James J. Zogby
I am writing while en route to the Democratic National Convention in
Boston. As we have prepared for this year's events, I could not help but
reflect on past conventions and our community's involvement in them. Let me
share some personal reminiscences.
1984, San Francisco. This was the first time that Arab Americans, as an
organised community, participated in a political campaign. Jesse Jackson had
welcomed us into what he called the "Rainbow". Prior to 1984, there had been
"Syrian" and "Lebanese" committees, but never before had there been an "Arab
American" committee. Jackson recognised our potential and reached out to the
community across the country. In addition, he asked me to serve as a deputy
Arab Americans responded. We raised money, worked as volunteers and
voted. But the process was still new to us, and so, by convention time,
there were only four Arab Americans present as delegates. One of the Arab
Americans was Essa Sakklah, of Houston, Texas. In every interview, he
proudly told reporters: "I am the first Palestinian American ever elected as
a delegate to any national convention."
At the convention, Jackson asked me to deliver one of the speeches
placing his name in nomination for president. Having grown up in a political
home, and having watched every convention on television since 1956, I was
overwhelmed by the experience of mounting the podium and addressing the
delegates. Since I was to be the first Arab American to speak at a
convention, I began my remarks, noting proudly: "I am an Arab American...
1988, Atlanta. After four years of intense mobilisation, Arab Americans
across the US went to Atlanta with over 50 delegates and convention
committee members. During the primaries, we had made our mark as a voting
bloc in helping Jackson win a surprise victory in the Michigan primary — a
win that catapulted his campaign forward.
At the same time, working together with progressive Jewish Americans and
other Jackson delegates, Arab Americans succeeded in passing resolutions in
10 states, calling for Palestinian rights, and had, through the efforts of
the Jackson campaign, won the right to introduce a minority plank into the
party platform, calling for "mutual recognition, territorial compromise and
self determination for both Israelis and Palestinians".
While party leaders told me that if I persisted on calling for a debate
on the plank I would "destroy the party", I refused to accept this, and
believed that the debate was needed. Jackson agreed, and so we had the first
ever debate on the Middle East in the history of either party.
Once again, I had the opportunity to address the convention, while our
1,200 Jackson delegates demonstrated on the floor, carrying signs that read
"Palestinian statehood now" and "Israeli security, Palestinian justice". We
lost that platform fight, but we won respect for our efforts. We were
mindful of the fact that we had also won planks on the party platform on
Lebanon and against negative stereotyping.
One of our delegates that year was a young woman I will never forget.
Mary Lahaj, of Massachusetts, had fought an uphill battle from her first
caucus all the way to the National Convention, and was proud of being the
first-ever Arab American Muslim woman delegate to any convention.
1992, New York. We were represented at the New York Convention by over 40
delegates and committee members. We had had some frustration in the early
part of that year's election getting into the Clinton campaign. At the
convention, I ran into an AIPAC official who told me: "I know you're trying
to get in. We won't let you in, and why should we?" I was furious, but
remembered Jesse Jackson's words of wisdom: "The biggest threat you pose is
not to get angry and leave, but to stick around and fight.
And so we did. With the help of the then-chairman of the party, Ron
Brown, and Senator Joseph Lieberman, the doors of the campaign were opened,
and we developed a fruitful relationship with the Clinton campaign.
That year, we also succeeded in getting a resolution passed by one of the
convention's standing committees, calling for full inclusion and
representation of Arab Americans at all levels in the party.
1996, Chicago. Arab Americans were represented, once again by over 40
delegates. Our Arab American Democratic Leadership Council had been formally
recognised by the Democratic Party, and we had become founding members of
the Party's Ethnic Council. As a co-chair of the ethnic effort, I was master
of ceremonies at a luncheon that brought together delegates and leaders from
19 different ethnic communities. After years of exclusion, we had earned
our place at the table.
A humorous incident occurred on one of the nights of the convention, when
a junior White House official introduced himself to me saying: "You don't
know me, but I know you." He told me that at the 1992 convention, he had
been hired by AIPAC to follow me and report on who I met and what my
conversations had been about.
A special treat was that on the night of President Clinton's nomination
acceptance speech, I was invited by the president to be one of his guests on
the podium at the convention's end. It was extraordinary to witness that
event from that perspective at that time.
That year's platform included a passage about Jerusalem being Israel's
undivided capital. I was outraged, since Clinton had made such a determined
effort not to implement the congressional resolution that passed that year,
requiring the US to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the US
embassy there. After a personal appeal to the White House, where I found my
concerns shared, I was able to secure a formal statement issued by then
national security adviser Sandy Berger who, in effect, stated the White
House's rejection of the platform.
2000, Los Angeles. By now, Arab Americans had become a fixture in the
Once again, 40-plus delegates had been elected from across the country.
Our Arab American tribute reception, held across the street from the
convention site, was attended by over 1,000 delegates and guests. It was to
be the start of an interested campaign season. The partisan debate within
the community was intense, but it was fascinating, because this was the
first time that both Republican and Democratic candidates actively courted
the community's support.
Both Vice-President Gore and Governor Bush met with Arab Americans on
three occasions. Their vice-presidential running mates also met with Arab
American leaders. All this was unprecedented, since in no previous campaign
had any presidential candidate ever come directly to the Arab American
community seeking their support.
2004, Boston. And now, on to Boston. With almost 50 Arab American
delegates and committee members, this delegation is our largest since 1988,
and it is our most diverse group in history. Already the response from party
officials and elected officials for our convention gala is the most
significant ever, with over 50 senators and representatives confirming their
attendance, and officials in the Kerry campaign, and party leaders across
the country, coming as well.
Our issues forum, "Civil Liberties and Global Responsibility", will now
feature such party luminaries as Senator Richard Durbin and Representative
So much remains to be done, but as each new convention has demonstrated,
the progress we've made over the past two decades is real and measurable. A
new generation of Arab Americans is now ready to take its rightful place in
the political process and to make a difference in our country. Of this, we
can be proud.