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James Zogby

James Zogby

Posted: November 14, 2008 05:41 PM

Rahm Emanuel and Arab Perceptions


On November 5th, my office sent an email to tens of thousands of our members and contacts congratulating President-elect Barack Obama. In our message, we noted the historic transformation his victory represented and commended the thousands of Arab Americans who participated in this winning campaign.

The initial and near universal response was heartwarming, with many sharing moving anecdotes of their campaign experiences, their reactions to the victory, and their hopes for change.

One day and one announcement later, the tide turned.

With the naming of Congressman Rahm Emanuel as Obama's White House Chief of Staff, for some, not all, the euphoria turned to despair. The emails and calls to my office were both troubled and troubling -- because much of the reaction was based on misinformation and because of what the entire episode revealed about the larger political dynamics involved.

First, the facts.

Rahm Emanuel is a brilliant strategist and a practitioner of hard-ball politics who, in campaigns, his time in the Clinton White House and more recently in Congress, has demonstrated that he knows how to get a job done. Because there will be critical legislation the President-elect will need to move through Congress, from an economic recovery package and health care reform to a comprehensive approach to alternative energy, Obama has tapped Emanuel for his proven political skills. It is that simple.

This, of course, was neither the content nor the concerns raised by the emails I received. Some charged that Emanuel was an Israeli citizen or a dual U.S.-Israeli national (he is neither, he was born in Chicago in 1959); or, they alleged that he served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), losing his finger confronting a Syrian tank during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon (he did not serve in the IDF, and lost his finger in a freak accident while working as a teenager in an Arby's restaurant). A few accused Emanuel of skipping U.S. military service to join the IDF in 1991 (also not true -- in the midst of the 1991 Gulf War, while U.S. forces were manning Patriot missile batteries in Israel and the Arab Gulf, Emanuel volunteered for a few weeks, as a civilian, doing maintenance on Israeli vehicles). The most recent story alleges that Rahm Emanuel was fired from the White House in 1998 after being implicated by the FBI, together with Monica Lewinsky, in a Mossad plot to spy on then-President Clinton (a total fabrication, compliments of a shady character who claims to have been a U.S. intelligence official and is a purveyor of many bizarre tales).

That stories such as these have been circulating, and have taken hold, is as reprehensible as the "Barack Obama is a secret Muslim/Manchurian candidate" tale, or the anti-Arab anti-Muslim canards to which I and many of my colleagues have been subjected over the years.

Putting aside the fiction or, more accurately, the slanderous myths, the truth is that Emanuel is an effective leader in Congress. He is a strong supporter of Israel. But then, how many members of Congress are not?

Emanuel is Jewish and his father is an Israeli. Arab Americans should be especially sensitive to attacks on anyone based on religion or ethnicity. He has worked closely with and is liked by the Arab American Members of Congress from both parties, and he was the architect of the 1993 White House lawn signing ceremony for the Oslo Accords that brought Arab Americans and American Jews together. When, in 1994, Rahm accepted my invitation to a luncheon with Arab American community leaders, those who met him were impressed by his openness and honesty.

Beyond these facts, however, there are two concerns that must be addressed.

It is deeply troubling how quickly, for some, the excitement of Barack Obama's victory was eclipsed by cynicism and suspicion, and how receptive some were to wild tales. This could only occur, on one level, because the victory itself was not understood. If it had been, the excitement would have been tempered by an appreciation of political realities.

Obama's victory, no doubt, demonstrated that change is possible -- but incremental change. Pressures remain, from the right and the left and interest groups of all sorts continue to have influence, limiting political options. The economy is in a free-fall and, after eight years of Bush neglect and recklessness, dangers abound in the world. An Obama victory doesn't alter those realities, either. And so our excitement was justified, but our euphoria should never have taken us so high as to lose our grounding and understanding of the limits of what is possible.

My concern is that, for some, the need for change became so great as make them susceptible to wild swings -- from unrealistic expectations to unwarranted despair and, therefore, to become prone to believe the worst.

But the fault here should be shared. I am concerned by the slowness of the Obama camp to respond more quickly or effectively to address the situation. Modern political operations have learned the need to confront false stories, to manage perception, and to anticipate problems -- and, here, the Obama team had been especially masterful.

During the campaign, for example, they repeatedly demonstrated how tuned-in they were to public perception -- and in particular to matters that might have created discomfort in the Jewish community. They knew that these stories needed to be shot down quickly. (American Muslims understood much of this, despite feeling slighted, at times.) But in this most recent instance, the Obama camp displayed both inattentiveness and tone-deafness to Arab misperceptions about who Rahm Emanuel is, and what role he will play. (Aside from the flap over the comments made by Rahm's father, for which Rahm, himself, has now profoundly apologized.) As a result, the situation festered.

The campaign is now over, and the President-elect is playing on a world stage with more than one audience at stake. And in the Middle East, especially, sensitivities are as great and (perceived) sleights are felt as acutely as they are among any people in the world. With feelings having been rubbed raw by decades of U.S. policy miscues, and with U.S. favorability ratings at all-time lows, and extremists preying off resentment and fear - perceptions matter.

If we are to succeed in making changes in U.S.-Arab relations -- and I believe that an Obama administration can -- greater attentiveness and sensitivity is in order.

Bottom line -- there are lessons to learn and work to be done. Arabs and Arab Americans need to ground their expectations in political realities and be wary of slanderous attacks smacking of anti-Semitism, and U.S. political leadership must learn to be as attentive to Arab sensitivities as they are to the concerns of others.