Former Senator Chuck Hagel's confirmation as Secretary of Defense was important for several reasons, many of which have been exhaustively examined by media commentators. For Arab Americans, there was another reason why we celebrated the final vote: it represented vindication.
I have known Chuck Hagel for many years, and while there are areas where we have disagreed, I have always respected the man and valued his insights and his willingness to engage in thoughtful and reasoned discourse. I have also appreciated the fact that he never shied away from appearing before and sharing his views at Arab American community gatherings.
Chuck Hagel is a valued friend. As a result, it was profoundly disturbing to me and members of my community when some of his opponents attempted to make his appearances before Arab Americans an issue in his confirmation process.
Some right-wing groups demanded that we produce copies of his speeches and asked for our IRS filings. Republicans put his confirmation on hold while the search for new Hagel speeches continued looking for signs that he had made more "anti-Israel" comments -- proving a pattern of bias. New allegations were made about his ties to "Arabs" and possible "Arab funding." All of this was nothing more than a "witch hunt" -- McCarthyism at its worst.
Throughout this entire sordid affair, we remained silent. We complied with requests, when they were legitimate. But we refused to bite at the bait. It was painful to endure, but we held our fire. Our assessment of the situation was that we couldn't help Chuck Hagel by striking out at his critics. We knew they would not be swayed by our protestations, nor would his confirmation be aided by our engaging his attackers in a side show fight.
This was, of course, not the first time that a candidate for office has been "Arab-baited."
We have had a difficult history of dealing with this painful targeting of our community. In 1983, then-candidate for Philadelphia mayor, Wilson Goode, came to an Arab American fundraising event. He accepted our money and pledged to be the "Mayor of all Philadelphians." After being attacked by his opponent for "going to the Arabs," Goode returned the money.
Much the same happened with Walter Mondale when his presidential campaign returned contributions from a group of Arab Americans in 1984. Also in the '80s, Republicans Senator Chuck Percy and Congressman Ed Zschau and Democrat Dave Dinkins took insulting preventive measures urging us to warn our community not to support their campaigns with nearly identical messages -- "If your people give us money, the Jewish community will redouble their efforts to defeat me." In all these instances, I didn't know what outraged me more: their deliberate and hurtful insults to my community or their "anti-Semitic" assumptions about a monolithic intolerant Jewish community.
This practice didn't die two decades ago. Just last year, when Arab Americans in New Jersey rallied to reelect Congressman Bill Pascrell, a pro-Israel group targeted our involvement, issuing an ominous warning about Arab Americans becoming politically involved!
Fortunately, this has not been the entire story. As we grew in political sophistication, our empowerment has been championed by many smart and courageous politicians. For example, Ron Brown.
In 1989 shortly after taking the helm as Chair of the Democratic National Committee, Brown accepted my invitation to address a conference sponsored by the Arab American Institute. He was to be the first national party official to come to an Arab American event. On the day of the conference, as we were about to begin, Brown leaned over to tell me that on his way over he had been intercepted by one of the leading pro-Israel Democratic fundraisers who warned him that should he even walk into the room to speak to our group Jews would stop contributing to the party.
Brown, to his credit, knew the threat was nonsense. He ignored it and delivered a wonderful address welcoming Arab Americans into the party. He knew that he could be a friend to both communities and would not accept "either/or," "zero-sum" blackmail.
Much the same could be said of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore -- both of whom rejected efforts to sideline Arab Americans. And there are many more Democrats and Republicans, alike, on the national and local levels, who have included and respected our community.
But what the attacks on Hagel demonstrated was that "Arab-baiting" is, at least in some quarters, still alive. We can be proud of the fact that that Hagel wouldn't distance himself from our community. And we have every right to feel vindicated by his confirmation. But while we can hope that this might spell the end of these types of attacks, sadly, we know better. Our opponents have been beaten, but have not been chastened. And we know that there are other still other less courageous politicians out there who will look at this entire affair and learn the wrong lessons. When asked to sign the kinds of "stupid letters" that Chuck Hagel objected to, they will decide that it probably isn't worth it to object. And when invited to engage with Arab Americans they will look at the attacks on Hagel and they will decline.
We won a battle, but the struggle for respect and inclusion, and for a sane and honest discussion of American foreign policy lives on. We still have much work to do.