Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader is again receiving considerable support from Arab-American activists, spurred in part by his bold criticism of the US role in the Middle East and Israel’s role in the United States.
Surveys suggest that Nader received about 14 percent of the Arab-American vote in 2000, and stands to do at least as well in the vote this November.
Perhaps more than any other important national political figure in the United States of Arab origin, Nader really has begun to sound like a representative of his community on issues such as Palestine and Iraq.
For decades as a consumer advocate and social justice activist, and even during his 2000 presidential campaign, Nader downplayed his ethnic background and offered few observations on foreign policy issues important to the Arab-American community.
However, since his first major address on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the national convention of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in June 2003, Nader has become sharply critical of US support for Israeli policies.
On June 29, Nader called both Democratic and Republican leaders “puppets of Israel,” saying, “the Israeli puppeteer travels to Washington and meets with the puppet in (the) White House. He then goes down Pennsylvania Avenue and meets with the puppets in Congress.”
As a result, Nader has faced a barrage of criticism, mainly from the Anti-Defamation League, one of the most influential pro-Israel Jewish organizations in the United States. The ADL’s National Director, Abraham Foxman, said Nader’s comments “smack of bigotry.”
Nader responded with a lengthy letter, asking Foxman, “have you ever disagreed with the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinian people in any way, shape or manner in the Occupied Territories?”
“As you know there is far more freedom in the media, in town squares and among citizens, soldiers, elected representatives and academicians in Israel to debate and discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than there is in the United States,” Nader’s letter stated.
In an unsigned editorial on Aug. 14, The Washington Post acknowledged that “Mr. Nader has a point,” but denounced his language as “poisonous,” compared his comments to those of neo-Nazis, and accused him of playing on “the age-old anti-Semitic stereotype of powerful Jews dominating politics and manipulating hapless non-Jewish puppets for their own ends.”
His frank criticism of US Middle East policy has certainly ruffled pro-Israeli feathers, but it has ensured Nader’s continued appeal to many Arab-Americans, especially given widespread disapproval of US President George W. Bush’s foreign policy, and disappointment that Senator John Kerry seems to offer few alternatives, especially with regard to Israel.
Nader told The Daily Star that while he has been getting considerable support, “too many Arab Americans have equipped themselves with microscopes, desperately trying to find differences between (President) Bush and Kerry on foreign policy, and there is none – they are both trying to run to the right of each other.”
“We are the only anti-war candidacy and have a lot more knowledge of the Middle East than the other two,” he said.
He urged Arab-Americans to “deny Bush their vote, and send a message to Kerry by voting for us, because when you are taken for granted, you are taken.”
Some prominent American Muslim leaders who supported Bush in 2000 are known to be quietly but strongly supportive of Nader, but are keeping a low profile because they do not wish to be seen as indirectly supporting Bush again.
Naseem Tufaha, an Arab-American activist in Seattle, is among those involved in creating an “Arab-Americans for Nader” website, which seeks to generate support for the campaign in the community through online activism. He dismisses the idea that supporting Nader is simply an indirect way of supporting Bush, telling The Daily Star, “the Arab-American vote is being taken for granted by Bush and Kerry – we need to create an environment where candidates feel they have something to lose and something to gain from paying attention to our views.”
Many Democrats allege that in 2000 Nader siphoned off voters almost entirely from former Vice-President Al Gore, ensuring the election of George W. Bush, and express deep anxiety that Nader’s candidacy this year might similarly doom Kerry’s aspirations. Nader has persisted in running despite intense criticism from Kerry supporters, and a series of setbacks, including not being re-adopted as the candidate of the Green Party – which has an extensive grassroots network – and failing to get on the ballot in a number of states, including California.
Nader said his participation in the upcoming televised candidates’ debates is “all important – it’s the only way to reach tens of millions of people, unless you are a billionaire. We call ourselves the greatest democracy in the world, and a private corporation created and controlled by the two parties since 1987 – the Commission on Presidential Debates – determines who reaches the tens of millions of voters.”
In an effort to create a non-partisan forum for the debates this year, a group of 17 American civic leaders from a range of political perspectives have founded a new organization called Open Debates. The group’s executive director, George Farah, recently announced that Open Debates has scheduled five presidential and one vice-presidential debates in the coming weeks.
Although Nader has welcomed this development, it remains to be seen whether Kerry or Bush will agree to participate in any of these citizen-organized debates.
Albert Mokhiber, a Washington attorney supportive of Nader and a former president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told The Daily Star, “there aren’t two candidates, there are three, and the other two are exactly the same on foreign policy. … Would you rather have arsenic or cyanide?” he asked rhetorically.
“I’d rather have a vitamin, and Nader is a vitamin.”