During my first year as a U.S. Senator, I was visited by a member of the Brazilian parliament. He was in the opposition to the dictatorship in Brazil, and that he was sick because of what he knew about the torture the military junta undertook in order to stay in power.
“What can I do?” I asked.
“You have the ability to expose, to publicize what’s happening there.”
“I don’t think I have enough influence to put a stop to it,” I countered.
“You don’t understand,” he said, “if those people who are in prison for political crimes know that someone outside knows of what’s happening them, they will feel hope. As it is now, they despair of anyone ever knowing of their suffering.”
I had not known about conditions in Brazil, but what he said was enough to galvanize me into trying to publicize what the dictatorship was doing. I began introducing amendments to foreign aid legislation that would cut off funds for any country that tortured its own people. I was never able to pass such an amendment, even though, amazingly, the Democrats controlled the Senate back then. I was able, however, to close down the “School for Torture” that was being operated under the name of the School of the Americas, but it was only later that Tom Harkin, after he was elected to the Senate, was able to pass an anti-torture amendment.
I relate this anecdote to remind readers how important it is for people under occupation to know that someone is aware, that there are people who care about what’s happening to them. This sentiment is especially true for those Palestinians who have lived under Israeli occupation since 1948, and the years following. There is a feeling by those people that the world doesn’t care what happens to them. That is why it is doubly important that voices of protest over the illegal Israeli occupation continue to be heard, despite the seeming hopelessness of their condition.
The backbone of protest here in the United States has been, by and large, the Arab American community. This is a group of people who, by virtue of their special knowledge of what is happening to the Palestinians on a daily basis, have been able to articulate to the American public at large what is going on. Of course, overcoming the political power of the Israeli Lobby has been extremely difficult; the knowledge by those under occupation that someone cares and that someone is trying to do something about it sustains hope when it looks the darkest.
That hope grew dimmer this election year. In spite of the fealty paid to the Israeli Lobby both by Obama and by McCain, and in spite of Ralph Nader doing his best to publicize the brutality of the Israeli occupation, a great many Arab Americans abandoned Nader and his message in favor of the other candidates.
Of course, we all understood that Nader would not win the election, but the movement of Arab Americans away from him regrettably deprives him of the political influence he might have gained to press his positions, including his strong criticism of Israel’s illegal occupation. His voice is considerably weakened because of the movement of Arab American voters to other candidates, which is unfortunate for those Palestinians who live in desperation on a daily basis. The same is true for the people of Lebanon and Syria who are in constant fear of being bombed by U.S. warplanes flown by Israeli pilots.
In this election, a great many Arab Americans joined Obama’s winning coalition, despite Obama’s clear indication that he wanted nothing to do with Arabs, either Christian or Muslim. We saw, during his campaign, that his staff prevented Muslim women with head scarves from sitting behind him in view of the television cameras during his campaign rallies. He visited Christian churches and Jewish Synagogues, but he refused to visit even one Mosque during the campaign. And, finally, joining John McCain, he made the obligatory bow and scrape to the Israeli Lobby—AIPAC—during that group’s 2008 convention. He made no attempt to hide any of these clearly pro-Israeli actions from Arab Americans. Had he done the same toward any other ethnic group, we would expect that the group would find another electoral home for their support and their votes. But that, apparently, is not what happened this year. Arab Americans voted overwhelmingly in support of Obama, rushing right past Ralph Nader, who has articulated the community’s feelings about the Israeli occupation.
This is a continuation of the self-destructive attitude held by people of Arab descent. We see it in the Arab world, and we see it among the Arab diaspora. We see the urge to defeat or to overlook one of our own in favor of catering to those we think will are certain to hold power.
Someone once said that when the Zionists looked around for a place to organize an exclusive Jewish state, they chose their target wisely. When Arab Americans, and Arabs as well, learn to act in their own interests, then the day will come when politicians will begin to listen to what they have to say. Arab Americans desperately need to learn to reward their friends. Failing that, all that remains for them will be their enemies.
JAMES G. ABOUREZK is a lawyer practicing in South Dakota. He is a former United States senator and the author of two books, Advise and Dissent, and a co-author of Through Different Eyes. Abourezk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.