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1982 versus 2024: A tale of three cities

Feb 26,2024 - Last updated at Feb 26,2024

When how unrelenting Israel’s assault on Gaza would be became clear, many Arab Americans of my age had a bit of PTSD. We recalled the pain, dread and powerlessness we felt in 1982 during Israel’s invasion and bombardment of Lebanon, culminating in its brutal entry into West Beirut.

Today, the pain and dread are the same, the loss of life equally horrific and devastating. But in one important regard 2024 is quite different than 1982. We do not feel as powerless, for three important reasons. First, during the intervening four decades, Arab Americans have become empowered and recognised as an important political constituency. As a result, Arab Americans have developed allies among other critical political constituencies. Finally, a new generation of Arab Americans have become emboldened and skilled in coalition-building and direct political action.

This story can best be told by Arab American progress in three cities: Chicago IL, Dearborn MI, and Paterson NJ. 

Chicago is home to the US’s largest Palestinian community; Arab Americans make up 4–5 per cent of the city’s electorate. When the first Arab American Democratic Club was launched in the 1980s, we struggled to get the 20 members needed for a charter. Because of persistent anti-Arab bias, only a handful of political candidates would come to events seeking the community’s support. This has changed. For several years now, the Club’s annual brunch has been on the to-do list of the city’s political leaders, evidence of the growing political clout and savvy of the Arab community. This and similar events hosted by other Chicago-based Arab American political groups now draw practically every candidate for public office.

As the magnitude of Israel’s bombing and ethnic cleansing became evident, demonstrations sprang up around the city, with young Arab Americans joining progressive Jewish, Muslim and Black activists to push back. They worked together to pass a City Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, which was resoundingly endorsed by Chicago’s mayor. Three of the city’s members of Congress have taken the lead in endorsing a bill calling for a ceasefire.

Southeast Michigan, including Detroit, Dearborn and surrounding communities, has the largest Arab population of any similar area in the US. Four decades ago, the candidate campaigning for mayor of Dearborn ran on the platform of what to do about the “Arab Problem”, saying Arab immigrants did not share our values and “were ruining our darn good way of life”.

Today, Arabs are more than half of Dearborn’s population. The mayor is Arab American, as is a majority of city council, the state representative, the police chief, and a number of other local elected officials. Detroit, Dearborn, and other southeast Michigan municipalities have passed ceasefire in Gaza resolutions.

Michigan’s Arab American population is so large and well organised that they can be the margin of victory or defeat in a close presidential election. Thus, the Biden administration has sent White House and Biden campaign delegations to meet with the community. Several of these meetings had to be cancelled because the politically mature local community understands the difference between politics and policy.

Michigan’s Arab American leaders are encouraging community members to vote “uncommitted” in the state’s Democratic primary on February 27th. If enough do so, it will send a clear message that the community’s votes matter and must be earned.

While Paterson NJ’s Arab Americans’ faced the same problems as communities in Chicago and Dearborn, their progress is even more substantial. Paterson has the largest per capita Palestinian population in the US, almost 7 per cent Palestinian American. Forty years ago, Paterson’s Arab community wasn’t fully politically engaged. That has changed.

On Presidents’ Day, Paterson’s mayor, an Arab American, and the members of the city council will host a press event appealing to Biden, calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, building on ceasefire resolutions passed by Paterson and two nearby communities.

In these three cities, the Arab American communities are large, politically engaged, committed to making their cities safer and more prosperous, and are demanding that their concerns be respected by Congress and the president.

What makes this year different than 1982? Simply that Arab Americans have greater capacity, more allies, respect and political power. And we are using them to make our voices heard.


The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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