For Arab-Americans, Lieberman is a tricky choice
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) -- For many Arab American Democratic leaders, this week's convention in Los Angeles marks a high point in their efforts to win a louder voice for a group they say is often maligned, misunderstood or simply ignored by the U.S. political establishment.
This year there are 52 Arab Americans who are full delegates to the Democratic convention, compared with just four delegates in 1984. There are six Arab American members of Congress, and the community proudly claims Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala as one of its own.
But the selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, as Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore's running mate has put an uncomfortable focus on fears within the community of almost 3.5 million Arab Americans that U.S. policy in the Middle East might tilt more in favor of Israel.
"He's not where we would want him to be on Middle Eastern questions," Ismael Ahmed, who runs an Arab American community center in Dearborn, Michigan, said at a lunch on Monday for Arab American delegates to the Democratic National Convention. "And for us, Middle Eastern questions are paramount. There's no way around that."
The first Jew to run on the presidential ticket of the two major parties, Lieberman is strictly observant of religious precepts and says he has been deeply influenced in his political life by Jewish ethics and texts. Like most senators, he has also been a staunch supporter of Israel.
"I would be disingenuous if I said it wasn't an issue," said Maya Berry, an Arab American delegate from Michigan and a staffer at the Arab American Institute, which organized Monday's luncheon. "But that is not the only thing that brings us to the table. Overall, we can only be open and hopeful."
James Zogby, the institute's chairman, used Monday's gathering to assure fellow Arab Americans that Lieberman -- while clearly pro-Israel -- was not necessarily anti-Arab.
It was Lieberman, Zogby said, who helped to involve Arab Americans in President Bill Clinton's 1992 run for the White House, personally calling campaign officials who appeared reluctant to allow Arab Americans to associate publicly with the campaign.
"He's a fair guy, he's a good guy, and he helped us to cross that one last hurdle when we needed someone to fight for us," Zogby told the group.
Ahmed said that particularly on domestic issues the senator from Connecticut had already done much to demonstrate his willingness to work with Arab American concerns -- ranging from aid to Egypt to bills aimed at protecting Moslems from prejudice within the United States.
"He's clearly not rabidly anti-Arab. There is something there to work with," Ahmed said. "But the party has to reassure Arab Americans that the (Middle East) peace process will move on, and move on in an equitable way."
But with a long history of slights and exclusion, often linked to U.S. policies in Israel and the Middle East, many Arab American delegates said it would take time for their communities to feel comfortable with Lieberman just one step away from the White House.
"It is natural that some people be apprehensive. They only know that Senator Lieberman is a Jew. They don't know what type of man he is," said Chafic Hatoum, a delegate from Sylvania, Ohio. "But once they get more informed, I'm sure that people will change their minds about him."
Bill Shaheen, a Lebanese-American whose wife, New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, was one of the six politicians to make Gore's vice presidential short list, said Arab Americans could take heart from Gore's willingness to reach out to communities not traditionally tapped for the very top national posts.
"Every time we break down a wall, that frees all of us," Shaheen said. "He is challenging all of us to overcome our prejudices. I think the selection of Lieberman is brilliant. If an Orthodox Jew can do it, well then an Arab can do it."
Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.