Rise of Arab-American Left Activism

A Record of Intellectual Evolution, Labor Organization, and Struggle Against Imperialism

Book Cover
Book Cover

Rise of Arab-American Left Activism

Recently, the University of North Carolina Press held an exhibition of the books on Arabs and Islam it had published, and published electronic copies of each book. One, that it first published few years ago is “The Rise of the Arab American Left” that was authored by Pamela Pennock, a history professor at University of Michigan’s branch in Dearborn, home to the largest Arab and Muslim community in the US.

These are some of the book’s chapters:

  • Progressive Activism after the June (1967) War
  • Arab Students and the Politics of Palestine
  • Sirhan Sirhan’s Impact
  • Enemies Within
  • Labor Organizing
  • Arab-American Political Organizing in the 1960’s

The sub-title of the book, “Activists, Allies, and Their Fight against Imperialism and Racism, 1960s–1980s,” shows that the subject could be part of the current “Reckoning” debate in the US about past mistakes, and not only in regard to Blacks, but, also, to other minorities.  As much as the Black-American issue is about slavery and racial discrimination, the Arab-American issue is about both “Racism” and “Imperialism”, thus adding an international aspect to the debate.

Therefore, the book combines issues of Western colonialism, imperialism and Zionism with studies of individual Arab American activists, interest groups and even particular court cases.

This has been an interesting aspect of Arab-Americans’ struggle as a minority in the US, in more than one aspect:

First, they engaged both inwards, within their own Arab community, and outwards towards countries of their origins in the Middle East and North Africa.

Second, they cooperated with other American racial and ideological groups, like those of the Black-Americans’ civil rights, the national human rights, and the New Left.

The book alternates between the “Left” and the “Radical” (but not the “Revolutionary”) in connecting the Arab-American activists with those in the Arab countries. Meantime, “most American-based leftist groups were also growing more oriented towards Third World struggles”.

But, according to the book, leftist Arab-Americans were “distancing themselves from revolutionary Marxist and nationalist movements in the United States and globally.”

Prominent Figures

The late 1960’s and early 1970’s saw three pioneers of the Arab-American movement revitalize the community (they had already immigrated to the US, and they got stung by the humiliating defeat of the Arab countries in their 1967 war with Israel): Eqbal Ahmed, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Edward Said.

Interestingly enough, Ahmed was a Muslim from Pakistan who immigrated to the US, obtained a PhD from Princeton University and became a leading activist against the US policies and interventions in Cuba, Vietnam and in the Middle East in support of Israel. No one but Edward Said, author of, among other books, “The Question of Palestine” and “Orientalism”, acknowledged the pioneering role of Ahmed.  Said, also, acknowledged the pioneering role of Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, a fellow Palestinian who wrote “The Evolution of the Meaning of Nationalism.” Said wrote that both men, older than him, “lightened my way”.


Professor and writer Edward Said poses on February 8, 2003 in his office at Colombia University in New York City. He died on September 25, 2003. He was a fervent defender of the Palestinian cause. (Photo by Jean-Christian Bourcart/Getty Images)

The three played a major role in the late 1960’s establishment of the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG). Itself a pioneer organization, it preceded the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the American Arab Institute (AAI) and other current Arab organizations.

Arab Workers’ Strike

But the book, “The Rise of Arab American Left,” is not confined to intellectuals; it follows Arab-American workers in Detroit, and details events like their 1973 strike protesting the United Automobile Workers (UAW) investment in bonds from Israel. Nearly two thousand workers walked off the job at Chrysler’s Dodge Main assembly plant, bringing production to a halt. The one-day strike was unusual in three respects:

First, it was a wildcat action, not sanctioned by the leadership of the UAW.

Second, it was entirely organized by recently arrived immigrants, thought by the corporate executives to be “docile”.

Third, it was an explicit protest against the UAW’s complicity in the occupation of Palestine, and in everyday racism and exploitation.

There were about 15,000 Arabs working in the auto plants, including Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s father, Harbi Elabed, who migrated from Palestine.

Around this same time, the Black Power movement was sweeping the auto factories, establishing the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), which led a series of wildcat strikes.

Also in 1973, Dearborn’s Arab community marched to protest the police murder of Nagi Daifullah, a Yemeni immigrant who was an organizer with César Chávez’s United Farm Workers (UFW).

In the same year, about 3,000 Arab-Americans marched in Dearborn demanding the liquidation of UAW’s Israeli bonds, and holding signs reading “Stop US-Israeli Terror Against Arab People''; “Dispose of the Bonds''; and “Jewish People Yes, Zionism No”. But the UAW’s leaders dismissed the protest as a communist conspiracy.

Automotive workers participating in a strike at Lordstown, Ohio in 1974. (Photo Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)

Further Activism Against Israel

The book details these and other events, well into the 21st century, like the 2004 New York City Labor Against the War, and Labor for Palestine. The first was in reference to the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the latter to support Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), a Palestinian-led global movement against Israel’s occupation of Arab lands.

In 2014, the 14,000-member Detroit UAW endorsed BDS, but the following year, the UAW’s International Executive Board nullified the decision.

The book also, traces activities by the Organization of Arab Students (OAS) in the US, which was opposed – and infiltrated – by the Jewish Anti-Defamation League (ADL). But that didn’t stop the OAS from cooperating, not only with student organizations in the Middle East and North Africa, but also with Third World liberation organizations on university campuses.

Condemning Terrorism

The book mentions Palestinian-American Sirhan Sirhan, who killed presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in1968, and presented a dilemma for Arab-American activists, who denounced his “lone, isolated act of political violence”, and described him as “a disturbed individual, not a martyr”, but attempted to confront American ignorance of the question of Palestine.

The dilemma continued to cover the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, and the American-led Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), as the Arab Americans continued to condemn terrorism (and careful not to raise any suspicion), but, at the same time, continued to try to educate the Americans about the big picture.

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