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Assessing Arab-Americans' concerns

When activist James Zogby speaks tonight, he will analyze both foreign and national forces that impinge on the civil rights of Arab-Americans.

By SUSAN ASCHOFF

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2001


Confronted with discrimination so pervasive that candidates for office refused their contributions or endorsements, Arab-Americans felt vindicated when President Clinton addressed the Arab American Leadership Conference in May 1998 -- the first president to appear before such a gathering.

Yet in the recent election, as many as 60 percent of Arab-American voters shunned his vice president. They gave George W. Bush an estimated 7-point advantage over Al Gore and awarded Green Party candidate Ralph Nader more than 13 percent of their vote.

"I think there was a loss of confidence in the peace process, and in other issues," says James Zogby, president and founder of the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C. "There was disappointment in the president, in how he's handling the Middle East issue."

Zogby, who has worked for more than 20 years to politically empower Arab-Americans, will speak tonight at the University of South Florida. Joining him will be Mazen Al-Najjar, a Tampa teacher who was released in December after being jailed more than three years on secret evidence alleging he had ties to Middle East terrorists. Zogby has been part of the national effort to stop the use of secret evidence against Al-Najjar, a Palestinian, and other Muslim and Arab immigrants across the country, as unconstitutional and discriminatory.

Zogby's appearance comes on the day Israelis go to the polls to elect a prime minister, amid renewed fighting and fading hopes for a peace agreement. Hard-line opposition leader Ariel Sharon is expected to defeat incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

In assessing the Bush administration's stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Zogby is pragmatic.

"I doubt there will be a whole lot of difference" from the Clinton administration, he says. Bush's intention to stand back will not last, he says.

"They try to put the Middle East on the back burner. What will happen after (today's) election will cause a crisis," says Zogby, and Bush "will have to deal with the issue."

Criticized as an "antagonist" by many in the Jewish community, Zogby has urged cuts in U.S. aid to Israel based on its aggression in the West Bank. At a meeting days before the Clinton administration's departure, he told Justice Department officials that Attorney General Janet Reno should apologize to the Arab-American people for airport profiling, secret evidence and what he considers other civil rights abuses.

Although a coalition of Arab and Muslim groups endorsed Bush during the campaign, Zogby says the diversity among Americans of Arab descent -- of whom there are an estimated 3.5-million -- defies stereotyping. About 80 percent of Arab-Americans are Christian. About 75 percent were born in the United States.

Those born here "track the rest of the country on the issues," Zogby says. Those who are immigrants more closely identify with Middle East issues, he says. "It's a much more complicated community than people think."

Both U.S.-born and immigrant Arabs, however, overwhelmingly support a Palestinian state, he says. And both are vulnerable to discrimination. Airport profiling, in which passengers with Arab names or flight destinations are pulled aside for questioning and searches, cares nothing for citizenship, he says.

Based in Washington, D.C., Zogby hosts a weekly call-in television program, A Capital View, broadcast live in the United States and overseas, and writes a weekly column on U.S. politics called "Washington Watch" for 14 newspapers in 12 countries. He has served as a Democratic Party adviser and platform committee member.

His brother, John Zogby of Zogby International, is a pollster whose work was prominently featured by the media during the campaign last year.

When James Zogby founded the Arab American Institute 16 years ago, Arab-Americans were a disjointed and unheard group, he says. In a 1986 study on discrimination against Arab-Americans in U.S. politics, Zogby detailed their exclusion from giving contributions and endorsements. When Arab-American organizations tried to join broader coalitions on foreign policy and civil rights, they were barred, often because of protests from Jewish groups.

"(Now) Jewish voters are not interested in writing off an entire ethnic community," Zogby says.

"I don't think there's an either/or between Arab and Jewish voters" for those seeking office. "I think Clinton showed you can represent both.

"The weak link in the civil liberties chain is the Arab-American," Zogby says. But "we have an institutionalized presence in the mainstream now.

"It's a different day."

If you go

James Zogby will speak at 7 p.m. today at Cooper Hall, Room 103, at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Admission is free. His appearance is sponsored by Amnesty International and the University Lecture Series. For information, phone (813) 974-7795. Directions to USF and a campus map are available at http://ctr.usf.edu/uls.

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