By Ray Hanania
There are some great, well-qualified Arab Americans running for public office in the US this year, maybe one of the largest crops of candidates the community has ever seen. But they continue to undermine their chances of success by believing the voters they need to elect them care about the Middle East above all else. This may work in the Michigan city of Dearborn, where the Arab population is sizable, but it does not work in the rest of the country.
This year is a big one for elections and winning office could augment a person’s voice and give them a chance to bring about change. But you cannot effect change if you do not get elected — and you generally cannot get elected running as an “Arab” candidate. Instead, you need to run as an “American” candidate.
Arab Americans are an institutionally oppressed minority, which means they are often excluded from some of the basic fundamental assets that other Americans enjoy. It is not so much about active discrimination as systematic exclusion.
Arab Americans are excluded from the US Census, which helps minorities build a voter base; they do not receive their share of federal, state and county grants due to them because of their payment of taxes, which means they cannot strengthen their cultural identity as well as other minority groups; and they are almost never hired to government roles, which means they have very little say in defining the societal practices under which they live.
In those instances where they are discriminated against for racial or religious reasons, the community lacks the influential support networks of other minority groups. The mainstream news media treats them as an interesting story, and is often sympathetic, but not as a cause that demands attention.
Is this our fault or is it the fault of American society? I believe it is our fault. We tend to put our concerns above the concerns of the rest of the voters we are trying to represent.
Too many Arab Americans think the Middle East is the most important issue because it is to them. But it is not the most important issue for other Americans. The suffering of our people makes us emotional and our emotions prevent us from tapping into our common sense. We are afraid that, if we do not champion Palestinian rights, others in our community will condemn us.
In election contests around the country, Arab American candidates have made their support of Palestine the foundation of their campaign. This is a mistake that will cost them votes, as well as their donors a lot of campaign funding that could have gone on helping to address other issues. But when you try to convince them to drop Palestine, Syria or Lebanon from their campaign rhetoric, they become offended.
“What is happening in Palestine is a crime,” I have heard many candidates tell me over my 45 years of covering American politics and elections. And they are right. It is. For us, but not for the rest of America. Until we figure out how to connect with the average American voter on the issues he or she cares about, we will not be able to advocate for the issues that we care most about.
The truth is that if an Arab American wants to help the people of Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen or Syria, the first thing they should do is stop being an Arab candidate. They need to be an American candidate. But that is very difficult to do.
In America, perception is reality. This means that issues are not really about the facts, but rather about what the public believes. Arab American candidates need to learn what it is that American voters believe in and what they want. Then they need to “become them.” My message would be: Stop talking about yourself. Talk about them, the voters. Make them the priority, not Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen or Syria.
Americans are concerned about rising crime rates — the recent spate of school shootings and dramatic instances of gun violence have them on edge. They worry about the economy and the fact that the price of food and gasoline is increasing, while their incomes are relatively stagnant. They want their children to be able to go to college without racking up major debt and to be able to get a job when they graduate.
Senior citizens, more of whom vote than any other constituency, do not want to hear about Arab Americans’ problems. They have enough of their own. Most live on stagnant, fixed incomes and have concerns about healthcare and home care.
When an Arab American candidate puts Palestine at the top of their list of priorities, all they are doing is ensuring they won’t ever get elected. The issues of Palestine and the Middle East should be set aside, at least until they are elected to office. Then, Palestine can be injected into their activism as an elected official. And then they might just be able to make a real difference for both their domestic voters and for the people “back home.”