The reds, blacks, and greens of the Palestinian flag fluttered up and down 42nd Street last week, as several thousand Arab protesters choked off the United Nations, chanting, “We’re Muslim, we’re American, and we vote!” A week before, an equally vocal throng shut down Times Square at rush hour. Each sight was as novel as it was overdue in the eyes of Arab-American leaders, who saw the mass protests as a signal that the city’s long-quiet Arab community had finally come of age.
“The way Arab-Americans are when they arrive in the United States is, first they think about their village. Then they think of themselves as Lebanese or Syrian or Palestinian. Only now has the concept of ‘Arab-American’ expanded and grown,” says New Yorkbased pollster John Zogby, who is of Lebanese descent. “There are now vocal people who are concerned about, let’s say, ‘the Other Side’ in the Middle East dispute.”
“In 1973,” recalls Zogby, “It was the entire Jewish community versus Mohammed Mehdi, who was all alone.” Mehdi, as head of the National Council on Islamic Affairs, was the media’s Arab of choice for decades before succumbing to a heart attack in 1998 at the age of 70. Now, says Anisa Mehdi, Mehdi’s eldest daughter, a journalist, “the community has come out of the closet.”
According to City Planning, numbers have more than doubled, from 30,000 to 75,000, since the 1990 Census. Figures compiled by the high-profile Arab American Institute in Washington – run, in fact, by Zogby’s brother James – place the number of New Yorkers of Arab descent around 170,000, with some 350,000 in the state.
The population of Arab-Americans has exploded nationally since the last Census, nearly doubling from around 2 million to more than 3.5 million. Even George W. Bush made a point of courting them in the second presidential debate two weeks ago. “Arab-Americans are racially profiled,” he said, “and we’ve got to do something about that.”
Which is not to say Arab-Americans in New York have experienced any such political influence, certainly not in a state where Jewish voters outnumber Arab voters five to one. And not in a climate where both Senate candidates have stumbled over each other to distance themselves from the Palestinians.
“It’s evident that the media is paying greater attention to spokespersons from the Arab-American community,” says Michael Miller, head of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “But there were no elected officials, to the best of my knowledge, in attendance at the pro-Palestinian rally that was held on Friday. That speaks for itself.”
“I think there is a faulty assumption, which candidates are advised to make by their so-called advisers, that they cannot support or reach out to Arab-Americans and American Jews at the same time. I don’t think that’s true,” says the AAI’s James Zogby, who has seemingly inherited Mohammed Mehdi’s spokesman mantle.
“New York,” says James Zogby, who despite his condemnations of Israel has served as an adviser on the Gore campaign, causing concern to some in the Jewish community, “is still an intimidating environment for Arab-Americans. In the rest of the country, I see dramatic improvement. In New York, I don’t. Would that Arab-Americans in New York got the same respect they get in Michigan.”