Abdeen Jabara, a lawyer, is a long-time Arab-American activist from Detroit. He recently became president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and is now working at their national office in Washington DC. Joe Stork interviewed him in September 1986 in Washington.
You’ve been dealing with the question of discrimination and violence against Arabs in this country for a long time. What is distinctive about the situation today?
There have been occasional attacks of a spontaneous nature, attendant to this or that crisis or just racist. But today we’re seeing a totally new phenomenon — premeditated, calculated attacks not aimed at individual Arab-Americans but at the political activity of Arab-Americans.
In the past you didn’t have a pattern. But in the last six years Arab-Americans have started to organize themselves in a mass-based membership organization to promote their rights and raise their voices on issues of concern to them. They have had some successes. They have mobilized a number of Arab-Americans and raised their consciousness. What we see in the case of the murder of Alex Odeh, or the attempted bombing of the ADC office in Massachusetts in August of 1985, is an effort to intimidate and disorient Arab-Americans.
Who are the perpetrators, in your view?
All the evidence points to the same people who were attacking Palestinians in the West Bank, the so called underground terror network. They operated there for several years with the knowledge of Israeli security, until the Israelis finally cracked down on them. Yitzhak Shamir, an old terrorist himself, knew that these groupings can get out of control.
They were forced out because of the crackdown in Israel and are now operating in this country?
I don’t know whether they were “forced out.” I think they were looking for some areas where they could “do some good” as far as their agenda is concerned. They saw what was happening here in the US — Arab-Americans developing some consciousness, organization and leadership as a community.
Is this on fairly good evidence?
The people involved had, first, considerable knowledge about explosives technology. Second, they had carefully planned escape routes. Third, they acted with local cooperation. Kenneth Walton, head of the FBI in Detroit, was formerly in charge of Jewish Defense League (JDL) surveillance in New York City — after their attempted bombing of the Soviet UN mission. Walton told an Arab-American paper in Detroit that he had information that Israeli-trained bomb experts were coming into this country, that the people who were acting here received their training in the Israeli army.
To what extent they are involved with the intelligence services of Israel has yet to be determined. There certainly is some historical basis for thinking that might have occurred. We know that the Mossad had a number of covert operations to disrupt and eliminate perceived enemies of Israel. Some of this involved assassinations in Europe. The Los Angeles Times says Israeli police have questioned some 18 settlers in the West Bank. The FBI spokesman who testified at the recent congressional hearing [on violence against Arab-Americans] stated that they were working with Israeli police in following up on definite suspects. We believe that the persons who perpetrated these attacks probably exited the country as easily as they entered it.
To what extent has the FBI cooperated with you?
They have met with us whenever we have asked to meet with them; we speak to them by phone from time to time, and they have consistently said that this is a top priority investigation. After Jim Abourezk met with FBI head William Webster, Webster declared that Arab-Americans had entered the “zone of danger.” Seen in its best light, this was an attempt by a high official to raise public consciousness on the problem that Arab-Americans are facing. I see it in that light.
What concerns me in all of these cases is that most of these police agencies, including the FBI, are overwhelmed by demands for investigation on different cases. The longer a case drags on, the more there is a tendency to just let it slip through the cracks. The other concern I have is that they say they are “cooperating” with the Israeli police. Another problem is that the media has not assigned investigative reporters to follow up these cases.
We are talking about political assaults. These require political response in addition to police investigative work.
Obviously, the people who targeted ADC felt that they were threatened by it in a way they are not threatened by other organizations. I think there has been a concerted political response. I am quite proud of the Arab-American community. First, Alex Odeh’s funeral was a political funeral. Secondly, there has been an attempt to inform the Arab-American community about the importance of the case. Thirdly, we appeared before the civil rights commission, along with both Alex’s widow and his brother, to give testimony. Fourthly, we have put pressure on the FBI for a thorough investigation to apprehend the culprits. Lastly, these congressional hearings were a milestone in the Arab-American community. Thanks to a freedom of information act request by another organization, we’d seen a telex from the secret service office in Los Angeles to the headquarters in Washington saying that the Alex Odeh investigation was closed. The FBI spokesperson at the hearing said the telex was an error. But the FBI was on the defensive there, no question about it.
There are still unanswered questions. Why did this secret service agent in Los Angeles make the conclusion that the case was closed? What cooperation is the FBI receiving from Israeli police? The political response is basically this: that we have to continue doing the same work that we have been doing only doing it better. We have to redouble our efforts to organize our community to send the message that we will not be deterred by this effort to chill our constitutional rights — our rights to organize, to speak out on issues of concern to the Arab-American community, which should be of concern to the American people.
What’s the size of the Arab-American community today?
Two to three million. And there is a new phenomenon out there. Arab-Americans are developing for the first time a consciousness as a separate identifiable ethnic group with identifiable interests in the American body politic. This is a very important development, and it is not restricted to one section of the community such as the university graduates or the people from such and such a country. It is a distinct Arab-American identity.
How would you gauge the state of organization of Arab-Americans today?
What some might call divisions in the Arab-American community I see as part of the natural vitality of this community. Back in 1967 there was not a single national Arab-American organization that was based upon being an Arab. Then we had AAUG [Arab-American University Graduates], then NAAA [National Association of Arab-Americans], then ADC. These are all very important in terms of understanding the progress of this community. Where we are today is not where we should be five years from now, but it is a lot better than where we were five years ago. I would hate to think about what would have happened in the last five years if ADC had not been here. We would not have had the response to the Lebanon invasion, we would not have had the Save Lebanon program, we would not have been able to mount the national informational defense of Ziad Abu Ein, we would not have been able to raise the question of Arab stereotyping and defamation in the media — which we are doing now with a fair degree of professionalism.
We have targeted the crux of the matter — the dehumanization of Arabs as people and making them into some caricature of their real self. That is why we are making progress.
This comes at a time when the situation is getting worse.
I think there is more sensitivity in the printed media today. Not enough, but it is better. It is the entertainment industry that is becoming more outrageous. But I cannot emphasize too much my optimism for the future. And I think it is not a misplaced optimism. I think that Arab-Americans have been floundering around for two decades looking for a mechanism by which they can give expression to their aspirations and frustrations.
If we organize ourselves we will find other people who will support us. These things have a dynamic of their own. There is a host of contradictions in American society. We as an Arab-American community can see where we fit in all of this. Why did we get these hearings in Congress? Because Detroit has the largest activist Arab-American population in North America and established good relations with a black Congressman there who is not dependent upon funding from any anti-Arab quarter. He is a principled person. We have been pushing our cooperation with the black movement in this country. At the same time we do not have any illusions. There are 30 million blacks and we know how much political power they have. We know how many Hispanics there are in this country and how much political power they have. We know that half the country is women and we know how much political power they have. So we do not have any illusions about how much political power we have or can get. Certainly not by ourselves, but we do know that there are certain dynamics in which we have to find our proper niche.
I want to ask you about your Detroit experience. You have been involved in Arab-American political organizing for about two decades. Now you are with ADC, coming into the national office. What does ADC represent in this particular era?
I see my coming to Washington as an extension of the work that I have been committed to in Detroit. When we first became involved in Arab-American affairs in the aftermath of the Six Day War, we did not have a primer on what to do. Many of us did what came naturally — protest and hit the streets. We used to organize march after march and rally after rally. There was a second phase where we had to draw together to defend ourselves, not so much physically but psychologically, given the incredible anti-Arab racism that emanated out of the 1967 war. Also, people thought that an information campaign could turn the country around. Of course that was totally wrong, but we proceeded on that road for a while before we found out that it was really not making a difference. It is not a question of information. Then there was a period when much of our energies were channelled into defense work — defending ourselves against FBI surveillance and harassment.
1980 is a watershed for Arab-Americans. ABSCAM was the straw that broke the camel’s back. A number of things came together at that time. The first Arab-American elected to the Senate, who had a very good progressive, populist attitude, had decided not to run for the Senate again but to devote himself to building an organization that could defend Arab-Americans. Certain material circumstances came together, and one of them was the emergence of a leadership. ADC, to me, represents the only way that Arab-Americans can go. There is absolutely no other way than to have a mass membership organization in every village, town, county, state, all over the US mobilized to respond in a timely fashion to challenges facing Arab-Americans as they arise.
There are three elements to this. One is organizing. A lot of people are not organized, so our job is to organize. The second is to mobilize. You have to be not only organized but also motivated to act. The third element is to identify challenges and motivate people to act to face those challenges. That is what ADC has set for itself as its task.
Are you reasonably assured that you yourself are no longer under FBI surveillance?
There are two types of FBI surveillance. There is an FBI surveillance where a specific investigation is opened up on a person based upon certain information they have received that would make you a target for a specific investigation. And then there is ongoing information collecting, bits and pieces of informant information. I do not think that I am under the former, but I think that many Americans are constantly subject to this much broader information gathering.