The rise of the Arab American left in the 60s-80s, and the US government’s fearful response

Middle East
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The Rise of the Arab American Left: Activists, Allies, and their Fight against Imperialism and Racism, 1960s-1980s. By Pamela Pennock. University of North Carolina Press, February 2017. Cloth, $85. Paperback, $29.95.

Just out of law school in 1967 and not wanting to be drafted and forced to fight against the Vietnamese, whom I supported, I joined VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps, and was given a choice of being sent to Detroit or Chicago. Lenny Bruce used to crack that “Chicago is so corrupt it is thrilling.” So I chose Detroit, not knowing much about it and never having been to the motor city. I soon found out that there were more Arab-Americans in Detroit than any other city in the country. It’s where the pro-Palestinian Arab movement got its start. Detroit was the epicenter. The 1967 war launched it, changing many peoples’ lives. Including mine.

The Rise of the Arab American Left

Pamela Pennock’s excellent book. “The Rise of the Arab American Left” tells the story. It is subtitled “Activists, Allies, and Their Fight against Imperialism and Racism, 1960s – 1980s”. She writes with intelligence and makes relevant the early effort of radical young Arab Americans who organized themselves and made alliances with other sections of the movement in the ’60s and the ’70s

Pennock teaches 20th century American history at the University of Michigan in Dearborn, a city that is part of the Detroit metropolitan area. Arab Americans got to the USA and to Detroit in waves of immigration especially after Israeli’s conquest of much of Palestine in 1948 and then again in another wave in 1967, when the Israeli army crushed Egypt, sending even more Palestinians into exile, and beginning the fifty-year occupation and colonization of the territories on the West Bank of the Jordan river, East Jerusalem, and asserting military control over 1 1/2 million people in the Gaza

I was at the University of Wisconsin law school in Madison at the time of the June 1967 war. I was an anti-Vietnam war activist and considered myself a socialist. But like many 20-something radicals at that time, I had supported Israel, swallowing uncritically the notion popularized in Leon Uris’ book “Exodus” that it was an empty land populated of necessity by Jews fleeing fascist Europe. Israel’s 1967 aggression showed me and many others new to the left that Zionism was a colonial settler project.

Arab-Americans, many in the newly formed Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG) or in the campus based Organization of Arab Students (OAS), were propelled into motion by the 1967 war and were looking for allies. They found them in Detroit.

Pennock shows how Arab-Americans integrated themselves into the larger narrative of American progressive activism in the 1960s, and continuing on into the 1970s. The ’67 war was the turning point in the Arab diaspora.

The AAUG was started in that year. “In its radical advocacy of Palestinian nationalism, the non-sectarian AAUG quickly became the most influential organization on the Arab American left,” Pennock says.

Abdeen Jabara, with whom I practiced both law and politics, was a leader in the AAUG and soon to become its president. He sought to create common cause with African-American, Chicanos, Oriental Americans, young people, and civil libertarians whom he called “natural allies” because they shared the Arab American experience of feeling “excluded from any meaningful participation in the American decision process”. He understood that coalition building was the way for Arab Americans, as a relatively small number of the population, to magnify their strength and influence.

The Algerian revolution against French colonial rule was supported by figures in the black movement such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. The 1966 movie “The Battle of Algiers,” considered one of the great political movies of all times, dramatized how the people of Algiers rose up against their French colonial occupiers. Pennock notes how the movie “became instrumental in fostering alliances among Palestinian activists and radical activist who represented black and other third world communities in the United States.”

In Detroit, Abdeen and I and leaders of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), a black syndicalist organization of auto workers, and others premiered the movie
in a large theater. In attendance were antiwar activists, socialists, black nationalists, and Arab Americans. Some 600 tickets were sold. The theater was packed. There was an uproar of applause each time the Algerians struck a blow against the French. The next day the “theater party” as it was described, was featured in the Detroit Free Press, the city’s main newspaper.

A year after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Sirhan Sirhan, a disturbed 24-year-old Palestinian living in Los Angeles, assassinated popular presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. His defense attorneys, who included Jabara, unsuccessfully argued that “the trauma Sirhan had experienced as a four-year-old child in the Nakba of 1948 when he and his family were driven from their Jerusalem home by the Zionist military, combined with mental illness, resulted in a diminished capacity that absolved him of criminal responsibility for the murder.”
He was convicted and sentenced to death (later commuted to life in prison).

It is Pennock’s opinion that the murder arguably “reinforced many Americans’ association of Arabs with extremism and terrorism and made Palestinian solidarity organizing even less acceptable in mainstream American society. ” All this was made worse by the murders of Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich in 1972 by a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

At that point the US federal government ratcheted up its surveillance and harassment of Arab American activists with a program they called “Operation Boulder.” All the aspects of the current vicious government Islamophobia – surveillance, frame-ups, denial of visas, racial stereotyping, incitement of fear against Arabs – have their roots in this period.

The US doesn’t fully accept or fairly treat Arabs and Muslims Americans. Just last week Trump banned people from majority Muslim countries who have been shown to have exactly zero connection over the last 40 years with terrorism here to enter the country.

“The Rise of the Arab American Left” helps us appreciate the struggles and accomplishments of Arab Americans over the last several decades. The AAUG was the most significant Arab American organization in the decade after the 1967 war. “Its most important legacy,” the author tells us, “remains its emphasis on education with respect to Palestinian rights.”

A rise in consciousness in support of these rights exist today on the left and especially among young Jews as demonstrated by the growth of Jewish Voice for Peace. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has grown into a force which threatens Israeli apartheid. We have Pamela Pennock to thank for writing a much needed and definitive book that makes the historical connections of these developments and advances our common struggle for equality and justice.

About Michael Smith

Michael S. Smith is a lawyer, author and radio host. He can be heard on "Law and Disorder." http://lawanddisorder.org/

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2 Responses

  1. Citizen
    March 16, 2017, 7:05 pm

    The propaganda movie Exodus, commissioned by the state of Israel, did much to subvert traditional American empathy for the oppressed, underdog by overlooking what Zionists were doing to the natives of Israel.

  2. MHughes976
    March 19, 2017, 10:47 am

    I’d have expected any book on this subject to be called ‘The Rise and Failure of the Arab-American Left’. Why did such a cause,, supported by obvious facts and clearly valid arguments, fail so totally to carry conviction in the West, in fact gain very little attention?
    I agree with Citizen that Exodus was influential but I suppose that by itself it was only one current in the mighty stream of post-Hitler Zionist propaganda. Perhaps it was the jewel in that particular crown.
    Sirhan and the hijackings etc, of around 1970 certainly played their part but maybe the damage had already been done.
    I think that the crucial movement was within Christianity, running a mile from anything that could even look like anti-Semitism. The Catholics were goaded by accusations of wartime collaboration but the big impulse came from Protestant intellectuals keen to purge the sins of the German Church. The Lutheran idea of history where Jesus challenged Judaism and Luther challenged the Pope began to seem painful and Jesus became an exponent of Judaism, not a challenger. I think that the key figure was Reinhold Niebuhr, a brilliant writer and radical Protestant theologian. Martin Luther King, also a radical Protestant theologian, breathed the same air and was, I think, Zionism’s crucial convert. The ‘natural allies’ sought by the Arab-American Left moved in significant numbers, partly because of his decisions, to the other side and have more or less stayed there. Of course there were also other left wing figures of completely different stamp, like Sartre, who gave Z the support of a hugely broad coalition facing what have seemed like sects and groupuscles and eccentrics. Western politics and culture have been sort of allergic to the Palestinian cause.
    Our only advantage is being right, which hasn’t been quite enough so far.

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