanon than Palestine, or vice versa, " he said, but there comes a day and a local issue when "we all have to go meet the mayor. . . .' "
Now that Arab-Americans have begun to feel ready to go meet the mayor, however, the mayors, and other elected officials and political figures throughout the land, have not always been ready to meet them, Zogby said.