The study of the history of Arab American political activism is currently experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Pamela E. Pennock’s The Rise of the Arab American Left: Activists, Allies, and Their Fight against Imperialism and Racism, 1960s–1980s, is a fine addition to recent books by Hani J. Bawardi on pre-1967 Arab American activism and Salim Yaqub on U.S. Middle East policy and Arab Americans in the 1970s. Drawing on extensive archival and interview research, Pennock provides a cogent overview of the formation of radical Arab American organizations and their interactions with allies, as well as many specific examples of local work that intersected with their activism on behalf of various causes in the Middle East, particularly the Palestinian issue. Arab American activism existed long before the June 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, but the resounding Arab defeat provided the impetus for the formation of new organizations. Because Arab Americans constituted a relatively small percentage of the American population, these groups had little chance of impacting the political process through their members’ votes alone. Instead, they sought to influence other sections of the population, whether intellectuals, business elites, or other leftist movements, to make common cause, hoping that this would ultimately steer American policy in the desired direction. The book examines a broad range of left-leaning organizations, and begins with chapters dedicated to the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG) and the Organization of Arab American Students (OAS). The AAUG was the “most significant and influential of the organizations founded shortly after the 1967 war” (23). As the name indicated, it consisted of a select group of elite Arab Americans who hoped to influence U.S. policy by impacting other elites. Academics played a particularly important role within the organization, and perhaps its greatest legacy is the scholarship that it encouraged, particularly through its journal, Arab Studies Quarterly. Members of the OAS, another group with roots in universities, acted as “cultural brokers between the politics of Arab decolonization and the American student movement” (47). The OAS was largely composed of foreign students but also included some Arab Americans whose families had long been in the United States. Its program moved beyond AAUG’s more general support for the Palestinian cause to embrace relationships with specific Palestinian factions. After exploring the formation, strategies, and external connections of these groups, Pennock examines two cases that illustrate their reception by the broader American public and the U.S. government. The case of Sirhan Sirhan, the Palestinian American who assassinated Robert Kennedy in 1968, highlighted the challenges that Arab American activists faced in matters of public perception. Practically all Arab American activist organizations condemned the assassination of Kennedy, who, despite his pro-Israel stance, was generally admired by the Arab American community. Thus, Arab American organizations remained remarkably silent about Sirhan’s case, even though a few activists, such as former AAUG president Abdeen Jabara, joined his defense team, arguing that the persecution that the family had experienced contributed to Sirhan’s mental state prior to the crime. Operation Boulder was a visa-screening program that built on a broader U.S. government campaign to crack down on what was seen as potentially subversive activity by Arab Americans, including by monitoring the communications of activists and aggressively policing Arab immigrants. Ultimately Operation Boulder was disbanded after being deemed ineffective, but it contributed to feelings of persecution among Arab Americans. In two final chapters, The Rise of the Arab American Left explores the transformation and maturation of Arab American leftist activism from its roots in 1960s radicalism. Pennock traces the work of Arab American organizations in Dearborn’s Southend neighborhood, which was threatened by urban renewal plans promoted by the city’s administration. In stark contrast to elite-based organizations like AAUG, activists founded the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), which provided services to immigrant populations and ultimately played an organizing and catalyzing role in helping the community voice its opposition to the city’s aggressive tactics for displacing residents. Another example was the Arab Workers Caucus (AWC), which spearheaded a protest of the United Automobile Workers’ (UAW) purchase of Israeli bonds. As a result of AWC’s actions, a local chapter of UAW divested completely, while the national organization sold a portion of its bonds. By the 1980s, these organizations had transformed in fundamental ways. In a new cultural climate with a weakened New Left and heightened anti-Arab sentiment, the AAUG’s activity declined, while new organizations such as the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and the Arab American Institute sought to engage directly in the American political system. From its radical roots, ACCESS, too, developed into a more mainstream organization, seeking grants from local and federal sources and institutionalizing its structure to maintain impact over time. Pennock’s sympathetic perspective comes through in many places, including in her treatment of the movement’s failure to achieve its principal aim—shaping U.S. policy toward the Middle East. She allows critiques to be voiced by the words of the movement’s members. Former AAUG president Elaine Hagopian, for instance, concedes that the organization was “utopian” (28) in its assumption that providing accurate information would result in changes of attitudes and policies. At the same time, Pennock’s accounts of efforts on campuses, in the community of Southend, and in UAW locals make it clear that the movement had many achievements. This work should be read by scholars of ethnic and minority social movements, the New Left, and U.S. relations with the Middle East in addition to those with a particular interest in Arab American activism. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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