ANN ARBOR -- A leading Palestinian-American scholar urged Arab Americans Saturday to strive for political power in the United States to secure the respect and influence for which other immigrant ethnic groups have had to struggle throughout American history.
"I am a historian and I understand some of these things will take time," said Rashid Khalidi, the director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University.
"But some of the processes are under way. Some of them can be accelerated by our own actions, by our own will and determination not to be taken for granted, by our determination not to be discriminated against and by understanding how the levers of power in this society work and by our determination to get our hands on them."
Khalidi, an expert on the history of the modern Middle East, spoke to at a banquet sponsored by the Arab American Organization, a group of mostly professionals and academicians in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area. Khalidi is a prominent Arab scholar, having been named the Edward Said Professor or Arab Studies at Columbia, after the death of Said -- an internationally acclaimed academician and author --- three years ago
He traveled to Ann Arbor to speak to the group, Khalidi said, precisely because of the integral role it and similar groups play in the assimilation and integration of Arabs into American society.
Khalidi cited the role that similar grassroots community organizations played in advancing the presence and power of other groups throughout American history, including African-Americans, Jews and immigrants from European countries.
"Look at the institutions they have in their communities and think about why they developed those institutions," Khalidi said. "Think of what the situations were in those communities before they had those institutions and you will understand how they have come to the position where nobody can mess with them, where they are respected in this country.
"I can't stress enough that assimilation and integration, education and professional development and then building our own institutions are crucial as the first steps on the path to building political power and then having influence on the society."
His observations were well received, said May Seikaly, an associate professor of Near Eastern Studies at Wayne State University, who attended the banquet and introduced Khalidi.
"It is important to hear Arab Americans, particularly Palestinian-Americans, speak in a strong manner about these issues. I think many people were glad they were here."
Khalidi reminded about 75 listeners gather and the third annual banquet for the organization that most immigrant groups have taken "60, 70, 80 even 100 years to full assimilate into American society," and that groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, only gained power in the past 20 to 30 years.
That ascendancy came long after American Jews were largely powerless in the 1930s and 1940s to influence the American political system to open immigration to millions of Jews form Germany and other European countries that were slaughtered by the Nazi regime in World War II, Khalidi said.
"We often see or hear of idealized portraits of the Americanization process that fail to mention one important thing: That it generally takes each wave of immigrants several generations to integrate totally," he said.
Khalidi painted a bleak portrait of the current circumstances of Arab Americans. A first wave of Arab immigrants who arrived early in the last century has mostly done well, but a second wave that began arriving in about 1965 is faring far worse, he said.
"Many people do not speak English well. Many of them are not citizens. Some of them, a few, are not even literate in English," Khalidi said. "Many of them were not educated in the United States. Many of them do not understand the American political or legal system.
"Most Arab Americans still live in predominately Arab communities where they often live isolated from the society around them. It's not hard to understand that in such circumstances the impact of our community on American politics in such circumstances is likely to be very limited."
The status of Arab Americans in the United States is also diminished by the presence of repressive regimes governing Arabs in the Middle East and by a string of events, including the American hostage crisis of 1979, the Iran-Contra scandal, the Gulf War, the attacks on Americans of September 11, 2001, and the current war in Iraq, he said.
"We have a uniformly negative image in the media" Khalidi said. "I would say we are the only group in American society about whom it is possible to be insulting, racist and offensive in public without any kind of effect. You can get away with saying almost anything about or to Arab Americans, and I think we have to change that."
Academics can have an impact, he said. But the real work will come from community-based groups like the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, an organization in Dearborn that held its 35th annual banquet Saturday night in Detroit, the American Arab-Anti-Discrimination Committee, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, and the Arab American Institute, he said.
"I am happy to come and speak because I really think that this organization (the Arab American Organization) and organizations like this do is absolutely crucial," he said. "In some ways, it is more important than what I do.
"For us, as Arab Americans, it will not be just what we do at universities in term of educating people about the Middle East that will change our position in this society, that will increase or influence in this society, that will change the awful negative image that we have in this society. It is the essential work of community organizations such as this that will do this for us. This is by far the most important thing we can be doing."
Khalidi urged those listening to take advantage of tax laws governing charitable contributions to nonprofit groups to build foundations and foundations with strong endowment that will help Arab-Americans assimilate and gain political power.
"It is one of the most important avenues to influence in this society," Khalidi said. "You can determine where the money from that donation goes. You can not determine what they do with your tax money. It may go to buy an Apache helicopter that kills people in Gaza. Or they may take it and buy an Abrams tank that kills people in Baghdad."
Eventually, he said, Arab Americans will arrive at a seat of power in the United States, from which they can influence policy and events.
"The effect, when it comes, will probably be felt in this state, first and foremost, and in states like Michigan where there are large Arab American populations," Khalidi said.
"I commend this and other similar groups for making the effort to bring together this part of the community, in what is the most important center of Arab Americans in the United States," he said. "This is it, somewhere between here and Detroit is it. And I commend you because this is where it is going to start. You and your children are the ones who are going to start it. I think it is the perfect example of the kind of building block that is going to be necessary for us to be influential and respected in this country.
"And we will."