April is Arab-American Heritage Month and it was good to see the support Proclamations issued by dozens of states, local governments, and even the State Department and the Democratic Party.
Given this recognition of our Community contributions In government, the arts, sports, and business, it might be tempting to say we should forget about past injuries, rest on our laurels, and move on. Not so fast.
In order to understand our present, it is important to know the painful path we had to walk to get here. And as newer immigrants still face discrimination and hatred, it is important to recognize that the lessons of the past apply today.
I would like to share some of my personal experiences.
My entire adult life, and that of many Arab-Americans of my generation, has been shaped by anti-Arab behavior. I’m not talking about the gruesome ridicules we experienced as children when we were called “camel jockeys”, “greasy lives” or “sand-n ******”. What we were exposed to was far more harmful.
There were different forms: total discrimination, slander or denial of our identity and political exclusion. In some cases, while obvious to us, bigotry has been shaken off by others. But as former Senator James Abouretsk would say, “Take what has been said about Arabs and replace the word Jew. If it makes you flinch, understand how wrong it is.” Examples abound:
In 1968 I was supposed to speak at a rally against the Vietnam War. Someone protested and said, “Why are we letting the Arab speak?” I then endured a debate about whether it was appropriate for “the Arab” to speak.
A few years later I received the death threat: “Arab dog, you will die when you come back on campus.” The campus police did nothing. Nor did they act when my classroom was attacked by “activists” from the Jewish Defense League.
In 1973 I was hired by a college to teach only religion classes. Anything to do with the Middle East was banned because “it would be too controversial to have someone with an ethnic background in that role”. A few years later I applied to another college and was told that being an Arab might help to get some money. I thought of the words of Martin Luther King – I was excluded or sought after not because of my qualifications but because of my ethnicity.
In 1979, on Halloween in my children’s elementary school, some classmates dressed as “Arabs” carried bags of money or toy weapons. My kids came home and said they were embarrassed and didn’t want anyone to know they were of Arab descent. When I complained, the headmaster did not think it necessary to speak to the other children’s parents about how hurtful this was to my family.