Dr. Albert Mokhiber at Al-Hewar Center:
One Arab Americans Personal Journey
Through the American Experience
On December 6, 1998, Dr. Albert Mokhiber spoke at Al-Hewar Center about his "Personal and Public Experiences as an Activist Arab American," to an audience of young Arab American adults. Dr. Mokhiber is a lawyer with a private practice in metropolitan Washington where he fights for the rights of Arab Americans and against discrimination. He is a vice chairman of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) for whom he served as president from 1990-1994, and director of legal services from 1984-1990. He is also a former president of the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG). The following are highlights from Dr. Mokhibers address:
I'm happy to take a look at one Arab American and my
odyssey through the American experience as an Arab and an activist and how we might find
what goals we've accomplished, what failures, and how, more importantly, we can motivate
others to do what all of you are doing here.
Many people ask me when I "came over." Obviously, I didn't come over, nor did my father; my great grandparents came over. My great grandparents are buried in the city of Niagara Falls, New York, which means that we're second, third and fourth generation Arab Americans, depending on how it's counted. But that's rather irrelevant. I think what is important is that the forefathers who came from that generation, like Kahlil Gibran and others, came to the United States not, I think, with any romantic notions of getting rich overnight because many of them found that not only were the roads not paved with gold, but in many cases they weren't paved at all!
My grandfather happened to be one of the first people to build a house in our town of Niagara Falls in what was a forest, and we were looked upon as pioneers in that era. Yet, when the Gulf War hit, everyone in the media wanted to know when I came over. I eventually brought my grandfather's cane from World War I, where he was injured in France fighting for the US army, to prove to them that I didn't need to take a political litmus test and that my grandfather probably fought for his grandfather's right to come over here from wherever that person came.
We don't need to prove anything to anyone. We are very good citizens. We are loyal, honest, hard-working. We pay our taxes. And weve contributed quite a bit to this society. However, problems remain. As you can see, generations that continue to come here will face different problems. I notice that probably most of the people in the audience tonight are not native-born Americans, so you have faced those trials and tribulations that my grand-father and great grand-father faced. Fortunately, by the time I came around, I faced no discrimination when I grew up. Maybe that's because they thought I was an Italian, or a Greek, or a Jew, but we were a minority of minorities, and we were a privileged minority. When you said you were a Lebanese in Niagara Falls, the red carpet was rolled out for you. It meant that you were successful, you were highly educated, you had a strong family background, you had all the right "family values."
Unfortunately, those tables have turned. Today if you say you are Lebanese or an Arab, automatically you are equated with something evil, wrong or disastrous, which is why we've built institutions to fight against that.
But what got us active? And why do you need to look at a guy like me as a guinea pig?
Because, for everyone of my generation who is active and who is willing to come to something called "Al-Hewar Center" or identify as an Arab, I can tell you that I have literally hundreds of cousins who do not identify, who do not get involved. It's not because they dont like being Arabs, on the contrary, they love it and if they had the opportunity, they probably would be more involved. But when we were growing up, there was a vacuum. There were no Arab institutions to speak of. There were religious institutions; so if you were a Muslim, you had a mosque to go to, and if you were a Christian, you had a church to go to, and once a year you would attend each others haflis, and that was pretty much it. There were no AAUG's, ADC's, NAAA's, Al-Hewar's these institutions came about roughly after the '67 war. So we had to look to ourselves to sustain our culture and our society, and, in many ways, some of us grew up thinking, myself included, that when I finally went to Lebanon, I would see guys riding camels and pyramids, etc. We didn't know Lebanon from Egypt, or Syria from Sudan. We only knew what our teachers taught us, and our teachers taught us some pretty stupid things. But eventually we taught ourselves.
My eldest brother was one of my role models as somebody who was very active in civil rights movements in the United States, which is, I think, the thrust that brought most of the ones from my generation into the Arab American fold to begin with. But he also became involved in the Palestinian struggle. So at about age 10, my teacher wanted to send me to the school psychologist because I was writing articles about the Palestinian "cubs" as they called them in the Fatah movement, and how I wanted to go join these guys and fight the "bad" guys. My teacher thought there was something terribly demented about that and me! Fortunately, my parents came in, stood up for me, educated my teacher, and we straightened that out. But that pretty much explains, I think, the experience of most people of my generation. Growing up in absolute ignorance about the political and historical events of the day. We knew maybe more history because of our grandparents, but even they lived in a very limited microcosm of the Arab world.
My grandmother who was the only grandparent still alive when I was adult enough to talk about these things, only saw Beirut once, and that was when she was boarding the boat to come to America.
The people who came here were pioneers. Did they come here because they hated their home countries? Some of them did like the ones who came right after the Turkish occupation. And they didnt want to go back. The end of that occupation, like the end of all occupations, is particularly brutal. (I hope that what we are seeing in Palestine today might be a similar occurrence the bitter end of the Israeli occupation). But they came in search of economic opportunities as well, because there were so many problems, particularly in the Levant where my grandparents came from. So, while they instilled the sense of culture and heritage in us, they didn't really want to face the political events because they were so dismayed.
But those of my generation began studying this, and my education of this came at the college level basically. There was something called the Action Newsletter. There was a fellow who died last year, Dr. Mohammed Mehdi, (many of you might of seen him on TV), he single-handedly educated an entire generation of Arab Americans with a four-page newsletter that told us what was happening in Palestine, Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world (this was the basis of my fifth grade dissertation, by the way!).
Dr. Mehdi was an Iraqi American, and he had his back broken by the Jewish Defense League in the '60s, which only forced him to become more dogged and adamant in his pursuit of justice. It was that newspaper, a few radicals, so-to-speak, at that time, and our professors who ultimately allowed us to become educated about ourselves. In a sense, we had to wait almost a generation to learn about ourselves.
As for language, unfortunately, it become a "secret code" in our family. When the parents and grandparents didn't want the kids to know about something they would whisper in Arabic, and hence, I can pick out some food and swear at you in Arabic, but unfortunately everything I learned in between and in college I've since forgotten. That is one thing I would implore all of you not to repeat. Make sure that your children have a command of the language not just a smattering. It is so important, if you're going to be a part of the community, to be able to communicate. Nothing is sadder in my life as an Arab than not to be able to speak to you in Arabic. It's like ripping the soul out of your body.
I took my family back to Lebanon and Palestine this summer, and we passed through Syria and Jordan, because I wanted my children, who are now fifth generation Arab Americans and who all have Arabic names, to know their identity. But they, too, are illiterate in Arabic, and I want very dearly for them to learn the language. This is something that I think is a travesty for them. Not just because of the communication problem, but because of the richness of our culture and what is being stolen from them. It is bad enough that the Israelis have taken their land, but to have their culture taken from them is an even worse crime, and that is something that we have participated in as parents.
So I went to college and became active: Palestine solidarity committees, African American movements, Hispanic movements, Haitian movements. And we picked and chose role models. One for myself, who actually goes back to high school for me, is [consumer advocate] Ralph Nader. Unfortunately most children today don't know who he is, but I hope you all do.
Ralph Nader has had an absolutely tremendous and profound impact on all Americans, not just Arab Americans. From the moment you woke up this morning and drank fresh water and breathed fresh air, to the moment you got into your car and put on your seatbelt and were protected by your air bag, you were affected by Ralph Nader. This proves to me that one person can effect change. In fact most revolutions throughout history, whether political, cultural or intellectual, were fomented by a handful of people; not the masses. You need a core group to make the most profound changes in society, because a dedicated, committed few who have that energy are 20 times more than one Ralph Nader, who himself has already done more than most people in that realm. And this has a cascading effect. If we each took a small part, we could make the changes that are needed.
Other role models were the people we saw. The first time I saw Jim Abourezk was in college. A friend of mine had a Penthouse magazine, and believe it or not, I read it for the article. I saw this Arabic sounding name on the cover, read the article, and had a revelation. There were people in our own U.S. Congress fighting, not just for the rights of Arabs, but for all Americans. Then there was Nick Rahall, who was the youngest Congressman in the history of the United States he came in at the age of 27 and is now the Dean of the House. There was also Mary Rose Oakar and many other people who served as role models.
What we don't have, and what we should be indebted to Al-Hewar Center for, but we need this across the country, are meeting places on commonalties, not what divides us (there's enough that divides us), but what brings us together, what will focus us on that commonality and project us into the future, and most important, what will groom the future leadership.
In many ways, we are at a very historic juncture. Those of you here who are the first generation immigrants (it doesn't matter where you are from), you have an obligation to your children. And I as a fourth generation Arab American have an obligation to my children. That obligation is for your children and my children to know each other. If our two generations dont engage, our children certainly won't, and if they don't, that linking of the chain that is so essential and so crucial between the homeland and the new land will be lost forever. What the Arab Americans have done here in the past hundred years the ones you don't know about is absolutely fantastic! And what you've done back home and what you will do here is fantastic! Can you imagine that power if it is united and fused but can you imagine the tragedy if that opportunity is lost?
People talk now about getting involved in politics and becoming politically enfranchised and empowered. Back in the 1940s, I had a cousin who was the Chairman of the Republican party! Back then! It's nothing new. Arabs have had Ph.D.'s in political science from birth for the last century. That shouldn't amaze us. What should amaze us is if that guy was Chairman of the Republican party back then, why aren't there more chairmen now? Why aren't there more candidates now? Why aren't there more thinkers and scholars and more visible people and identified people? That is because of the absence of those institutions until 1967. The '67 war was a wake-up call for all of us. It told us: great, you assimilated, you became good Americans, you did what you were supposed to do. Unfortunately, your country didn't do what it was supposed to do. It didn't even follow its own interests. It followed lock, stock and barrel the Israeli interests. Why? Because there was no Arab lobby. We did what we were supposed to do, we assimilated. But through assimilation, we had an opposition for 80 years through the Israeli lobby that built up and spoke, also in a vacuum nobody challenged them.
Jim Abourezk, who I mentioned before, came from South Dakota as a Congressman, pretty much a Zionist as most Arab Americans who were in the Democratic party would have been at the time because they didn't know better. They thought that was the right thing to do. The Americans always support the underdog, and it looked like the Israelis were the underdog because nobody was talking about the Arab point-of-view, whether politically, socially or culturally. Were they wrong, should it have been corrected? Yes, but that is history. We have to work on the now and the tomorrow.
So grooming leadership, to me, is the most important thing, and that is something all of you can do, because you are all leaders in your own right and you will all have a responsibility to your children, your nieces and nephews, and whoever else you are connected to.
We started a program at ADC before I left called "Reaching the Teachers," which was actually instituted by Fairfax County, who came to me during the Gulf War and told me how the children with Arabic names were being victimized by other students.
Things have changed somewhat, but not tremendously. We'd be kidding ourselves if we confused access photo ops with the administration or congresspeople - with actual respect and impact. There is a huge difference. We cannot be used by Republicans or Democrats. We are not being honest with ourselves if we think by virtue of just showing photos with these leaders that we have made an impact. Until there is change on the ground, then we have a lot more work today.
We have to develop goals and an action plan to implement them. The time for talk is over, we need to actually engage in a very real and realistic sense. All politics being local, this is why Al-Hewar, again, is very important. You develop these ideas through discussion. Out of the ideas come plans, then you act out on your plans. You don't have to have them in opposition to existing organizations. You do them hand-in-glove.
You are the organizations. That's what I've learned. One individual can make a difference, but more importantly, collectively we can make a hell of a difference. Individually, nobody can top us. We're fantastic. We are now the head of Ford Motor Company, with Jack Nassar. We were the White House Chief of Staff. We are top music stars. We're this and that. But collectively, where have we gone? There's no question that we've made some progress, but we need to go a lot further.
It is important to note that the community has failed only in the political arena. It has been quite successful in business and in other spheres of influence. One of the reasons for the political failure is the that we are behind the 80 year curve of the Zionist lobby. The second reason is that we are not as focused as the Zionist lobby. We may be united about being Arabs, but we are divided on how to approach this. Arabs are a bit laissez faire. Socially this is fine, but it needs to be tightened up politically. We need to agree on our priorities and go after them with a vengeance because money and votes are the only two things that count in this country politically. We should be pouring thousands and thousands of dollars into campaigns. We should also consider running for office especially in local elections. Of course, everyone who is eligible should vote. Vote for good candidates, of course. But if they also happen to be Arab American, that is icing on the cake.
If you don't give money and you don't vote, you are not participating. If you don't participate, you don't count. It is as simple as that. That is what will make the difference between the individual and the collective difference getting active and giving money.
You also need to reach out to the American people by using mass media, if you can, and at the school level, because everyone in this country is assured of an education, and that is one way of insuring that correct information is disseminated to the children.
Vigilance is the key. You need to be on top of these things. We also need more people in all the various professions, not just lawyers, doctors, and engineers, but artists, writers, speakers, teachers, we need people in every aspect of society.
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