This week, more than forty Arab Americans are participating as delegates and members of standing committees to the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Here's a look back at past Conventions that helps trace their progress in national politics.
1984, San Francisco. That year marked the first time that Arab Americans, as an organized community, participated in a national political campaign. Prior to 1984, there had been "Syrian" and "Lebanese" committees, but never before had there been an "Arab American" committee. Jesse Jackson, recognizing the potential voting strength of Arab Americans, reached out to the community and Arab Americans responded, raising money, working as volunteers, and voting. But the process was still new to many, and so by Convention time, only four Arab Americans were there as delegates. One of them was Essa Sakklah of Texas who, in every interview, proudly told reporters, "I am the first Palestinian American ever elected as a delegate to any national convention."
At the Convention, Jackson asked me to deliver one of the speeches placing his name in nomination for President. Having grown up in a political home, and having watched every convention on television since 1956, I was overwhelmed by the experience of mounting the podium and addressing the delegates. Since I was to be the first Arab American to speak at a convention, I began my remarks, "I am an Arab American..."
1988, Atlanta. After four years of mobilization, Arab Americans went to Atlanta with over 50 delegates and Convention committee members. During the primaries, we had made our mark as a voting bloc, helping Jackson win a surprise victory in the Michigan primary.
At the same time, working together with progressive Jewish Americans and other Jackson delegates, Arab Americans succeeded in passing resolutions in 10 states calling for Palestinian rights, and had, through the efforts of the Jackson campaign, won the right to introduce a "minority plank" at the convention calling for "mutual recognition, territorial compromise and self determination for both Israelis and Palestinians."
While many in the Party leadership resisted our efforts to debate Middle East issues, I persisted, believing that the debate was needed. Jackson agreed, and so we had the first ever debate on the Middle East in the history of either party.
Once again, I had the opportunity to address the Convention, while the 1,200 Jackson delegates demonstrated on the floor, carrying signs that read "Palestinian Statehood Now" and "Israeli Security, Palestinian Justice." We lost that platform fight, but we won respect for our efforts.
One of our delegates that year was a young woman I will never forget. Mary Lahaj of Massachusetts had fought an uphill battle from her first caucus all the way to the National Convention, and was proud of being the first-ever Arab American Muslim woman delegate to any convention.
1992, New York. We were represented at the New York Convention by over 40 delegates and committee members. We had initially had some frustration getting into the Clinton campaign. At the Convention, I ran into an AIPAC official, who said to me, "I know you're trying to get in. We won't let you in, and why should we?" I was furious, but remembered Jesse Jackson's words of wisdom: "The biggest threat you pose is not to get angry and leave, but to stick around and fight." And so we did. With the help of then-chairman of the Party, Ron Brown, and Senator Joseph Lieberman, the doors of the campaign were opened.
That year, we also succeeded in getting a resolution passed by one of the Convention's standing committees, calling for full inclusion and representation of Arab Americans at all levels in the Party.
1996, Chicago. Arab Americas were represented, once again by over 40 delegates. Our Arab American Democratic Leadership Council had been formally recognized by the Democratic Party, and we had become founding members of the Party's Ethnic Council. After years of exclusion, we had earned our place at the table.
A special treat was that on the night of Clinton's acceptance speech, I was invited by the President to be one of his guests on the podium platform at the Convention's end.
2000, Los Angeles. By now, Arab Americans had become a fixture in the Party. Once again 40-plus delegates had been elected from across the country. Our Arab American Tribute Reception, held across the street from the Convention site, was attended by over 1000 delegates and guests. The partisan debate within the community was intense, but it was fascinating, because this was the first time that both Republican and Democratic candidates actively courted the community's support. Both Vice-President Gore and Governor Bush each met with Arab Americans on three occasions. Their vice-presidential running mates also met with Arab American leaders. All of this was unprecedented, since in no previous campaign had any Presidential candidate ever come directly to the Arab American community seeking their support.
2004, Boston. With almost 50 Arab American delegates and committee members at the Boston Convention, this delegation is our largest since 1988, and was our most diverse group in history. The response from Party officials and elected officials for our Convention Gala was significant, with over 50 senators and representatives confirming their attendance at both our Gala event and our issues forum, "Civil Liberties and Global Responsibility.
And now, Denver 2008. Once again there are more than 40 Arab American participants at every level. I am convening the Party's Ethnic Council and chairing its two caucus meetings and Mary Rose Oakar is the Chair of the Convention Rules Committee. Marking new firsts for Arab Americans, the Barack Obama campaign has hired an Arab American outreach staff person in all-important Michigan, and the campaign has launched the first ever "Arab Americans" page on its official website. A formal launch of Arab Americans for Obama, chaired by Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV) is set to take place next month.
What was remarkable in 1984, has now become commonplace in 2008.