Fearful of what its members see as the overwhelming influence of pro-Israeli forces in this country, a small group of Arab-Americans met here last week to study the ways and means of political power in America.
Like a number of other ethnic groups before them, however, the National Association of Arab-Americans (NAAA) has discovered that ethnic pride is a necessary prelude to legislative influence. Their fifth annual convention held here last week stressed development of political, psychological and public relations tools to fashion a cultural identity their parents and grandparents had tried hard to abandon.
"Our people have always been one of the most assimilated groups in this country," said outgoing president Minor H. George. "Most of them had little orientation to their own heritage. Our biggest job now is educating our own. Now, we're learning to be lovers of our people."
NAAA leaders define their organization as the only group to provide a political voice for the country's more than a million Arab-Americans (by their estimates) they are testing the methods a number of other groups have used to establish themselves among the politically adept.
So far, according to NAAA executive director Michael P. Saba, these methods havt included contacting possible "affinity groups" such as corporate business heads, church and pacifist organizations as well as Indian and black leaders. (The Navajos may have oil on their reservations). They also have filed lawsuits charging discrimination against Arab-American in hiring practices; developed files on individual legislators' voting patterns congressional district the location of companies doing business with Arab countries, and learned the elements of lobbying and of media relations.
Membership in the NAAA is still small enough that its leaders hesitate to give actual figures; George described it only as being "in the thousands." In addition, Saba said, the NAAA acts as an umbrella group for other Arab-American organizations that would lose their tax-exempt status if they were to affiliate with the overly political NAAA.
Nevertheless, as George and others stressed repeatedly throughout the convention, "numbers is the name of the game" and, to swell their ranks into a force with which to be reckoned, the NAAA leadership stressed in panels, workshops and speeches the need first to persuade Arab-Americans to identify with a heritage that until the last decade was more anonymous than identifiable.
For many of the convention's participants, it was the 1967 six-day war between Israel and Egypt, Syria and Jordan that made them think of their Arabic heritage. The majority of Arab-Americans are of Lebanese descent, and to many of them, the war was distant thunder, to which they were unconnected in any emotional sense. But not, it seemed, to friends and coworkers.
"I was in my office when I first heard about the war," recalled Alixa Naff, who is now producing an educational film on Arab-Americans."A friend came in and said 'Alixa, you better go home, they're out to get you'. I didn't understand. At that time, I ate the (Mideast) food and I loved the dancing, but I was an American. All of a sudden, we all became Arabs."
Victor A. Ajlouny, 25, a San Jose insurance salesman, also found his interest in his heritage sparked by confrontation with stereotypes of Arab-Americans that emerged with the six-day war. "Before that," he said, "people didn't seem to have any idea of Arab-Americans as a group, not even in a negative sense. The Poles had the jokes, the Italians were the Cosa Nostra, but the Arabs didn't have anyting."
The "embarrassment," Ajlouny said, "came in 1967. All those jokes about the back-up lights. (As in, "How can you tell the difference between an Israeli tank and an Egyptian tank? Answer: the Egyptian tanks are the ones with the back-up lights on.") Now, Ajlouny said, "I'm adamant about my heritage. I want to give my kids someting to hang on to."
But for Ajlouny and many of the others at the convention, the resurrection of a cultural identity long forgotten stems only partly from anger over cultural stereotypes of Arabs as oilrich sheiks, Bedouins or crazed terrorists.
"Now," Ajlouny said, "everything's a joke. It's a joke to make fun of the flag, of the country, and it seems like the government is doing everything it can to take away people's sense of their own identity. I don't want that to happen to me. I want to know who I am and where I came from."
The convention itself echoed often with the words quoted by Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio) who mederated a panel discussion on ethnic pride - "he who denies his heritage," Oakar quoted her late mother as telling her, "denies himself."
In fact, as NAAA leaders high-lighted the past year's triumphs to the assemble participants, the one achievement greeted with the most delight was the contretemps created when Federal Trade Commissioner Paul Rand Dixon, at a businessman's convention last summer, referred to consumer advocate Ralph Nader as a "dirty Arab" and ended up appologizing first to the NAAA and finally to Nader himself.
"Actually, I was heartened that Nader was called that," said Lorraine Abdul Rahim Carter, a Mideast scholar and consultant, "because at least Americans will now know that this prominent citizen is of Abrab descent."
At times, in fact, the convention scemed more to resemble a 1960s consciousness raising session than it did a political strategy session. Individual housewives and businessmen stood up to give testimony to their own personal attempts to keep their children aware and proud of their heritage and to combat what they see as negative media stereotypes.
"My middlec hild looks very Arabic," said Joyce Asfour, a Cincinnati housewife. "But she's afraid to admit she's Arabic. All she sees are the stories about terrorists and the political cartoons that make all Arabs look greedy and fat. She just doesn't realize the good things about being Arab."
And throughout the dinners and the dances, where men in business suits and women in evening gowns kicked high in the dubke and the beladiyeh, the succesful and the accomplished would be pointed out to a visitor - the doctors, the lawyers, the scholars.
"They think we're stupid and lazy and ignorant," said a woman from Cleveland, "but look around you. These are successful people here. We don't live in the desert, we don't ride camels."
Yet another stereotype that convention participants tried hard to destroy was any intimation that their opposition to the U.S. government's policy toward Israel was in any way anti-Semitic. "I disagree with a political philosophy called Zionism and a country called Israel," said Joanne McKenna, a member of NAAA's board of director's. "It has nothing to do with the Jewish people."
Nevertheless, not everyone at the convention was careful to make that distinction, and it prompted one speaker, James Zogby, vice president of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates, to caution the assembly.
"We have fallen prey, justifiably," Zogby said, "to the lure of anti-Semitism among our people. but we have, to recognize the fact that the Jewish people are fighting for their survival, albeit in a misguided way. For God's sake, we have to become sensitive to the legitimate fears they have.
"Anti-Semitism in this country," Zogby said, "is so thick you can cut it with a knife. We shouldn't forget it. It does an injustice to our cause. We ought to wage our battle without that."
Yet when a convention member proposed an amendment that would strike what he called "inflammatory language" concerning Israel from a resolution calling for the end of U.S arms sales to the Middle East, the motion was resoundingly defeated.
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Perhaps the most emotional moment during the convention was the reception accorded aspeech by Don Warden, national chairman of Concerned Black Americans for Africa and the Middle East. "One decision you have to make is 'do you want to disappear' . . . You are going to be the target for every conceivable hate campaign that mankind has ever known," Warden said, alluding to what he saw as a potential backlash to the country's need for need for Arab oil. "I'm suggesting you need the homeland more than the homeland needs you."
An ovation greeted Warden's speech, as it did Minor George's parting reminder as the convention ended. "All right," he said. "The time for selling the kibben (a Middle Eastern dish) is over. Now it's time to sell ourselves."