Related Topics:

Yehudit Barsky is finishing a book on Hamas terrorism.

Just hours after Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn in September 1993, Vice President Albert Gore convened a meeting of American Jews and Arab-Americans to found Builders for Peace-a joint project intended to spur Palestinian economic development. The Jewish co-chairman was former congressman Mel Levine (Democrat of California) and his Arab counterpart was James Zogby, head of the Arab American Institute (AAI). This was an apogee of Zogby's career. There he was, in the Old Executive Office Building, the first and only Arab-American activist to win the endorsement of the U.S. government at such an exalted level. He enjoyed a place at the cutting edge of American foreign policy, and he had his finger on the pulse of what was expected to be large amounts of money.

Another highlight came on May 7, 1998, when Zogby welcomed President Clinton to a conference the AAI cosponsored with two other Arab-American organizations. As Clinton duly noted, the occasion made him the "first sitting President to address an Arab-American conference." To compound this historic day for Zogby, Clinton praised him in lofty terms as a "remarkable voice for calm and clarity, no matter how heated the issues" and "one of the most forceful, intense and brutally honest people who ever came to the White House to see me."1

Zogby's prominence as arguably the most important Arab-American leader and his insider status make it necessary to understand who this man is and what he stands for.


Born in 1945 in Utica, New York, to Maronite (Lebanese Catholic) parents, James J. Zogby is a first-generation American. Educated at Temple University, he has a Ph.D. in Islamic studies, and he began his career as an associate professor of history and philosophy at Shippensberg College. His organizational career began when he founded an Arab-American group following the October 1973 war. Subsequently he served as a vice president of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG), after which he became a co-founder and chairman of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign in 1977. He first attracted national media attention in 1979, when he campaigned on behalf of the National Emergency Committee to Defend Ziad Abu Eain to prevent the extradition to Israel of a member of Yasir Arafat's Al-Fatah organization accused of taking part in a 1979 bombing in Tiberias, killing two Israeli teenagers and wounding thirty-six other Israelis. Zogby's effort failed and Abu Eain went on to spend four years of a longer sentence in an Israeli jail (and was released in the prisoner exchange of 1985, when Israel traded 1,500 Palestinians for three of its soldiers).

In 1980, Zogby joined with former Senator James Abourezk to form the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). Although nominally the ADC came into being primarily to combat "stereotyping of Arabs in the media" and to expose "discrimination against Arabs in employment, education, and political life," much of its efforts were dedicated to anti-Israel activities. In 1984, Zogby served as deputy campaign manager for fundraising for the Rev. Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign. In 1985, he broke with the ADC to establish the Arab American Institute, where he has concentrated his efforts on politically empowering Arab Americans and on establishing forums for the expression of Palestinian and Lebanese viewpoints. In 1988, as a member of the Democratic Party's National Platform Committee, Zogby introduced a plank supporting Palestinian statehood and later addressed the Democratic Convention on the issue of Palestinian statehood. The plank was defeated, but Zogby viewed the debate over its inclusion as a turning point that would eventually bring Arab Americans into the mainstream of American politics. He serves as an advisor on Arab American issues to the Clinton administration.2 In 1994, he was appointed to the Democratic National Committee's Resolutions Committee.


Zogby has two goals: to make Arab Americans more powerful than Jewish Americans and to be their preeminent leader. Zogby's engagement in American politics is motivated, in part, by his concern with what he views as the problem of non-Arabs-and specifically of American Jews-occupying key positions making U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Zogby insinuates that as a result of their background, these officials are incapable of being fair. Nor is this problem restricted to the government;

it prevails in the "think-tanks" as well. In fact four of the major establishment foreign policy "think-tanks" have Middle Eastern programs all headed by American Jews. This leads to further skewing of the Middle East policy debate.3

He goes so far as publicly to condemn Arabs who financially support institutions headed by Jews as a "disturbing" trend:

It is true that American-Jewish organizations are more influential than Arab American organizations, but it is neither helpful nor useful for Arabs to continue to operate as if the only access they can receive in Washington is if Jewish organizations obtain it for them.

Zogby constantly argues for the same remedy: increased Arab American participation in politics. He wants Arab Americans to emulate the other ethnic groups who have successfully played the power game-and as quickly as possible so they can attain their goals.

At the root of the distortion in the U.S. Middle East foreign policy debate is the fact that our policy in that region is shaped more by domestic electoral considerations (votes and donors) than by a long-term assessment of U.S. interests and how best to protect them. This is why it is vital for Arab-Americans to continue to organize and mobilize in U.S. politics.4

Zogby makes no pretense that his goals most truly reflect U.S. interests. Rather, he sees foreign policy resulting from a crude counting of noses.

Personally, Zogby aspires to serve as spokesman of Arab-Americans and the primary contact of Arab states in Washington-making him a major player on the political scene. To achieve this, he positions himself as the vocal interpreter and defender of a wide range of Arab causes, from the Palestinian nationalist to the Islamist to the terrorist, all with seemingly equal fervor.


Zogby initially supported the Oslo accords, perhaps because he misunderstood them. Although they provide only for limited Palestinian self-rule, he saw them as "an incomplete first step" towards Palestinian statehood. Just a day after the accords were signed, he asserted that "statehood will be the ultimate outcome of this agreement."5 Zogby disagreed when many other Arab-Americans charged Arafat with making a mistake in signing the accords, on the grounds that they waived Palestinians' rights to the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, the return of all Palestinian refugees from 1948 to Israel, and the right of the Palestinians to engage in "armed struggle." He did so on the grounds that a careful reading of the declaration shows that none of these charges is true. In fact, the Palestinian negotiators gave up none of their inalienable rights except one: the right to use armed resistance against Israel.

Revealingly, Zogby interpreted the agreement as part of a "phased approach" that would lead to the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state:

the Palestinian people have accepted the challenge of building the infrastructure of a state from the ground up ... . In two to five years, Palestinians will have created new and irreversible realities in Palestine. These new factors plus the determination to be a free and independent people will create the momentum that will make statehood a reality.6

This constructive attitude did not last long, however. Just five months after the start of the Oslo peace process, Zogby began expressing disillusionment with its pace and direction. Echoing widespread sentiments in the Arab press, he criticized the Cairo accords signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in early February 1994 as "humiliating" to the Palestinians.7 He demanded that the final status of Jerusalem be negotiated immediately and accused Israel of "altering the conditions on the ground during the negotiating process" by building new roads and housing in the city.8

As for U.S. government policy, in 1994 Zogby urged the Clinton administration to support the Palestinian side in the negotiations with Israel, both to express American displeasure and to balance disparities of power between Israel and the Palestinians.9 More recently, he argues that to preserve its credibility in the Arab world, Washington should "manifest its own interests" and "be able to say to the Israelis ... you must stop that [i.e., settlement activity]."10

Shortly after Islamic Jihad's January 1995 bombings in the Israeli town of Bet Lid, Zogby was even more negative in describing a visit to Gaza made with Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown:

It is difficult to see what has changed. If there is peace, someone forgot to tell the Israelis at the checkpoints or their Palestinian victims. This is a classic portrait of power vs. Powerlessness. The daily humiliation of the checkpoint can't help but create hatred ... I came away from this trip sadly realizing that this process is giving peace a bad name.11

Zogby now portrays his disillusionment with the peace process as a consequence of Binyamin Netanyahu's election in May 1996, but in fact his severe criticism of the Israeli government dates right back to the early months after the Oslo accords were signed, when others were still positive, if not euphoric, about the peace process.

Zogby framed his attacks on Likud by comparing it to the Soviet Communist Party. Commenting on Netanyahu's victory, he said, "I think it's tragic. It's as if the Communists were to win in Russia-this is the old crowd."12 In his analysis of the election results, Zogby warned: "There are going to be problems all the way around. If Netanyahu makes a fig-leaf commitment to the peace process, I think the Arabs are just going to have to stand up and say 'no' we're not going to go along with it."13

Following Likud's election victory, Zogby also pointed out that there is "significant leverage which [the Arabs] can use to check Likud's policy and force the U.S. to use pressure." Specifically, he suggested that Arab states revert to using the secondary Arab boycott, that is, not doing business with firms doing business in Israel, as a way to pressure Israel to stop building settlements. He further suggested that the Arabs "freeze" all relations with the Likud government until these basic conditions are met.

In effect, Zogby wants the PA to pressure Israel to renegotiate the Oslo accords by having the Arabs isolate Israel from the Arab world-in other words, turn the clock back to pre-1993. He sees such a reversion as an opportunity to win concessions on such issues as the repatriation of all pre-1948 Palestinian refugees and the true establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Until this happens, he wants "no Arab participation in regional or multilateral discussions or conferences, nor any further confidence-building measures."14

Zogby's position on Oslo mirrors that of the PA's negotiators. Both he and they see the Palestinians' very presence at the negotiations as a tool to be used again and again to extract concessions from the Israeli side-certainly not the negotiating tactics one expects from a good-faith partner.


Zogby has come to the defense of extremist Muslim groups such as the Muslim Brethren, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, arguing that these groups are merely "politically" or "religiously" opposed to the peace process. He defends the American Muslim Council (AMC), a Muslim American organization based in Washington that forwards the cause of extremist Islamic organizations such as Hamas, as well as Islamic radical movements in Algeria, Sudan, and other countries. He also has the temerity to call upon Jewish organizations to follow his lead on these issues.15

Zogby criticized President Clinton's January 1995 executive order classifying a number of Islamic extremist organizations as terrorist groups, saying that it would have a chilling effect on the civil rights of Arab-Americans. Zogby rejected outright-in the pages of a pro-Hamas publication, no less-that fundraising within the Arab-American and Muslim American community is in any way connected to any Middle Eastern terrorist groups. In fact, it is but a means by which these groups express their rights:

Wire transfers of funds from other countries are one thing, but to allege that Arab-Americans and American Muslim groups are involved in fundraising terrorism is something else entirely. There are, to be sure, some Muslim Americans and Palestinian Americans who oppose the current peace process. Some of them, through their mosques and charitable groups, have raised money to support specific and well-known institutions in the West Bank and Gaza.16

Why does Zogby-a Maronite Christian, someone perceived as a political moderate, a long-time advocate of the Justice Department investigating the activities of Jewish extremists in the United States17-defend Islamist groups?

Politically, Zogby straddles a growing rift between Muslim-Americans and (the mostly secularized) Arab-Americans. As one analyst describes this tension in somewhat imperfect English:

does the community wishes [sic] to be recognized as an Arab-American community anymore.[sic] Some have opted to be as Muslim-American as possible preferring to leave behind what seems to them intractable political and social problems plaguing the Arab-American community in favor of what hundreds of millions of Americans and their ancestors have done before them: drop the hyphen and go 100 percent American. Others simply wait for a reversal in the present situation and continue to be active within mainstream American humanitarian and political organization[s] until more effective Arab-American mainstream organizations emerge with a clearly defined agenda and the credibility and pragmatism to lead effectively.18

Recognizing this rift, Zogby plays to these constituencies. He wishes to be the spokesman of American Arabs and Muslims; while for Arabs and Muslims abroad, he aspires to be their man in the world's most powerful political capital. As a Christian, he is co-religionist to most Americans, and he shows an understanding of American society that surpasses that of many Muslim activists; he also demonstrates that Christians loyally support Islamic causes.

In other words, supporting the Islamists wins him legitimacy in two communities. In human rights and civil rights circles, he establishes himself by a willingness to defend Islamists from the point of view of constitutional rights. Among Arabic-speaking Muslims, both abroad and in the United States, this makes him a crusader (well, more properly a mujahid) for the cause most popular on the "street," and so qualifies him as their spokesman in Washington.


Zogby also defends individual terrorists. When Arafat in 1995 appointed Ziad Abu Eain as the comptroller of the Palestinian Authority, Zogby publicly supported the appointment, still insisting that there had never been credible evidence against Abu Eain. When the U.S. government arrested Musa Abu Marzook, a Hamas leader, in July 1995 in New York on grounds of Israel's warrant of arrest,19 Zogby characterized the arrest as "a huge mistake" and "not helpful to the peace process."20 The AAI expresses support for Hizbullah, deeming it a legitimate resistance movement, and vociferously condemns Israel's attempts to defend itself (such as "Operation Grapes of Wrath" in April 1996, targeting Hizbullah positions in Lebanon):

It is no exaggeration to refer to Israel's aggression in Lebanon as "state terrorism" since the stated purpose of this brutal attack has been to "terrify the people of the south." Israel is forcing them to flee and [is] collectively punishing the entire country in order to force the Lebanese government to act against the Lebanese armed resistance, the Hizbullah.21

Referring to the Israeli election campaigns that same year, Zogby asked, "How many Lebanese must die for an Israeli Prime Minister [meaning Peres] to win reelection?"22 AAI sponsored a rally at Lafayette Park in Washington on April 23, 1996, which by AAI's estimate drew 1,500 people. Demonstrators bore placards with slogans such as "Don't Cut Medicare, Cut Aid to Israel," "Israel the Hate State," and "Peres and Hitler Are the Same. The Only Difference Is the Name."23

Following the Hamas suicide bombing attack at the Apropos Cafe in Tel Aviv in March 1997, Zogby rallied to the side of Yasir Arafat. Ignoring the fact that the PA's release of terrorists from Palestinian jails had led to the incident, Zogby declared: "The act of violence that took place was condemnable and we condemn it but we do not believe Chairman Arafat gave a green light [to the terrorists]. To the contrary, he has made it very clear about how he responds to terrorism."24

But when Israelis are victims of Palestinian terror, Zogby characterizes the violence in a therapeutic and non-judgmental manner, claiming Israelis and their supporters misunderstand the Palestinians:

There is no effort to see the violence as a cycle or to understand why the perpetrators [of terrorist acts] acted as they did or why there are people whose anger and despair bring them to support this or that crime.25

Zogby seeks to soften the impact of Palestinian suicide bombings by drawing a moral equivalence between them and the Israeli closure of Palestinian areas (that is, Palestinians are not allowed into Israel to work) that takes place in the wake of such attacks: "the Israelis perpetrate acts of collective punishment, its [sic] own form of terror, designed to demonstrate their power and to remind the Palestinians of their powerlessness."26

When it comes to U.S. policy, Zogby has emerged as one of the most outspoken opponents of counterterrorism laws proposed by the Clinton administration. Here he uses the supposed social welfare activities of the Islamist organizations as a justification:

Because many social service entities in the Middle East have some affiliations to various political and religious institutions (including those who are opposed to the peace process), their lawful and valuable work may suffer if the administration's [counterterrorist] efforts are successful.27

Zogby displays remarkable cognitive dissonance on the issue of terrorism: he wants to throw the book at Jewish extremists but screams bloody murder every time the government tries to crack down on the criminal activities connected with Islamists. This inconsistency points to a moderation and reasonableness that is more apparent than real.


Despite this record of virulent attacks on Israel and defense of Islamists and terrorists, Zogby has drawn scathing criticism from some Arab and anti-Israel quarters, where he is perceived as someone overly assimilated into American politics and insufficiently zealous in defending Arab interests. Thus, President Clinton's speech at the AAI-sponsored conference found some of the participants "ambivalent in their reactions. Some called the President's visit 'charity.'" Another Arab-American activist commented about Clinton, "His heart is in the right place but that's not helping much." A third participant quipped, "One giant step for Arab America, one tiny step for Arabs."28

In 1993, a pro-Arafat weekly lashed out at Zogby for not publicly criticizing the appointment of Martin Indyk to the National Security Council:

Zogby should be informed that the Arabs have tried this sort of policy of appeasement before, and it has never worked. Indyk is a Zionist with a Labor Party agenda, and the Arabs should not delude themselves to the contrary. [Indyk] is not working for the benefit of the United States, but for the benefit of the Zionist state.29

Mid-East Realities, a maverick publication that enjoys wide distribution among Arab and Muslim Internet discussion groups, circulated an article lambasting Zogby by Mark Bruzonsky, a self-styled critic of the Arab-American leadership:

AAI is a total sham ... an attempt by Uncle Tomish Arab-Americans to claim the mantle of Arab-American representation for themselves at a time when they are more despised than respected. James Zogby, AAI founder and president, has positioned himself as a "client organization" for Washington's power brokers after failing to keep support sufficiently alive from his overseas benefactors. No matter who has the power, Zogby is there prostrating himself, having his picture taken, and passing along tidbits of gossip and intelligence to any who will give him a boost.30

Zogby responds to such attacks by noting that the Arab-American community needs to be a part of the mainstream American political process.

We at AAI have a political program and a strategic plan. In a nutshell, we believe that electoral politics is the key to political power in this country. We believe that what Arab-Americans have lacked all these years is an effective organizational vote, representation in the political parties and participation in political campaigns.31

While Zogby understands that the Arab-American community must simultaneously inhabit two spheres, those of both Arab and American politics, his critics tend not to see this complex duality. Zogby is the outsider Arabs' insider who does not lose sight of his goal in Arab politics even as he becomes increasingly involved in American ethnic politics. Criticisms leveled at Zogby are based on the notion that a community activist must singularly represent the Arab point of view. His critics do not accept it, but Zogby's success results from his becoming an assimilationist in style while remaining true to the political substance of Arab politics.


In his positions on a variety of issues which concern Arab-Americans, James Zogby is far from the political moderate that President Clinton's acclaim for him would suggest. His seeming pragmatism is only an image to further his own political purposes. His stances on Israel, Islamism, and terrorism do represent the main currents of Arab-American opinion, and in this there is great cause for concern for it points to Arab and Muslim opinion in the United States being at odds with mainstream U.S. views. The inconsistency of Clinton endorsing Zogby while professing positions diametrically opposite to Zogby's points to the high-level access an extremist can attain in American public life-if he is sufficiently skilled at posing as a moderate.


1 Speech by President Clinton to the AAI Vote 1998 Convention, May 7, 1998, Washington, D.C., at the Palestinian American Congress, May 8, 1998. Text available at
2 The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 2, 1994.
3 James Zogby, "Face the Facts," The Jordan Times, Feb. 25, 1998.
4 Ibid.
5 AAI press release, Sept. 14, 1993.
6 James Zogby, "Palestine, Yes!" The Nation, Oct. 25, 1993.
7 James Zogby, "A Victory for Cynics," Baltimore Jewish Times, Feb. 17, 1995; The Jerusalem Times (East Jerusalem).
8 James Zogby, "A Logjam in Need of a U.S. Nudge," The Los Angeles Times, Feb. 20, 1994.
9 Ibid.
10 Reuters, Mar. 26, 1997.
11 Zogby, "A Victory for Cynics."
12 The New York Daily News, May 31, 1996.
13 United Press International, June 3, 1996.
14 MidEast Mirror, May 31, 1996.
15 Forward, May 10, 1996.
16 James Zogby, "The Executive Order and the Rights of Arab and Muslim Americans," Muslim World Monitor, Feb. 2, 1995.
17 Arab American Institute Note Book, Feb. - Mar. 1994.
18 Suliman Mustafa, "The Decline Of Arab American Power," The Arab American Mirror, at
19 Which charged Abu Marzook with murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, conspiracy to manslaughter, causing harm with aggravating intent, conspiracy to cause bodily harm, conspiracy to cause aggravated harm and wounding, causing harm and wounding under aggravating circumstances, and conspiracy to commit a felony.
20 USA Today, Aug. 9, 1995.
21 "Lebanon Suffers U.S. Silence," AAI press release, Apr. 23, 1996.
22 Near East Report, June 3, 1996.
23 JTA Daily News Bulletin, Apr. 24, 1996.
24 Reuters, Mar. 26, 1997.
25 Zogby, "A Victory for Cynics."
26 The Jerusalem Times, Feb. 24, 1995.
27 Ibid.
28 Hania Asmari, "First U.S. President to Address An Arab American Conference," The Arab American Mirror, May 7, 1998, at
29 Al-Fajr, Mar. 22, 1993. Indyk is currently assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs.
30 "The Dismal State of Arab American Organizations," Mid-East Realities: News Analysis and Commentary They Don't Want You to Know, at
31 Zogby, "Face the Facts."