Dr. James J. Zogby
President Arab American Institute
This is Arab American Heritage Month and we are delighted that it has been celebrated by the State Department, dozens of state and local governments, and the Democratic Party. It is a recognition we’ve long sought and deserve, precisely because Arab Americans have been plagued by a range of hostile behaviors: outright discrimination, maligning or denying our identity, political exclusion or silencing our voices. All had painful consequences but were all too often dismissed because they weren’t acknowledged as bigotry.
This manifested itself in a variety of forms. We were denied employment or excluded from coalitions because we were Arabs. When we first began to organize politically, major Jewish groups called Arab Americans nothing more than an anti-Israel fiction created by petro-dollars. Candidates returned our contributions or rejected our endorsements. Our heritage was denigrated by Hollywood and other forms of popular culture. Worse still, our cultural products were misappropriated and termed Israeli or Middle Eastern – but never Arab.
Because my community organized, fought back, and won many allies, we have overcome many of these obstacles, but others remain. We now participate in politics and claim our ethnicity and heritage with pride. But the same bigotry rears its ugly head when we advocate for Palestinian rights. We are denounced as anti-Semitic when we call out Israeli policies as inhumane. This too is a form of discrimination. We are silenced and denied our full rights because we care about Palestinians. At the same time, Palestinian humanity and their rights to life and liberty are also denied.
Beginning with the Bush Administration and continuing through the Obama years, we’ve been confronted with a new challenge to our right to define ourselves – the conflation of Arabs with Muslims and dividing our community on the basis of religion. This, too, is a form of erasure – since it denies us the right to define ourselves as an ethnic community.
When our heritage is defamed, when our culture or ethnicity are denied or defined by others, when we are excluded because of our beliefs, or silenced because others don’t want our voices heard – it’s bigotry. And we must demand that it end. That’s why we celebrate Arab American Heritage Month. It affirms who we are – proud and accomplished Arab Americans who have made significant contributions to American life and who will not be denied our right to define ourselves.