An Alliance for Empowerment

Against the Current, No. 15, July/August 1988

an interview with Abdeen Jabara

Abdeen Jabara is president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), an organization founded by former Sen. James Abourezk to educate the U.S. media and public on issues of anti-Arab stereotyping and U.S. policy of giving a “blank check” to Israel. As an attorney and activist, Jabara was active for many years in the Detroit Arab-American community and nationally, organizing numerous delegations to the Middle East, defending civil rights and promoting dialogue between the Arab, Black and Jewish communities. He was an early and outspoken supporter of Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns. David Finkel of the ATC editorial board interviewed him in early May.

ATC: What’s your general view of the Jackson campaign?

Abdeen Jabara: To begin with, certainly the Jackson campaign and the Rainbow Coalition are among the most significant political phenomena of our times. They have attempted to put into some meaningful and practical framework an agenda that hasn’t been articulated, in an organizational sense, in a mass-based U.S. political movement since the 1940s with Henry Wallace’s campaign. It’s an attempt to show that it’s possible to organize as a political force the 40 percent of the population that has shared only tangentially, if at all, in the postwar boom.

Second, it constitutes the emergence of a national Black leadership that has been able to galvanize the essentially progressive character of the Black community in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, and to channel it into the existing political process, which is an electoral one.

In the aftermath of the civil rebellion of the 1960s, the plan [of the power structure] was to develop a Black leadership that could control this community through “Black capitalism.” To do this meant supporting certain Black politicians, many of whom were basically representatives of a growing Black middle class that was basically content with achieving its own gains. They were not addressing the basic problems rampant in the community: drugs, crime, unequal job opportunities, no access to quality education.

The distance Jackson has traveled since 1984, when he started basically from scratch, relying on Farrakhan forces for physical protection and for some community base because of the large Black Muslim community in the major urban areas, to the point where he is now presenting a challenge to the power brokers of the Democratic Party — I think history will write down that this has been truly a remarkable phenomenon.

The America that Jackson addresses is basically the “other America that people living in areas of affluence are unaware of or consciously shut out of their minds — the America of deprivation, substandard housing and medical care, under- and unemployment, crime and drugs. He has demonstrated that by addressing that America he’s capable of developing a political movement without the resources available to other politicians. His emergence means hope for an alternative agenda that regular politicians will have to deal with.

Many on the left would say that it’s ridiculous to think Jesse Jackson can achieve anything. I think this is a wrong-headed approach. There is no receptivity in the United States, even among the 40 percent of the population who are locked out of the American Dream and who are the core of Jackson’s pool of support, for a “revolutionary” approach to the problems, meaning overturning the system and putting in a new one. We have to reach people where they are and move them from one level of consciousness to another. That’s what I think Jackson has done and has shown incredible astuteness and shrewdness.

ATC: Can you elaborate on that point-I mean in relation to Jackson’s sophisticated handling of the media?

A.].: I think a good example came in the aftermath of the New York campaign, where he took a tremendous battering on the issues of “terrorism” and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

He turned the tables in Ohio and challenged Dukakis on South Africa. He wouldn’t just let the media and powerful forces define the terms of what “terrorism” is. He wanted to know what Dukakis would do about South Africa, and he was insistent about that.

After Michigan, of course, Jackson changed the whole ball game. He was no longer seen as the fringe candidate. People began to think of him seriously. If he does nothing else in this campaign but to demonstrate that a progressive Black can be a viable and serious candidate for the highest office, he will have moved forward political change in the country.

Ten years ago the idea of a Black running for president was unthinkable in this country — Shirley Chisolm did in 1972, but no one took much notice. Jackson has established a whole new set of references. Even though his nomination appears not to be possible at this juncture, he has had a significant impact on the way issues are framed.

ATC: How does this apply to issues of vital interest to the Arab-American community?

A.].: The New York primary was very interesting. First, Jackson refused to meet with the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations-though he was under great pressure to do so-because he knew the most extreme elements in that council would use it as a sounding board to attack and try to discredit him.

What happened in that race was quite remarkable. I think it destroyed the myth of the unity of the Jewish community on the most extreme pro-Israel positions. As you know, supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir went to Michael Dukakis and offered him considerable assistance if he would support Shamir’s rejection of the international Middle East peace conference. Dukakis refused to do this.

They then went to Richard Gore, who accepted. He turned up with [New York Mayor) Edward Koch, or vice versa, in an effort to cut into both Dukakis’ and Jackson’s support. They failed miserably! Koch was discredited, and Dukakis at no time during that primary ruled out a Palestinian state or dealing at some point with the PLO. He did not pander in the way many politicians in previous elections have done to the sizeable Jewish constituency in New York.

So Jackson’s positions on the Middle East have had a major impact on the whole debate on that issue. Jackson, of course, started to waver at one point, in a Sunday morning television appearance, when he said he wouldn’t meet with the PLO if elected president He more or less compared Shamir to [PLO leader] Yasser Arafat.

We reacted very strongly to that I sent him a letter indicating our profound shock at his departure from the principled stand he had taken [for recognizing and speaking to the PLO). And indeed, we were extremely shocked because we felt he would stick to that principled stand.

I think, after that, he returned to the position that the Palestinians are entitled to representatives of their own choosing, whether or not the Americans like them. And I think his discussion in all the debates has now made it possible for Democratic politicians, at least, in this country to think seriously about what needs to be done to achieve a lasting peace in the region.

I think that’s a first It never happened before in a presidential election, because there was nothing countervailing the desire for funding from pro-Israel PACs [Political Action Committees) and because of the incredible support the media display for Israel.

Of course, underlying all this is the fact that the Palestinian uprising occurred, even though the politicians don’t talk about it Even though they aren’t speaking out, something is going to have to be done.

In short, I think Jackson has had a profound impact, although it’s perhaps not as apparent as we’d like. Of course, I would like to see Dukakis come out and say the PLO is the representative of the Palestinian people, that they have the right to an independent state, and support the international conference. But Dukakis has not ruled those out, in my estimation.

It’s also my fervent hope that beyond educating the American public and some American politicians that they don’t have to be “more Catholic than the Pope” when it comes to supporting Israel, Jackson has helped create a constituency, hopefully a permanent constituency, of people with a broad agenda for change in American foreign policy-a non-interventionist foreign policy that challenges the “national security state.”

Since World War II the United States has been hell-bent on building the national security state, which has meant creating secret intelligence agencies, a confiscatory tax system, one of the largest military apparatuses ever seen in peacetime. These were all conscious choices made by American leaders in the Truman administration, in the aftermath of the emergence of the United States as the leader of the Western camp.

Jackson is trying at least in part to reverse that process. Of course, he has to use language that doesn’t frighten the bulk of the people who have been brought up on the fear that “the Russians are coming,” which is how people were kept in line during the buildup of the national security state. Jackson’s challenge cannot be ignored by the establishment, much as it would like to, because it cannot afford to create profound dissension with the whole system.

Whenever the system gets a profound shock, such as the 1930s Depression or Vietnam and Watergate, we see reform movements developing. Jackson represents a challenge to the fact that a large sector of the population hasn’t benefitted from this reform process. The crisis is that in the expansion of American power, there has been a growing disparity that has created discontent, a sense of not having participated in the benefits the national security state at home and abroad was supposed to bring.

Unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said he would preserve the system, Jackson says the priorities must change. Unlike, say, Harry Truman, Jackson isn’t talking about sending more troops abroad to work America’s will. He talks about reorienting where the wealth of America goes and a foreign policy that doesn’t oppress other people.

Being able to organize people around these issues puts pressure on the system. I think Dukakis and the leaders of the Democratic Party know that. They were going nuts after Michigan. They’ve breathed a sigh of relief now, following the other primaries-but they know Jackson represents a permanent part of the political Iandscape.

ATC: What strategy do you think would best serve the interests of Jackson and his movement-being inside the Democratic Party, or outside?

A.J.: I don’t think third parties have done very well in the United States. They have always been co-opted. What Jackson has to insist on is making the Democratic Party a really democratic party. There are different trends in the party, the influence of the Dixiecrats for example. What this country needs is some ideological politics. What Jackson has to do is make a difference between Democrats and Republicans.

That’s a very tricky thing to do. There’s lots of resistance; most Democrats would like to continue on the same path they’ve been on for years. Jackson has to stick by his guns and say: We’ve earned the right to be an important part in what the Democratic Party stands for.

How does he do that? I don’t think he would get anywhere by threatening to start a third party. I think, of course, that would mean the destruction of the Democratic Party. It’s already undergone quite a few changes-labor doesn’t mean much politically in this country anymore; the Party isn’t that old coalition of labor and ethnics that it was back in the 1950s and ’60s.

Blacks and other minorities are emerging as a force out of what used to be an unorganized mass. I think it started even with Jimmy Carter, who was put in by the Black vote. Jesse Jackson is going beyond the pork-barrel approach of Carter, who put money into some cities and a few programs.

But what kind of deals can Jackson make with Dukakis and the Democrats? It’s difficult He can challenge the rules; that puts pressure on them. He can tell them: Look, the extent of my involvement in what will be a very close presidential election campaign is going to partly depend on how you address these issues. But I don’t think the third party is a serious option.

ATC: Does the Arab-American community have direct access to Jackson? Do you feel you have an impact in his thinking?

A.].: Jesse Jackson has met with several people from our community. I think he essentially admitted, not in words but implicitly, that he made a mistake in his television statements on the PLO. We have a degree of access.

But if a Dukakis administration will lead to 10 per­ cent or 15percent of top positions being given to minorities that would be a tremendous accomplishment. That would provide access. Past administrations haven’t done that. That’s one of the things I think Jackson could demand, and I think he could get. He can also demand real action on the drug thing, which everybody in this country now knows involves government complicity.

ATC: I’d like you to discuss the overall political agenda of the Arab-American community. The Jewish community has been stereotyped, regrettably with some degree of truth, as a single-issue constituency. Do you see Arab-Americans avoiding this trap of being defined only on Middle East politics?

A.].: That’s just one issue, although obviously with the present Palestinian uprising it has to occupy our constant energy and attention.

We are participating at the end of May in a conference of the Coalition for a New Foreign Policy, “Beyond Containment.” We are participating in the national Jobs, Peace and Justice Coalition for the August march on Washington, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the historic march led by Martin Luther King.

We are participating in the Free Trade in Ideas Coalition sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, to put an end to the McCarthyite skeletons in the closet, the McCarren-W alter Act and other attempts to control what Americans can hear.

Regarding other issues, we’ve sent letters to a number of members of congress calling for genuine elections in Haiti. And we work with some of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus in promoting its concerns. We support a number of people, including Blacks seeking public office, around the country. We are for the empowerment of Blacks and other minorities, including Arab-Americans, and we hope to develop this coalition that will be what the Rainbow Coalition is all about.

It’s a mutual alliance for empowerment. Let’s face it, every group has its own priorities. Individually they cannot achieve them because of their weakness. We are committed to organizing our Arab-American community — I’ve just returned from a ten-city trip to advance our community’s commitment to play a more productive role in this coalition. Our community, no different from that of most Americans, is subject to the same media, have many of the same ideas based on misinformation. So we are doing those things.

We have been working very hard on the issue of campaign finances. Because the political process has been held hostage to monied interests, with the incredible cost of television and so forth, it’s become very difficult for non-incumbents to mount credible challenges. Senate Bill 2 would reduce drastically the role of PACs in campaign financing; we’re working on that.

All these issues affect our community, as they affect the whole population.

July-August 1988, ATC 15

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