Arab-Americans unsure about Kerry

Although the appeal of Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Kerry has been eroded by some of his Middle East policies, his campaign is continuing to receive substantial support in the Arab-American community.

Concern about these policies is even being echoed by senior Arab-American Democratic Party activists who have delayed the official introduction of an “Arab-Americans for Kerry” organization in hopes of gaining clarification on the candidate’s policies toward Israel and the Palestinians. A serious effort to address these concerns has yet to emerge from the Kerry campaign.

A group of influential Arab-American Democrats met in May with senior leaders of the Kerry campaign, including campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill and national security adviser Rand Beers, the first such meeting the Kerry team held with an ethnic group. Participants said they felt that the campaign had acknowledged the community’s perspective and the need to make outreach efforts to Arab-Americans.

A number of subsequent developments have given rise to the new concerns.

Particularly damaging were talking points attributed to Kerry’s adviser for Jewish affairs, Jay Footlik, which took an extremely pro-Israel stance somewhat at odds with Kerry’s previously stated positions.

Several of the Arab-American Democrats who attended the meeting have reportedly sent a letter to the Kerry-Edwards campaign stressing the importance of the Arab-American vote in key swing states and expressing concern about the positions outlined in the talking points.

According to several people familiar with the process, about half of those involved in the meeting with the Kerry campaign declined to sign the letter because they did not feel it contained sufficiently forceful objections to the talking points and other policy statements, and seemed to pledge support for Kerry regardless of his positions.

A July 15 survey of Arab-Americans in key swing states conducted by the Zogby International polling firm found the Bush-Cheney ticket winning only 26.5 percent support, with Kerry-Edwards at 51, Nader-Camejo at 11 percent, and 13 percent undecided.

It is widely believed, especially among Democrats, that Nader’s strong showing in 2000 drew votes almost entirely from Vice-President Al Gore, costing him the election.

Mary Rose Oakar, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and a veteran Democrat who served 16 years in Congress said, “So many are disenchanted with (George W.) Bush that Kerry has been getting a lot of attention among Arab-Americans, and on civil liberties they can see a clear difference, but on foreign policy he has to do better to be assured of the Arab-American vote.”

James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute agreed that the talking points were “worse than a mistake, it was hurtful. A handful of formerly supportive community leaders have said they no longer want to be involved.”

He said that while the Democratic platform was unlikely to help win Arab-American support, “there are other things they are working on that I hope will help, and that I’m telling them have to be done. A lot of the support out there is not

as enthusiastic as it could be.”

While “Arab-Americans for Kerry” is on hold, and his supporters continue to search for more effective arguments to appeal to Arab-American voters, a number of individuals in the community are providing significant aid to the Democratic nominee. Arab-American businessman Hady Amr was a co-host on July 16 of the largest Democratic fundraiser in Virginia’s history, which raised $1.7 million for Kerry. And a prominent Arab-American professor of political science is known to be advising the campaign on Middle East and Islamic world issues.

Kerry supporters in the community point to his presumed sensitivity to civil liberties, since Democrats such as Senators Russ Feingold and Edward Kennedy have been among the strongest critics of measures like the USA Patriot Act. They also cite foreign policy concerns, pointing out the absence of neoconservative hawks in the Kerry team. The ideological tendencies that informed the strongest advocacy within the Bush administration in favor of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and that envision additional wars in the Middle East, came from a faction that seems to have no links to Kerry or John Edwards.

These arguments have been complicated by the increasingly pro-Israel positions adopted by Kerry as he has tried to fend off appeals to Jewish-Americans by President Bush, and the fact that, as senators, both Kerry and Edwards voted in favor of a resolution granting the president authority to use force against Iraq. Even Kerry’s pronouncements on civil liberties have been vague, leading to skepticism that his administration would in practice be more respectful of individual rights than the current Justice and Homeland Security Departments.

Zogby, who played a major role in organizing this week’s letter to the Kerry campaign and who is likely to be a leading figure in trying to organize Arab-American support for the Democratic ticket said, “I told the campaign they couldn’t expect me to do the job … without the right tools, and to date they haven’t given us what we need to work with.”

Ongoing reservations about Kerry’s Middle East policies notwithstanding, his campaign seems set to obtain significant support among Arab-American leaders and voters.

The online Democratic Party paraphernalia website,, is already selling “Arab-Americans for Kerry” buttons featuring the group’s blue and white logo with a dove and olive branch.