Of Many Things
Jim Zogby is a friend. He, his wife, Eileen, and I were members of the same Christian Family Movement group. I have witnessed the marriages of their children, baptized their grandchildren and celebrated Mass for their 25th wedding anniversary. We are colleagues, too. We served together on the board of the American Committee on Jerusalem and took counsel together on supporting Christians in the Middle East, ending conflict in the region and defending the human rights of Palestinians—for which we both have paid a price.
Jim and I have worked for justice with different and overlapping communities, have faced common difficulties and bear the psychic scars inflicted by the organized defenders of injustice. The high points of his life story are fairly well known in Catholic Washington and among political activists, but until I read his new book, Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us and Why It Matters (Palgrave Macmillan), I had not realized how much he and his fellow Arab-Americans have endured from their fellow Americans.
Arab Voices presents an overview of Arab public opinion intended to correct Americans’ stereotypes and redress our ignorance of the Arab peoples. Drawing from 14 years of polling Jim has done with his pollster brother, John, across the Middle East, the book addresses persistent myths about Arabs, such as their supposed anger and aversion to change, and it exposes the blunders and failures produced by American misperceptions and prejudices in country after country: Iraq, most of all, but Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Palestine.
Even for an experienced amateur like myself, there are surprises. For instance, only in Saudi Arabia is Islam listed as the number one source of Arab identity. Otherwise, the number one factor consists of political concerns, especially about Iraq and Palestine. Not surprisingly, the Arab language is the second-ranked factor binding people across national boundaries and cultures. For the most part, a majority of Arabs have a favorable attitude toward the American people and American freedom. (So much for the myth that “they” hate our freedom.) For me personally, however, the eye-opening passages were those in which Jim recounted his personal history to illuminate the hostility Arab-Americans meet in American society.
When I taught seminars on justice, I thought it important for the students to understand not just theories of justice or the details of particular remedies but also the history of struggles to advance racial, gender or economic justice. They needed to get a feeling for the personalities of leaders who labored and suffered to make this a more just world. Jim comes by his thirst for justice naturally. Both his mother, Saleemie, and his Aunt Lila Mandour were protesting anti-Arab prejudice in the 1920s. Jim, however, thought of himself as an American, not an Arab, but that is not how others saw him.
For some, including the right-thinking activists with whom Jim made common cause, he writes, “‘Arab’ seems to cancel out the ‘American.’” In an anti-Vietnam protest, as he rose to speak, another protester jeered, “Why are they letting the Arab talk?” Time and again, Jim, who is a gentle, quiet-spoken man, found himself set aside by putative allies—Amnesty International, the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy, the Democratic National Committee—because he was advocating justice for unpopular people. His biography puts on display the sacrifice, pain and disappointment men and women of every age must endure in the struggle for justice. If I were preparing a curriculum on justice today, I would include the chapter “Arab Americans: Bridging the Divide” as a case study in principle and courage.