Advertisement Close

Pathbreakers of Arab America—James Zogby

posted on: May 29, 2024

Photo –Wikipedia

By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer

This is the forty-seventh of Arab America’s series on American pathbreakers of Arab descent. The series includes personalities from entertainment, business, sports, science, academia, journalism, and politics, among other areas. Our forty-seventh pathbreaker is James Zogby, Lebanese Arab American, and co-founder in 1985 with his brother, John, of the Arab American Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based political and policy research firm. He is a major player in U.S. domestic politics, representing the Arab American perspective, and a preeminent rooter for Palestinian aspirations.

Born to question the rights of others, James Zogby becomes a champion of Arab and especially Palestinian human rights

James Joseph Zogby was born in 1945 in Utica, an upstate New York town now known as “Second Chance City” for the immigrants who’ve flooded in from war-torn countries. According to an Arab America (AA) interview with Zogby, “Their father was a Lebanese grocer, their mother a forward-thinking proto feminist who campaigned for women’s suffrage. Afraid of losing her independence, she refused her husband’s first marriage proposal at age 19, and she accepted only when he came calling again 20 years later.”

According to Wikipedia, Zogby’s father, Joseph, had “illegally immigrated” from Lebanon to the United States in 1922. He eventually obtained citizenship through a government amnesty policy and worked as a grocer. He married Celia Ann, a teacher, also born with the surname Zogby, they practiced the Lebanese Maronite Catholic religion. The AA interview revealed that Zogby’s mom, a schoolteacher by training, “demanded that her sons be informed. Their friends used to joke that the newspaper was required reading for entrance into the family’s home; Celia would sit them around the table and grill them on current events.”

A younger Jim Zogby — Photo: Wikki Commons

When his father, Joseph Zogby died when his sons were teenagers, Jim supported his younger brother, John, and his other siblings in figuring out where they belonged in the larger society. The family had grown up in an ethnic neighborhood, but the dominant ethnicity was Irish. “So, we were the wrong ethnic group,” Jim’s younger brother, John, averred. Jim was more of a joiner, and John was an outsider. The brothers played out this distinction for a while, but in time joined forces in asserting their Arab American identity.

Zogby graduated from Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, in 1967, with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Then he earned his Ph.D. in Islamic studies from Temple University in 1975. Following that, Jim studied at Princeton University in 1976 as a National Endowment for the Humanities post-doctoral fellow. His wife, Eileen, is a college classmate, and they have five children. A visit the two made to the West Bank in the early 70s galvanized their mutual steadfast support of the Palestinian people.

During the late 1970s, Zogby was a founding member and leader of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign. In 1980 he co-founded the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee with former U.S. Senator James Abourezk. Jim served the ADC as executive director until 1984. In 1982, while at ADC, Zogby helped create Save Lebanon, Inc., a private, nonprofit, non-sectarian humanitarian relief organization to fund social welfare projects in Lebanon and health care for Palestinian and Lebanese victims of war. In March 1985 Zogby co-founded the Arab American Institute with his brother John, of which he is still president.

Zogby has had so many honors bestowed on him that they’re impossible to account for here. Following is a list of a fraction of such honors:
–In 1984 and 1988 Zogby served as deputy campaign manager and senior advisor to Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns
–Since 1992 Zogby has written Washington Watch, a weekly column on American politics for major Arab newspapers
–In 1993 Vice President Al Gore tapped Zogby to help lead Builders for Peace after the signing of the Israeli–Palestinian peace accord in Washington
–In 1994 he led a U.S. delegation to the signing of the agreement in Cairo, Egypt
–President Obama appointed Zogby to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2013 and reappointed him to a second term in 2015
–Author of ‘Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters, with James Zogby
–For the past 3 decades, he has served in leadership roles in the Democratic National Committee

Perhaps above all his accomplishments, Zogby has spent decades dispelling myths about Arabs, documented in a 2010 Arab America article, and at least 40 years documenting Palestinian invisibility, reported in a Washington Post article. Both are worth the read.

Zogby avers that no ceasefire in Gaza means ‘no votes’ for Biden in November

In a November 2023 interview with Amy Goodman and her colleagues on ‘Democracy Now’, Zogby quoted protesters’ chants in Washington, “No ceasefire, no votes” and “In November, we remember.” Goodman reported, “Protesters denounced President Biden for refusing to support a ceasefire in Gaza while sending more arms to Israel as it continues its monthlong bombardment…” Goodman then pointed to Biden’s falling poll numbers.

Zogby responded, “I have never seen, in the 27 years we’ve been polling, my brother and I have been polling Arab Americans, we never saw a movement this dramatic over this short a period of time. The last time we polled Arab Americans was just a few months ago, and the drop since then has been even more precipitous than the drop since 2020.”

A thoughtful, concerned Zogby — Photo Wiki Commons

He continued, “This issue resonates. It’s big. It’s important. It also is part of a general national trend. Arab Americans are not immune from what the rest of the culture is feeling, and that is that President Biden just is not in control of his own presidency and how he is being portrayed to the American people and to the world…And, you know, I’ve got an article coming out in ‘The Nation’ tomorrow that makes the point that it’s not just Arab Americans who are affected this way. It’s young people. It’s progressive Jews. It’s Black, Latino, Asian voters. There’s a significant decline that this president is encountering across the board. And, you know, Gaza is playing into it. It is a sort of a canary-in-the-coal-mine issue.”

Goodman plied Zogby with a few quick questions towards the end of a long interview. She was concerned that she rarely hears the word “occupation” anymore. She noted that Israel’s occupation is “so significant in understanding how to end this. We’re not just talking about Gaza; we’re talking about the West Bank.” Goodman noted, “We should be talking about this issue, what you think would be the most honest?” Biden’s 2020 election platform refused to include the word “occupation.” In that respect, it followed Trump’s refusal to include that telling word in his platform.

Zogby recalled Biden’s pact with Arab Americans before the 2020 elections and the promises it included. “And I remember when we wanted language that talked about the equality of human needs and rights, and they issued that statement that both Israelis and Palestinians are equally deserving of, and then there were a litany of words that followed it. Three-and-a-half years later, we’re still waiting for the delivery of the promise. All that Palestinians have gotten has been a green light for Israel to run roughshod over the West Bank, take more land, build more settlements, demolish more homes, and more restrictions on Palestinian rights, Jerusalem the same, and Gaza worse. It’s been a huge disappointment.”

Towards the end of the ‘Democracy Now” interview, Zogby did not hold back, averring that “Palestinians are living under a brutal occupation. It’s an apartheid occupation. And they are also being victims of a genocidal attack on Gaza right now that is killing the infrastructure, killing the people, forcibly evicting over a million people from their homes in the north to move south, where there is no capacity to care for them. They’re living in tents, without water, without power, without healthcare. The hospitals in the south are not capable of dealing with all the issues. And the Israelis are treating the people in the north as if, as the general says, they’re all animals and deserve to die. If that’s not genocide, I don’t know what is.”

Since the ‘Democracy Now’ interview, Zogby has had much more to say about the U.S. mishandling of the Gaza war. When the U.S. administration refuses to use the word “occupation” to depict what’s happening in the West Bank and Gaza about says it all for this stalwart advocate for Arab Americans, but more especially for Palestinian rights.

–“James Zogby,” Wikipedia Biographies of Arab Americans, 2024
–“James Zogby, a Catholic of Lebanese Descent, Works to Dispel Myths bout Arabs,” Arab America, 10/21/2010
–“Documenting Palestinian Invisibility for 40 Years — an Interview with James Zogby,” Arab America, 5/25/2018
–“James Zogby: 10 Years Since the Arab Spring,” by James Zogby, Arab America (source: Washington Watch}, 7/10/2021
“No Ceasefire, No Votes”: Arab American Support for Biden Plummets over Gaza Ahead of 2024 Election, Democracy Now, 11/07/2023

John Mason, Ph.D., focuses on Arab culture, society, and history and is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America. The reproduction of this article is permissible with proper credit to Arab America and the author.

Check out our Blog here!