Detroit's Arab-American community: thriving and active

Detroit is an economically distressed city that many have left during the last few years. Yet Detroit's Arab population -- the largest in the United States -- is growing, and so seems to be its influence.

About 3 million Arabs live in the US, and nearly 200,000 of them are in the Detroit area. They come from North and South Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Palestinians and Chaldeans (Christians from Iraq) are also among the emigres.

Despite differences in religion and national origin, this Arab-American community has produced activists who have helped establish political alliances and local and national organizations; and some of their activities have alarmed local Jewish leaders.

One Arab-American organization in Detroit has accepted a donation from the Arab League. Another organization has received a grant from Saudi Arabian King Khalid. A national organization, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) has offices in Detroit and Washington, D.C. Former US Sen. James Abourezk of South Dakota is on its advisory board.

An outspoken member of the ADC, Detroit attorney Abdeen Jabara, says that the organization takes an interest in Middle Eastern affairs because ''anti-Arab bias'' in the United States increases during periods of crisis in that area of the world.

But public critics of the ADC -- primarily Jewish organizations -- say the committee is more interested in serving as an American-based surrogate for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), than in fighting discrimination. Richard Lobenthal, head of the Michigan branch of B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League (ADL), is one of those critics.

There is a ''difference between discrimination against Arab-Americans and PLO propaganda,'' Mr. Lobenthal says. ''They (the ADC) are a mouthpiece for the PLO.''

According to Mr. Jabara, Arab-Americans in the Detroit area have ''endured intense surveillance,'' since the publication of reports that the US government is searching for a Libyan hit squad.

And, Jabara says, Arabs in the US will be ''vilified'' and ''stereotyped'' if Israel and Syria go to war over the annexation of the Golan Heights.

Local Jewish leaders say Jabara's remarks about the annexation are evidence that the ADC is trying to influence US Mideast policy and intimidate the media, not fight discrimination.

Another Jewish leader says that the ADC attacks Israel and defends the PLO but produces little information on discrimination against Arab-Americans in the US.

Most ADC members probably want the US to recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians, says Jessica Mitchell, director of the Detroit chapter of the ADC. But the group spends most of its time challenging negative stereotypes of Arabs and their culture, she asserts, adding that, as an organization, the ADC does not have an official position on Middle Eastern issues.

She and others cite a recent poll in which 44 percent of the respondents thought of Arabs as ''barbaric and cruel.'' About 50 percent of those polled say Arabs are ''warlike and bloodthirsty'' and 49 percent thought of Arabs as ''treacherous and cunning.''

''The media are partly responsible for this bias,'' says Nabeel Abraham, a researcher and writer with the urban affairs department at Wayne State University.

However, Lobenthal and some other Jewish leaders say that the ADC is politicizing older, more established Arab-American organizations originally founded to meet the social and economic needs of emigres from North Africa and the Middle East.

Lobenthal says that there's ''a lot of consciousness-raising'' at some of the Arab-American organizations. He noted that it is not illegal to favor PLO policies in the US and says Arab-Americans are ''taking advantage of that fact.''

Lobenthal says the Anti-Defamation League -- ''unlike that group [the ADC]'' -- is actively battling discrimination of all kinds. The ADL leader speaks to students in public schools in Michigan about bigotry. He notes the negative stereotypes and myths that have been related to Arabs, as well as Jews and blacks.

Detroit's various Arabic people have come there at different times. The Yemenis, for the most part, arrived in America after the Lebanese and the Chaldeans, Christians from what is now Iraq. The Lebanese -- Christians and Muslims -- and the Chaldeans first began to immigrate to America in the early 1900s. Many of them were fleeing Turkish domination.

Most Detroit-area Chaldeans manage neighborhood stores and shops. Most Yemeni immigrants are unskilled, and they, for the most part, work in auto plants and in hotels and restaurants. Some immigrants from North and South Yemen work in the shipping industry on the Great Lakes.

Conflicts in the Middle East -- particularly military action - have helped prompt each wave of Arab immigration, according to a study made by Nabeel Abraham and his brother, Sameer. The Abrahams are the sons of Palestinian immigrants. Sameer is a sociologist at Wayne State University.

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