US national security advisor Susan Rice speaks during the Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards Gala in Washington, DC. Saul Loeb / AFP
US national security advisor Susan Rice speaks during the Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards Gala in Washington, DC. Saul Loeb / AFP

Arab Americans recognise their achievements

Thirty years ago, when we launched the Arab American Institute, the political forces that fought to marginalise our community were stronger than our efforts to be included. Our history and culture were denigrated. Our organised efforts were excluded from mainstream political activity and, all too often, simply being identified as an Arab American was considered a liability.

Because this state of affairs was wholly unacceptable, we resolved to fight back. Today, our community still faces challenges to full inclusion. But what has changed is that Arab Americans are now in the forefront of mainstream political coalitions working for justice, equality, and peace at home and abroad.

All of this was on display at our recent annual two-day awards event, which provided an opportunity to showcase outstanding Arab Americans.

A highlight for many was the presence of actress (and activist) Salma Hayek who was recognised for her outstanding humanitarian work, as well as her efforts to promote her Lebanese Arab ancestry. In receiving the award, Hayek related experiences from her recent visit to Lebanon where she had just premièred her new film, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. She also spoke about her visit to Syrian refugees and the generosity of Lebanese host communities.

Michael Baroody was recognised for (his years of public service) the contributions he and his family have made to advance debate on the critical issues facing America. We were also delighted to honour New York University’s John Sexton and Pulitzer prize winner Lawrence Wright. Mr Sexton is a visionary who understands that as the fate of nations and peoples have become more intertwined, our educational institutions must keep pace.

This year, we also welcomed national security adviser Susan Rice, who delivered a wide-ranging foreign policy address.

Ms Rice began by noting how our community had “to overcome barriers of exclusion and intolerance”. She spoke of the role we now play in “helping to lead ... on a range of civil rights and political rights issues”. She singled out several young Arab Americans in attendance who have dedicated themselves, from an early age, to public service and advancing public awareness of social issues plaguing our country and our world.

Ms Rice then listed a series of major challenges facing the US and the Arab people, beginning with a restatement of the administration’s commitment to a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace that included an end to the occupation, and “an independent, viable, and contiguous Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps”.

She also restated the administration’s opposition to Israel’s settlement activity and expressed concern with the slow pace of work in Gaza saying that “we must accelerate reconstruction and ... address core challenges to Gaza’s future”. She singled out the need to “reinvigorate Gaza’s connection with the West Bank”.

She made clear that the administration is committed, together with coalition partners, to defeating ISIL and to achieving negotiated solutions to Syria’s long war and to the escalating conflict in Yemen.

Ms Rice also pledged to continue its role in providing humanitarian support for Syrian refugees. She also noted the administration’s efforts to assist Lebanon not only in its battle against ISIL, but in its struggle to support its people and its communities.

She also affirmed the Obama administration’s resolve to complete a pact with Iran to limit that country’s nuclear programme, while making clear that the US would work with and support its partners in the GCC to assure their security.

All in all, it was a powerful set of messages and commitments intended to reassure the Arab world. These themes were enlarged upon the next day when our national leadership went to the White House for a briefing with the administration’s top Middle East policy advisers.

Those who have traced the trajectory of Arab American political struggles over the past few decades could not help but come away from this year’s event with the clear sense that the community has made real progress.

There are, of course, critics who are more comfortable with what they describe as their “purity” and who prefer to wallow in their impotence grousing from the margins of American politics. But for those who understand that politics is hard work, and that gaining respect and recognition requires engagement in the process, this year’s event was one to remember.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa


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