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A Brief Overview of Arab-American Activism in the 1960s and 70s

posted on: Nov 30, 2022

Edward Said and Ibrahim Abu-Lugho0d in 1986/ Source: The Nation (photo by Jean Mohr)

By: Jordan AbuAljazer / Arab America Contributing Writer

The first documented Arab immigrants of the United States largely came from the Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine areas in the 1890s. This led to the founding of a Christian-majority neighborhood known as “Little Syria.” Arab immigration then continued in a series of three more waves. The second centered around the lucrative automotive industry in Detroit during the early 1900s. Arriving in the late 1900s were immigrants of conflict and poverty that disrupted the well-being of many Arabs. Finally, the fourth wave continues to be comprised mostly of refugees from war-torn areas such as Somalia and Syria. According to current estimates, there are nearly 3.5 million Arabs in the United States.

It is not a secret to say that Arabs residing in the United States share many concerns and face many struggles in the current social and political climates. For example, the profiling and discrimination of Arabs continues to be a long-held struggle of Arab-American history. Concerns over the state of Palestine and the role of the United States in supporting the occupation of the country are an issue as well. This has been a source of conflict in the hearts and minds of Arab-Americans for decades. Of course, the increased surveillance and intrusions on the Fourth Amendment rights of Arab-Americans is another topic against which Arab-Americans have long argued.

The Arab-American activism of these two decades came about primarily as a response to the American opinions on the Arab-Israeli wars. The goal of many activists was to then be disruptive in order to demonstrate a recognition of the severity and urgency of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

The activists of this movement were all leftist, and of them were significant leaders in the effort to change the majority opinions of America in support of Israel’s occupation. They also came from many different economic, ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds. Their activism in the interest of Palestine was fought on many institutional fronts, the most predominant of them, American industry and academic culture.

The leftist views of this era’s activism were largely a result of the social and political contexts of the time. In order to spur a great amount of change to American views, many of these activists felt a certain amount of disruption was needed in order to demand change. These movements were also very heavily influenced by the black civil rights movements that had set the foundation for leftist advocacy and organization in the interest of minority residents of the United States. For example, the work of the Black Panthers served as the blueprints for the responsibilities of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS).

Though there were many admirable figures of this movement, this article will focus on the activists Edward Said and Ibrahim Abu-Lughood. Both Edward Said and Ibrahim Abu-Lughood were Palestinian-American academics and scholars that served to revolutionize the characterization of Arabic nations and people in both academic and public circles.

Edward Said was born in 1935 in Mandatory Palestine, a term used for the Palestinian region while it was under British control. After a childhood consisting of an often confusing mix of Arab, American, and British cultural influences, Said earned a doctorate in English Literature from Harvard University 1964. It was during his stay at Columbia University from 1963 to his passing in 2003 that he became an influential figure in Arab-American activism. The true peak of his influence was through the 60s and 80s, where he founded the academic field of post-colonialism, a field in which the legacy of imperialism and colonialism is studied. His post-colonialist work focused on demonstrating the Zionist roots from which the question of Israel’s right to occupy Palestine originates.

Like Edward Said, Ibrahim Abu-Lughood was born in Mandatory Palestine. From there he escaped the many assaults on his people to briefly stay in Egypt before arriving to the United States as a refugee. In 1957 he earned a doctorate in Middle East studies from Princeton University. His work in political science focused on the negative portrayals of Arabs and the Middle East region in American academia. Along with civil rights attorney Abdeen Jabara, he founded the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG), one of the first organizations to support Arab-Americans, transform colonialist views of Palestine, and bring recognition to the negative American portrayal of Arabs in the public space.

Though the issues facing Arab-Americans continue today, the leftist activism of Arab-Americans in the 1960s and 1970s made great strides in improving the day-to-day lives of Arab-Americans and changing the negative image of Arabs that pervaded the Western consciousness. The work of influential figures such as Edward Said and Ibrahim Abu-Lughood provided foundations in both academia and American culture for the continued examination and recognition of the struggles many face against colonialism.

Understanding the history of Arab activism in the United States is still remarkably important for Arab-Americans in the present day. Many of the issues spoken out against during the movements discussed in this article have yet to be solved. However, the foundations to fight against them have been set by those who became before us.

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