The Arab Struggle Against Bigotry

For decades, Arabs in the United States have been the focus of bigotry that spikes after incidents of violence and its exploitation by politicians, including President Trump, writes Marjorie Cohn at Truthdig.

By Marjorie Cohn

President Donald Trump has twice tried to institute a travel ban on all refugees from six or seven Muslim-majority countries. During the presidential campaign, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” slated to last “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” His Muslim ban has been struck down by two courts of appeals and may be headed to the Supreme Court.

In 1948, some Palestinians, uprooted by Israel’s claims to their lands, relocated to the Jaramana Refugee Camp in Damascus, Syria

With his mean-spirited bans, Trump aimed to capitalize on fear of Muslims fueled by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and exacerbated since by the U.S. government and the corporate media.

This anti-Muslim sentiment is a continuation of long-standing prejudice against Arabs that reached its zenith during the last third of the 20th century. In her provocative book, The Rise of the Arab American Left: Activists, Allies, and Their Fight Against Imperialism and Racism, 1960s-1980s, Pamela Pennock traces the trajectory of Arab-American leftist activism in the United States over a series of key decades.

Pennock writes about the enduring portrayal of “Arabs as variously exotic, erotic, savage, uncivilized, and incapable of autonomy.”

Indeed, media critic Jack Shaheen’s book and 2007 film, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, document negative stereotypes of Arabs depicted in American movies. “All aspects of our culture project the Arab as villain,” Shaheen says in the film.

He includes lyrics from the opening music of the Disney film “Aladdin”: “Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place, where the caravan camels grow, where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” “Aladdin” has been seen by millions of children around the world.

Anti-Arab prejudice has also been fueled by Hollywood’s depictions of Arab women as “highly sexualized belly dancer[s] … inspired by early images of the Orient as the place of exoticism, intrigue and passion,” Shaheen notes. More recently, however, “this image has dramatically changed: The Arab woman is now projected as a bomber, a terrorist.”

Politicized Arab-Americans

These stereotypes are racist, sexist and patently false. Many Arabs came to the United States to study. Once here, they were moved to activism primarily by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Controversial maps showing the shrinking territory available to the Palestinians. Hardline Israelis insist that there are no Palestinian people, that all the land belongs to Israel and that it therefore inaccurate to show any “Palestinian lands.”

As Pennock observes, the single biggest factor that galvanized Arab-Americans was the dispossession of Palestinian Arabs occasioned by the creation of the state of Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territories.

In order to establish Israel as a Jewish state in 1948, nearly 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were expelled from their homes and their land. They call it the Nakba, which means “catastrophe” in Arabic.

A second catalyzing event occurred in June 1967, 50 years ago this month. Israel, with help from the United States, invaded Egypt, Jordan and Syria and seized the Palestinian territories in the West Bank, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula.

Later that year, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 242, which refers to “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and calls for “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” Nevertheless, Israel continues to occupy Palestinian territories it acquired in 1967.

In addition, the 1967 war stoked anti-Arab sentiment in the United States. “While anti-Arab prejudice became especially pervasive and damaging after September 11, 2001, the stigmatization heightened in the aftermath of the 1967 war when many Americans increasingly grouped people of Arab heritage together, regardless of their citizenship or whether they resided in Arab nations or in the United States, and viewed them as threatening and suspicious,” Pennock writes.

One event intensified anti-Arab prejudice in the United States and made it difficult for Arab Americans to “dissociate from stereotypes of terrorists,” according to Pennock: the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy by Palestinian-American Sirhan Sirhan.

Sirhan was 4 years old when he and his family were forced by the Israeli military to flee their home in Jerusalem. That trauma informed his perception of Israel. Sirhan was disturbed by U.S. support for Israeli policies. During the presidential campaign, Kennedy vociferously backed Israel. For the 24-year-old Sirhan, who suffered from mental illness, Kennedy’s words intensified his pain.

Attorney Abdeen Jabara, a member of Sirhan’s defense team, told Pennock that this confluence of events supported a diminished-capacity defense to the murder charge. Sirhan ultimately was convicted of murdering Kennedy and condemned to death. His sentence was later converted to life without possibility of parole when the law changed in California.

Munich Olympics murders

Four years later, in an attempt to free Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, the Black September faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization murdered Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

Pope Francis praying a separation wall in Palestine on May 25, 2014. (Photo credit: Pope Francis’s Facebook page.).

As a result of the 1972 massacre, the Nixon administration increased surveillance and investigation of Arab-Americans, in a program called “Operation Boulder.”

“[B]ecause the Arab visa checks and investigations of Arab Americans were publicized in the American media as constituting the U.S. government’s reaction to the Munich massacre,” Pennock observes, “the government had in effect stigmatized all Arabs as suspect in the public’s mind.”

But the investigations “never detected a single case of terrorist or espionage activity among Arabs living in the United States,” she reports. Operation Boulder, which officially ended in 1975, lasted only two years. But the U.S. government continued to monitor Arab-Americans for many years thereafter.

Many leaders in the Arab-American community thought the real aim of Operation Boulder was “to suppress Arab Americans’ legal political expression, particularly their pro-Palestinian activism … it was a program of political intimidation” that “also sought to ‘divide and conquer’ Arab American communities by making them suspicious of one another,” Pennock writes.

Jabara, one of those investigated during Operation Boulder, later wrote that the program could “only be understood against the background of the definite pressure that [has] been brought to bear by Israel and its supporters in the U.S.”

Jabara told Truthdig, “The matrix of the prejudice was part and parcel of the ‘unswerving commitment’ by the U.S. and its allies to Israel despite its gross violation of Palestinian rights. In short, there was an organic connection between the prejudice that was promoted in American popular culture as a support mechanism to a foreign policy that enabled Israeli aggression and colonization. Both the Americans and Israelis wanted to crush any resistance, regardless of what forms it took.”

In the wake of 9/11, in another racist operation, the George W. Bush administration rounded up and incarcerated hundreds of Arab-Americans who had committed no crime. Bush also instituted his Terrorist Surveillance Program to spy on people without judicial review. That program was codified by Congress and continued during the Obama administration.

In 2011, Wired uncovered FBI training materials that described how agents were taught to consider “mainstream” Muslims as supporters of terrorism.

The Intercept reported in 2014 that documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the FBI and the National Security Agency covertly read emails of prominent Muslim-Americans, including lawyers, academics, civil rights activists and a political candidate.

Arab-American Activism

Jabara was a founder and past president of the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG), the first national organization of Arab-American peace and civil rights activists. Founded in 1967, AAUG was the most visible and active Arab-American organization in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It had chapters in most U.S. cities and universities.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2001. (Photo credit: Remy Steinegger, copyright World Economic Forum)

AAUG was “a select group of Arab Americans [college graduates] who formulated a sense of ethnic identity, fostered community solidarity, and practiced progressive and transnational politics,” Pennock writes.

This group was committed “to an anti-racist, anti-imperialist analysis of Arab world problems” and was ideologically aligned with the global left. It aimed to demonstrate to Americans that “Zionism was a form of colonialism rather than a legitimate expression of Jewish nationalism.”

Significantly, AAUG “helped elevate the Palestinian struggle to the status of a premier universal human rights issue,” AAUG member Ghada Hasem Talhami later observed.

AAUG’s scholarly analysis, published in the Arab Studies Quarterly and other papers and monographs, “was usually critical not only of Israel and U.S. policy in the Middle East but also of conservative Arab states,” Pennock notes. Following the 1967 war, Egypt and Syria had “demonstrably retreated from their commitment to pan-Arabism and Palestinian independence,” she adds.

Thus, Jabara notes, AAUG provided a forum for Arab intellectuals, artists, activists and political figures who may not have had such opportunities to meet in their home countries.

Jabara saw a natural alliance between the issues facing Arab-Americans and the struggles of “Black Americans, Chicanos, Oriental Americans, young people and civil libertarians,” all of whom were “excluded from any meaningful participation in the American decision process.”

Most in the African-American community had traditionally formed alliances with Jews. But by the 1980s, many became increasingly critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, which they equated with South African apartheid.

The most significant factor driving U.S. foreign policy, according to Jabara, was not the Zionist lobby, but rather “America’s definition and pursuit of its economic interests in the region.”

Arab students, many of them members of the Organization of Arab Students (OAS), likened the struggle of the Palestinians to the Vietnamese fight for self-determination.

By the 1980s, the Muslim Student Organization supplanted OAS as the leading organization of Arab-American students, who were increasingly becoming Muslims.

In 1980, Jabara helped form the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) with former Sen. James Abourezk and Arab American Institute founder James Zogby. Jabara also served as president of ADC, which is still a significant organization.

Jabara told Truthdig that the 1973 oil embargo by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries led to an “uptick” in prejudice against Arab Americans. “That led to the creation of the ADC in 1980,” he added.

The National Lawyers Guild (NLG), the nation’s oldest and largest progressive bar association, was the first in the United States to be racially integrated. From the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, Jabara played the central role in convincing NLG to take up the issue of Palestine and the rights of Palestinians to self-determination. No issue has ever been as divisive in NLG. Some Jewish members left the organization, but it continues to oppose the Israeli occupation.

In 1977, Jabara led the first NLG delegation to Israel, Palestine, Syria and Jordan, and contributed to the delegation’s groundbreaking 1977 report on conditions in the occupied territories. That report was widely circulated within the then-young human rights network and is largely credited with paving the way for other organizations to break with the pro-Israeli orthodoxy and issue their own reports critical of Israeli human rights abuses.

Jabara was also a key participant in the lawsuit filed by NLG and the Center for Constitutional Rights against the FBI and the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith for spying on NLG and other Arab-American and progressive groups.

Anti-Zionism vs. Anti-Semitism

In 1975, the U.N. General Assembly, by a 2-to-1 margin, passed a resolution equating Zionism with racism. It drew parallels between Israeli Zionism and apartheid South Africa. The United States voted against the resolution.

Bodies of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra camp in Lebanon, 1982. (Photo credit: U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees)

Beginning in the mid-to-late 1960s, people critical of Israel’s policies were accused of anti-Semitism, a characterization that persists to this day. Indeed, those who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement are often labeled anti-Semitic.

Following in the tradition of the Arab-American call for the United Auto Workers to divest its Israeli bonds in the early 1970s, the BDS movement was launched by representatives of Palestinian civil society in 2005. They appealed to “international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era … [including] embargoes and sanctions against Israel.”

This call for BDS specified that “these nonviolent punitive measures” should last until Israel fully complies with international law by 1) ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the barrier wall; 2) recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and 3) respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their land as stipulated in General Assembly Resolution 194.

Students for Justice in Palestine, which focuses predominantly on the BDS movement, has been tarred as anti-Semitic by Zionist groups on campuses throughout the country.

But Rafeef Ziadah, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, says, “The BDS movement is opposed, as a matter of principle, to all forms of discrimination, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”

In 2014, Palestinian human rights activist Omar Barghouti wrote in The New York Times, “Arguing that boycotting Israel is intrinsically anti-Semitic is not only false, but it also presumes that Israel and ‘the Jews’ are one and the same. This is as absurd and bigoted as claiming that a boycott of a self-defined Islamic state like Saudi Arabia, say, because of its horrific human rights record, would of necessity be Islamophobic.”

Any criticism of Israeli policy is labeled anti-Semitism, even though many Jews — including members of Jewish Voice for Peace, Jewish Center for Nonviolence and IfNotNow — oppose the occupation.

Israel has invaded Gaza three times in the last seven years, killing thousands of Palestinians, including large numbers of women and children. The Black Lives Matter movement sees similarities between the police killings of African-Americans in the U.S. and Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, particularly in Gaza.

As the struggle against the Israeli occupation continues, Pennock’s compelling book is a must-read for progressives and all interested in a comprehensive history of Arab-American activism. The parallels it draws with current events will inform today’s activists in our struggles for freedom and equality.

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. Visit her website at and follow her on Twitter: [This story originally appeared at Truthdig at]

11 comments for “The Arab Struggle Against Bigotry

  1. UIA
    June 14, 2017 at 16:46

    Jesus said he came to bring a sword, not peace. They branded him a prince. Every deal in the business is a deal with the prince of darkness. Days are bad and nights are good for business. Saturday night I was downtown, nest of bad men and bootleg boozers. Don’t be scared cause you’re gonna be spared. It’s a wet war.

  2. Romi Elnagar
    June 14, 2017 at 00:42

    The only problem with this article, which is very good, is that it simply tries to take on too much. The issue of bigotry, prejudice and racism against American Arabs would require a book,, or several books, to explore the causes and the relationship of anti-Arab sentiment to factors such as Middle Eastern oil, the Zionist state, “terrorism,” relationships with the African-American community and with Christian fundamentalism, inter alia.

    As a wife and mother of American Arabs, I can testify that there is indeed prejudice, even deep-seated prejudice, against Arabs and Muslims. IMHO it is part of the broader pattern of institutional racism in America against blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics and other immigrant groups. This country was founded upon the genocide of the original inhabitants, and that instinct for blood today results in the mass murders of Iraqis, Libyans, Palestinians, Syrians and Afghanis by drones, Depleted Uranium, and other weapons of mass murder. Today the US prosecutes its racist hate against Muslims in their own homelands with the help of other colonialist nations which in the past have also dominated the Middle East and murdered Arabs in places like Algeria, Syria and Iraq.

    In order to justify the war against people in the Middle East, a war for oil and Israel, it was necessary for the Bush and Obama Regimes, and now the Trump regime, to whip up hate for Arabs. Today, as Trump’s hysterical and racist supporters call for internment camps for Arabs, we are witnessing the reaping of the whirlwind. If this country does not go the way of Nazi Germany and launch an internal war on its Arab immigrants, it will only be because the rule of law has a longer and deeper history and tradition here than in Nazi Germany.

    But the jury is still out on that IMHO.

    • AntiGlobalist
      June 22, 2017 at 03:02

      I’ve got no argument against the morality of ignoring Israel apartheid and US contribution to Palestinian suffering.

      This false Arab/Muslim struggle against bigotry though is a laugh. Please. Major races like Whites, Blacks & Arabs of course have resentment toward one another. Arab culture and Islam itself are no less dangerous than Zionist and Christian imperialism. Many Arabs have far better freedoms in non Arab nations than in their own, which they exploit for their religion at every chance. Not denying a minority group will face hostility but it is ridiculous to portray it as a major issue, especially without the ongoing changing context that happens wherever groups of Muslim Arabs settle.

      If we must speak of bigotry, speak of it on ALL sides or both sides if you are comparing 2 groups. This total nonsense about Nazi…I cannot believe an INFORMED person will propagate this lie. If Arabs and Muslims face such danger then why have they been allowed to sink their teeth in several nations across the world not just Europe and US with frightening power? They had help of course. But it is a lie that they are a persecuted group. Look at the sort of human rights non Arabs, non Muslims and general population face in Arab nations.

  3. Julian
    June 10, 2017 at 18:22

    Sadly this article reeks of leftist whitewashing in favor of painting the poor Arabs as victims and the evil Israelis/Jews and Americans as the culprits. The fledgling state of Israel was almost immediately attacked in 1948 by all of its neighbours (Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi-Arabia, Yemen, Jordan and volunteers from Pakistan, the Muslim Brotherhood and so on) and these mainly Muslim nations were hellbent on wiping Israel and the Jews there off the map. If they had won, the Jews might’ve faced another Holocaust. Israel won against overwhelming odds and survived. It is true that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled, but so were hundreds of thousands of Jews from Muslim countries.
    This brain-drain is one of the main reasons why most Arab countries are so underdeveloped and mired in religiously fueld tribalism. How can it be that the tiny state of Israel has more universities than Egypt, Saudi-Arabia, Pakistan, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon combined?

    It must also be said that the Arabs were playing an “all or nothing” game. They were not prepared to deal with a Jewish state in a region of the world they saw as theirs and rejected all proposals for peace. Later the Palestinians would continuously reject Israeli peace offerings, seemingly prefering to live in squalor in the Gaza Strip, firing rockets into Israel and erecting a semi-Jihadist state in the areas governed by Hamas.

    In 1967 Israel was faced with a massive build-up of Egyptian forces in the Sinai peninsula, which was poised to strike at Israel. Israel responded with a preemptive air strike and was attacked by Egypt, Jordan and Syria, again faced with overwhelming odds. Nasser had previously rallied Arab support behind him by promising the destruction of Israel and by playing on anti-Jewish sentiments among Arabs/Muslims.

    And then there were the two Intifadas (1987 – 1993 and 2000 – 2005) which caused thousands of civilian casualties. Palestinians took massive offense because of Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount and responded with a wave of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings and Israel responded in kind with military operations.

    The backlash against Arabs/Muslims in many parts of the world is, and I’m sorry to say this, somewhat deserved, since many Muslims (the majority of Arabs are Muslims) have done a piss-poor job of integrating and distancing themselves from their extremist brethren. I distinctly remember hundreds of thousands of Muslims screaming for the heads of the people who drew the Mohammed caricatures for the Danish newspaper “Jyllands Posten” in 2007 and trying to force the Danish government into punishing the newspaper, seemingly unaware of the concept of “free press”. But when yet another Muslim or several Muslims commit acts of terrorism in France, Germany, Britain, America, Italy, the Philipines, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, etc… nothing. No protest, no drive towards trying to solve the problem of religiously motivated murderers amidst their ranks.

    I’m honestly tired of this leftist coddling of the poor, mistreated Arabs and the unwillingness to criticise the role of Islam concerning the increasing acts of terrorism and barbarism across the world.

  4. David Smith
    June 10, 2017 at 12:29

    Sirhan Sirhan’s “defense” team sounds like they work for the zionist matrix. “Attorney Abdeen Jabara” should know that RFK was shot in the lower right skull at very close range and Sirhan Sirhan was on Kennedy’s left and much farther away. Should that not been part of the defense?

  5. James Titcomb
    June 9, 2017 at 03:41

    What a bogus article. There has never been an anti-Muslim backlash in this country, even after terror attacks. Rather, the number of Muslims allowed to immigrate to the U.S. was INCREASED following the 9/11 attack. According to FBI statistics. more hate crimes are committed against Jews than any other demographic group. The closest thing to a “backlash” against Muslims has been Trump’s plan for a very limited, and TEMPORARY, travel ban, until a proper vetting system can be implemented. And the very logical and reasonable rationale for this is that virtually all terrorist attacks are committed by radicalized Muslims. Therefore, it makes sense to make sure the people we allow into our country share our values. Liberals just can’t resist blaming Israel for all the problems in the world. But I’m confused. When did the nation of Palestine first come into existence? What was its capital, and who were its leaders? My understanding is that about one-tenth of all Palestinians live INSIDE of Israel. So it seems that the hatred is all aimed in one direction.

    • Peter Loeb
      June 9, 2017 at 07:20

      Dear Mr. Titcomb:

      You have many questions and no understanding of any answers.
      Read Tomas Suarez’s STATE OF TERROR. I doubt you can for it
      might puncture much of your bogus comment.

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

    • druid
      June 9, 2017 at 14:47

      An idiot cannot ever help himself!

  6. Sleepless In Mars
    June 9, 2017 at 01:05

    Today we are witnessing the triumph of a hyperdemocracy in which the mass acts directly, outside the law, imposing its aspirations and its desires by means of material pressure.

    José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses

    Now it’s cyber hyper and thebig autocrats are being left in the dust. Ashes to ashes is our legacy. If you aren’t outside, you are inside milking some job for debt benefits, loyal to the boss of bosses. USA is naturally revolting. We are a nation of laws. Poorly written and selectively enforced. Death to tyrants is service to God.

  7. Bill Bodden
    June 8, 2017 at 20:54

    The big problem for Arabs, especially Palestinians, is that the Israel lobby outbid them for the favors of the courtesans in Congress. If Arab-Americans can increase their voting power and cash reserves for campaign donations (aka legal bribes) the Israel lobby and Israel’s right wing will be up the Jordan River without a paddle.

    As for racial prejudice this has been a factor of life on the American continent since the first wave of European barbarians landed on the east coast of what is now the United States.

  8. mike k
    June 8, 2017 at 20:48

    One of the ugliest ironies of history is how the Israeli’s are imitating Hitler’s treatment of Jews in their ghettoizing the Palestinian people and killing them. The Israeli Zionists have become the new Nazis. It is true that some Israeli citizens vigorously oppose the apartheid actions of their government, and although much fewer in number, their stance is to be admired. The Zionists are thieves and murderers whose only friend among nations is of course the equally criminal United States Empire, which is busy stealing from, oppressing and killing people all over the globe.

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