Tension rises for Arab-Americans who love their country

Gregory Orfalea

October 16, 1990|By Gregory Orfalea

WHO WAS the first American jet ace in World War II and Korea? (Answer: an Arab-American.)

On whose chest did Gen. John Pershing pin a Distinguished Service Cross for heroism during the World War I battle of the Meuse-Argonne? (Answer: an Arab-American.)

The jet ace was Col. Jimmy Jabara of Wichita, Kan., who shot down 15 Russian MIGs in Korea. The hero of the Meuse-Argonne was Ashad Hawie of the famed 42nd "Rainbow Division," 167th Alabama Infantry Regiment.

Unfortunately, since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's blitzkrieg into Kuwait Aug. 2, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) has logged an upswing of violence against Arab-Americans -- over 40 incidents of vandalism, death threats, slurs and violence.

The situation is complicated and filled with irony. The United States has never directly fought a war against an Arab nation. Of course, a number of Israeli escapades have been seen as American "proxy" wars -- the 1982 invasion of Lebanon is the chief case in point -- and the fear is that the deteriorating image of the Arab over the last several decades is resulting in violence and discrimination in the U.S.

This home-grown banality of evil shows its own confusion in some of the cases ADC is documenting. On Aug. 23, in Charlestown, Mass., an Arab-American landlord was told in a letter his building would be burned if he did not move out fast.

In Gaithersburg, Md., a motorist had his skull broken and suffered partial paralysis after being beaten with a metal pipe. He was an Iranian.

The prejudice gets worse. On Aug. 23, a New York-based nationally syndicated talk show host spun a new tune, "Bomb, Bomb, Iraq!" over the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann" melody.

The tension rises. Nothing is helped by the FBI's and Israel's foot-dragging on the extradition of Robert Manning, the suspected murderer of Alex Odeh, an Arab-American community college teacher and writer who was pipe-bombed to death in 1985 in Los Angeles. Has the West Bank, where Manning is hiding out at the Kiryat Arba settlement, become an Israeli extremist "safe house"? Talk about double standards!

Arab-Americans are shaking their heads these days. How long will it take Americans to realize that this country's dream applies to all, and that its faces and accents are many? As a descendant of the first Arab family to emigrate to America (1878), I find the current violence particularly unnerving. How long must an ethnic community be here to really be here?

About 15,000 Americans of Arab descent fought in World War I and 30,000 in World War II. I do not know how many GIs of Arab origin fought in Vietnam. A cousin's name, however, is cut into the black stone of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington: Robert Nasser. Not the Egyptian "scourge of Suez," but a California boy killed by mortar while serving meals to his fellow GIs.

Certainly Arab-American servicemen shipped over to Saudi Arabia have mixed feelings. I suspect many of our GIs do; it's an enormously uncertain mission. Arab-Americans chafe at the discrepancy between President Bush's fast clamp-down on Saddam and 23 years of "walk on eggs" diplomacy over various Israeli occupations. Imagine, if you will, a Palestinian-American GI confronting Saddam invading Jordan. It would be a wrenching moment, indeed, to face with American firepower relatives suddenly caught in the whirlwind of a suicidal Iraqi autocrat and their own despair.

On the whole, however, most Arab-Americans support Bush's adroit marshaling of international support for the gulf blockade and sanctions; they thoroughly condemn the aggression of Saddam. Much appreciated were the president's remarks on meeting with 100 Arab-American leaders Sept. 24: "I've been appalled by reports of discrimination of Arab-Americans. And I condemn such acts, and I will continue to condemn them."

As much as anyone and perhaps more so, Arab-Americans see the wisdom in this post-Cold War world of underscoring the primacy of the United Nations in settling disputes, and of reaffirming the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force. Like most Americans, they are not in favor of an unprovoked U.S. attack on Iraq.

Watching the threat of violence abroad feed that at home, I've thought a lot about my father. He was a paratrooper with the ill-fated 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion, which was given the "signal honor," as Gen. James Gavin called it, of launching the Allied counterattack at the Battle of the Bulge. Other than the celebrated 509th at Anzio, the 551st suffered the worst casualties of any U.S. battalion in Europe during World War II.

Last August, I stood in the Ardennes of Belgium with the few surviving veterans of the 551st, with my brother and 79-year-old aunt, who had sung as a child in a World War I bond drive. We represented my dead father at the unveiling of a rough-hewn monument to the 551st at the site of its destruction -- the tiny village of Rochelinval. Though I opposed the Vietnam War, that moment was one of the most moving of my life.

Never one to speak much about the war -- it was clearly too painful for him -- my father repeated only two things: "I ate my K-rations warm at the Hotel Negresco in Nice," and, "All my friends were killed around me."

He said, "Friends." He did not say Jew, Irish or Arab.

Gregory Orfalea is author of "Before the Flames: A Quest for the E History of Arab Americans." He writes from Washington.


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