By Ray Hanania
April is designated as Arab American Heritage Month in the US and this past month has showcased not only the many heritage month festivals and events that have been held, but also the personalities that headline Arab American activism.
One of the most promising recent developments for the community was the appointment by President Joe Biden of several dozen Arab Americans to important positions in the White House and the State Department. The appointments were part of Biden’s “partnership” with Arab Americans to ensure they had a voice and a role in government decisions. But do they really have a voice?
Earlier this month, I was privileged to do the first interview with one of the “Biden Arabs,” and probably the most important one, Hady Amr, who is serving as the deputy assistant secretary of state for Israeli and Palestinian affairs. When violence erupted at Al-Aqsa Mosque this month, Biden sent Amr and Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert to act as conduits of understanding and peace between the two sides to reduce the tensions.
When I spoke to him for Arab News, Amr was open and forthcoming and offered important insights into Biden’s commitment to peace and justice for Palestinians and security and recognition for Israel. He said the important proposal to reopen the US Consulate in East Jerusalem, which addresses Palestinian concerns, was a priority that is on its way to fruition.
The interview gave Arab Americans confidence that they are playing a significant role in helping to rebuild a genuine peace. But Hady’s role is one of the few that Arab Americans are seeing. There are other equally important appointees like Reema Dodin, the former deputy chief of staff to Sen. Richard Durbin, who was named by Biden to the key positions of White House deputy assistant to the president and deputy director for legislative affairs. Also named to an influential position was Dana Shubat, who is senior legal affairs adviser.
I could go on. However, almost every one of these Biden Arabs has locked their Twitter accounts, preventing people from viewing their historical tweets, presumably to stop pro-Israel extremists from attacking them for their “controversial” views. I do not consider their views to be controversial at all, even though they came under attack following their appointments. As Americans, they have every right to criticize governments, especially foreign governments like that of Israel, which has been engaged in a war of rhetoric and violence against the two-state solution ever since the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
None of the Biden Arabs, with the exception of Amr, has given an on-the-record interview with any Arab American media outlet. During Biden’s first 16 months in office, they have not spoken out on issues that are important to the Arab American community. Instead, they have worked under the auspices of several prominent organizations, such as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, hosting virtual events in which they basically just describe what their roles involve.
During one session I attended last week, they urged people to contact them with ideas and encouraged Arab Americans to go online and apply for positions at the White House. Any American can do that, of course, but it is more important when people know they will be welcomed — as Arab Americans currently are.
The problem, however, is that by allowing his team to be silenced, Biden cannot get the credit he deserves for opening up his administration further than any previous president. No other president has dared to enter into a partnership with Arab Americans and allow them to be participants in their administration, rather than just voiceless witnesses. Biden needs to empower his talented team of Arab American deputies at the White House and in the State Department: Let them do the jobs they have the proven talent to do.
But the president’s team needs to go one step further and stop relying on a small handful of Arab American organizations that have achieved so much but that represent only a fraction of the country’s Arab American population. Biden needs to reach out to the community’s news media, which connects with almost every Arab American citizen in both Arabic and English. It is the Arab American news media that gives the community’s voice and concerns true resonance.
When we founded the National Arab American Journalists Association in the 1990s, we identified more than 120 Arab American print publications. But that number has dwindled to fewer than 60 as a result of the rise of the cacophony of the internet. These publications, which include the US bureau of Arab News, are still influential and can carry Biden’s message directly to an important constituency that until now has been effectively silenced.
Speaking through professional journalists can augment the president’s important message and provide cover for the talent, such as Amr, Dodin and Shubat, that he has brought to his White House and State Department team.