12 - 18 September 2002
Issue No. 603
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James Zoghby:

An American identity, an Arab heritage: walking the fine line

The task of Sisyphus

Profile by Fatemah Farag
Ali Hassanein

James Zoghby has always stood out. There are the Zoghby columns, the Web site, the polls and television spots. Then 9/11 happened and Zoghby emerged as one of the most politically savvy, one of the most prolific, one of the most often heard Arab/American voices.

The emphasis here, though, is on the American. Visiting Zoghby at his Washington DC office, I expected someone who not only looked Middle Eastern, but spoke like one. Standing outside his office, waiting for the designated time of our appointment, I could hear an American on the phone and was sure there must be someone else in his office. But as it turned out it was Zoghby, alone. I admit to having been disoriented.

"I do not think the Arabs understand. They still see us [Arab Americans] as Diaspora. What they do not get is that we are Americans," Zoghby explained.

And if there was ever an authority on the subject it would be Zoghby. From his CV come the following: founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), the Washington DC- based organisation that serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community; co-founder and chairman of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign in the late 1970s; co-founder and former executive director of the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee. In 1982 he co- founded Save Lebanon Inc, a private non- profit, humanitarian and non-sectarian relief organisation which funds health-care for Palestinian and Lebanese victims of war. In 1993, following the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord in Washington, Zoghby was asked by Vice President Al Gore to lead Builders for Peace, a private sector committee to promote US business investment in the West Bank and Gaza. He was elected a co-convener of the National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Committee (NDECC), an umbrella organisation of Democratic Party leaders of European and Mediterranean descent.

Dr Zoghby has testified before US House and Senate committees, has been guest speaker on several occasions at the Open Forum held by the State Department. He has addressed the United Nations and other international forums. Recently he received a Distinguished Public Service Award from the US Department of State "in recognition of outstanding contributions to national and international affairs".

He is a board member of the human rights organisation Middle East Watch and currently serves as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In January 2001 he was chosen by the president to be a member of the Central Asian-American Enterprise Fund and serves on its board of directors.

"I think many people do not recognise who the Arab Americans of today are. Eighty per cent of them were born here, 75 per cent of them are Christian and they are mainly of Lebanese/Syrian descent. These realities must be factored in how we create a coalition within the community."

Zoghby's family came to the US from Lebanon. His maternal grandfather was among the early wave of Lebanese immigrants to the US, arriving in 1898. It was a pattern of immigration that lasted until the second world war. His father came later, in 1922, to join his brother, via Marseilles, where he took a job as a steward on a west-bound ship.

"Our family background was very typical. My grandfather, on my mother's side, started a small business selling equipment to miners. My mother's mother also ran a clothes business -- everyone spoke of Sarah's Fashions. And in 1931 the Zoghby Brothers grocery was opened."

It was a time when immigrant communities lived together. The Zoghbys lived in a neighborhood comprising Italians and Lebanese communities, both of which were determined to assimilate into the great "melting-pot". It was a time when Uncle Farid would suddenly become Uncle Fred, when people were not encouraged to speak their own languages outside of the home and women with dark hair dyed their offending locks blond. "Everybody wanted to be Leave it to Beaver [a popular TV series portraying a very "American" family]. Two world wars and depression had led to a kind of desire by the dominant culture to impose and by ethnic groups to be accepted. They were times when social pressures and media images and the street did not respect difference."

But Zoghby's generation grew up in the fifties and sixties, a period of change. "At the time the US was going through dramatic social and civil rights upheavals. I remember that with the African-American movement, cultural nationalism came as a shock to the system. Asserting culture was new.

"And we thought: we are not quite white -- we are Arab Americans. And we began to wonder: don't we have a story to tell, too? When you add to that the Vietnam War -- well there started the emergence of subcultures within the US."


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Still, he admits, "to call yourself an Arab American was not the preferred form of identity. The anti-war movement was a challenge to the status quo and that was not something you said. Some of my uncles could not get it -- this was a generational issue. But I realised that I was an American with a cultural identity."

It was his mother, says Zoghby, who was the progressive influence in the family. In an article following her death Zoghby explained her influence as follows: "My advocacy work is also derivative of my mother's commitment to her heritage and her community. From her earliest years she was involved in the activities of the Arabic community. She wrote for Arab American newspapers and for several years was an officer in a number of Arab American women's organisations.

In an early piece written in 1927 at the age of 21, she wrote... "[M]any of the young generation, and even some of the old, who are in this country only a few years, are ashamed to acknowledge that they are Syrians. They refuse to learn the Arabic language, and if they know it they are reluctant, through shame, to be heard speaking it. They shun Syrian companionship and become inadvertent to Syrian ideals and customs, thinking that by doing so they are becoming Americanised. How, then, can we ever aspire to win the admiration and esteem of our American friends if we do not respect ourselves?"

Under such influence Zoghby started to come into his own. "I was someone coming into politics from the left. First there was the anti-war movement against American involvement in Vietnam. But then in 1967 we saw American Jews shifting their views when it came to the Arab-Israeli war and we thought, why is it OK to endorse this war and not another?"

It was during his graduate work that Zoghby first came into contact with Arab students. "When I met an Egyptian student it seemed like meeting someone from so far away," recounts Zoghby. "There was a difference between us. To them their Arab identity was a political ideology, for us it was a cultural heritage."

It is a distinction that continues to resonate in Zoghby's politics, certainly as compared to other Arab American organisations.

Contact with the homeland came later, after he was married, to Eileen Patricia McMahon, and had his first child (he is now the father of five).

"It came about in the most convoluted way. While teaching in 1971 and working on my doctoral research on Indian religions my advisor suggested that I focus on Islam." The idea was to research, in the Palestinian refugee communities of South Lebanon, the effect of nationalism on religious consciousness. "But then I met [writer] Ghassan Kanafani in Beirut and he suggested that if I wanted to study this topic I should do something on the Arabs in Israel. And so I did my doctoral dissertation on just that. But I never forgot the camps."

In 1975 Zoghby received his doctorate from Temple University's Department of Religion, a year after he had made his first, tentative steps towards political organisation, with the Arab American Federation of 1974. "But I got frustrated. They [the people he organised with] were more Arab than American. When they talked about Palestine they argued from the viewpoints of the various pan-Arab nationalist parties. They acted like exiles."

Instead Zoghby wanted to figure out how to make what was happening in Palestine relevant to Americans. And so in 1977 he took a leave of absence from teaching and came to Washington where he ran the American- Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee for four years. "The idea was to have an organisation that would win over the leadership of the civil rights and anti-war movements. And we succeeded in winning people like Jesse Jackson [Zoghby later became Jackson's campaign manager when he ran for president in 1980]."

But how viable can the Arab American lobby really be in the face of a very strong Zionist, and Christian fundamentalist, lobby?

"Of course we have a good chance. But you have to become involved in politics. You cannot effect change in any other way," he argues. Which thinking informed the founding, in 1995, of the Arab American Institute (AAI).

"The problem was that we had never supported anybody else. And that was the transition AAI did. We focused on Arab Americans as a political constituency. We became involved."

In the face of the many discouraging reports on how Arab Americans have fared since 9/11, Zoghby is able to point to several gains. "We are now better recognised within the mainstream. We have made it possible for someone in Congress to say I am an Arab American. We have made the term common currency when 20 years ago it did not exist. We have won battles along the way."

Zoghby is adamant that the process now started "is like a car going downhill. You can throw obstacles in its way but it will overcome them and actually accelerate. In our country, today we are better recognised and better protected".

The day we spoke the Washington Post had, for the second day running, published a feature on the fears of Arab immigrant workers. And Zoghby points out that "12 hours after the first tower fell we started receiving calls from people such as Senator John Edwards. In less than 24 hours 12 different senators had called. Seventeen senators met with AAI representatives. President Bush addressed our community and made his support clear. What does this say?"

"The hate is real. Ashcroft is real. But the coalitions that have come together cannot be severed by the evil of 9/11. This would not have been the case if not for some the momentum we started."

Zoghby is not someone to be intimidated by setbacks, even a setback as enormous as that which occurred on 9/11.

"If you know who you are and what your values are then you not only have the right to speak your mind but the obligation to do so. And we will win. Those who blew up the buildings did not define us. The civil liberties movement in the US will win."

But what of the relationship between Arab Americans and the countries from which their heritage is drawn?

"The Arab countries have not helped. You cannot win the American public by buying adds in the papers. You must work to earn free media. Not a week goes by without an Israeli delegation covering the country. Arab presidents come and visit with dignitaries but that is not the way to win the understanding of the American public."

It is an unfortunate state of affairs as far as Zoghby is concerned. "Also what the Arab governments do not seem to understand is that we can serve as a bridge in building understanding between the Arab world and the US. We can do so as equal partners.

"I feel like Sisyphus. He would roll the stone up the hill and when it came down he would roll it back up again. What Camus did not tell us is that every time he rolled it back up he got stronger -- and smarter."

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