Political lynching of Arab Americans

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Political lynching of Arab Americans

Aref Assaf

Bergen Record Op-Ed

We are disappointed and shocked that Sami Merhi has been removed from the Democratic Party’s slate of Freeholder candidates for Passaic County. Under pressure from a Governor, a U.S. Senator and North Jersey Jewish organizations, Passaic County Democrats conspired to replace Merhi with another candidate. Political lynching of Arab Americans is now an accepted practice. Every Arab American is now  Sami Merhi. The sense of being unwanted, unfit and outcast cannot simply be promoted as a reasonable price for political expediency or electoral considerations. The prevailing sense of letdown in the Arab American community will require a period of mourning and also reflection.As John Currie, the Passaic County Party chairman, was entering the Headquarters to chair the meeting to re-decide Mr. Mari’s future, I asked him to please vote for and support Sami for he is both deserving of the post and a loyal citizen. The chairman’s response was ‘it is not about justice and fairness; it is about politics.” I interrupted him, “But the chairman, politics is supposed to render justice possible.” Instead of responding to my assertion, he said, fully cognizant of the presence of the media and other supporters, “Sami Merhi has committed a political mistake and he has to pay for it.” I knew then that Mr. Merhi’s political aspirations have already been decided, most probably, by Senator Menendez (D-NJ). I knew then that regardless of Mr. Merhi’s strong appeal for fairness and understanding, the judgment has already been passed down.

As a besieged community, we must resign ourselves to the reality that Arab Americans are now facing a three-headed monster called profiling. One followed the tragic and horrible attacks of 9-11 when a community of 9 million Arab and Muslim citizens became the subject of intense and unconstitutional racial profiling. The second phase manifested itself in the economic profiling of Arabs as happened in the Dubai port deal, when we told the world that ‘Arabs, like, the devil, cannot be trusted”- as Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) so unequivocally proclaimed. Now, when Arab American citizens wish to serve their community and their country, we take their money and then expediently offer them as a sacrifice for the ‘good’ of the party. This is a political lynching of the worst kind.

Arguably, the party leadership, fearing for its survival, deemed that Sami’s political life, dignity- and indeed that of the community- a reasonable political sacrifice. The Party has cowered to political pressure from influential leaders who threatened to withhold their financial support and political clout if the party does not comply. I am certain that neither Governor Corzine nor Senator Menendez woke up on Monday morning and decided to oppose Mr. Merhi. I know that they have never spoken to him directly or through their staff. This is what Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) told us when we met with him recently. Speaking with candor and perceived confidence, he told us that the only option for our community was to present another candidate acceptable to him and upon that assessment, the assemblyman would openly endorse ”our’ choice and ensure their success. If this is how the Democratic Party is run, then I truly fear for my community’s future in this great party of diversity and inclusiveness. In fact, I, as a parent,  fear for my own children whose patriotism will be questioned and their loyalties doubted-simply because of their ethnicity and not because of their character or conduct.

Arab bashers have truly hijacked the issue of terrorism by turning it into a litmus test for Arab American political hopefuls. Of course, every politician must unequivocally oppose terrorism, and I as a private citizen, do so unconditionally.   But I am certain that the other candidates’ views on this topic were never sought and the response would assuredly have been vastly different than the one levied against Mr. Merhi. Besides, Assemblyman Schaer is aiming beyond the political corpse of Merhi. He wants Sami’s friend, Congressman Bill Pascrell’s (D-NJ) seat in Washington. Alas, with or without Jewish votes and money. Pascrell will win come November. But he has already gotten the message. That is why he did not attend the Party’s latest meeting on Merhi. While it is tempting now for the Republicans to depict the New Jersey Democrats as being “soft on terrorism”, they actually stand to gain many disgruntled Arab votes by simply butting out.

The truth is that our community is not the first to have been dealt losing cards before the game even started. Other groups have been also victimized. The hurt is more intense and more bewildering, however, when today’s perpetrators were once themselves disenfranchised, marginalized and the victim of untold discrimination. Yet this shall pass too, as Arab and Muslim Americans, who number close to 9 million, begin to translate their numerical reserve into political currency. It is happening all over America and this emerging reality is sure to change the political landscape. Arabs and Muslims in NJ have already reached numerical advantage over Jewish citizens. Senator Menendez, the newly incarnated “tough on security”  tsar, can thank the Lord twice. He can thank President Bush for the Dubai-port debacle and now he can thank Gary Schaer. In both instances, Arabs were the scapegoat all the ways to the elections booth. But sometimes, a curse can be camouflaged as a blessing. Mr. Menendez, our community knows it has been screwed and it will respond to your miscalculations.

It is my sincere hope that this incident will not worsen the already tense relations between Arab and Jewish Americans, the majority of whom are proud members of the Democratic Party. My fear is that, If not sufficiently contained, the harm was done and the distrust created as result, will weaken the political chances of the party. More significantly,  I am afraid, it may fulfill Schaer’s wish of transforming the conflict between Arabs and Jews from the streets of Jerusalem to the streets of Passaic County. Gary Schaer may be the first victim of his own making but the citizens of New Jersey will also suffer. It needs not be zero-sum-game or a mutually exclusive relationship between Arab and Jewish Democrats. Both groups must found common grounds on which to focus their collective energies. In fact, as persecuted ethnic communities, we have a lot that unites us that pushes us apart.

It is now incumbent upon the Democratic Party’s leadership, at the local and state levels to again seek to earn the trust of our community. I call on Governor Corzine and Senator Menendez to also earnestly reach out to us. The Arab community and especially our now discredited leadership in Arab American Democratic Caucus must embark on a soul-searching journey. How we respond to the challenges we face today, will define the horizon for tomorrow.  Healing will be in so much demand as we forge ahead.

Dr. Aref Assaf, President, American Arab Forum