In The Rise of the Arab-American Left, University of Michigan-Dearborn historian Pamela Pennock argues that the history of Arab-American activism is absent from narratives of American leftist organizing of the 1960s and 1970s. Pennock is a scholar of contemporary American history and highlights what scholars of Arab American studies have long argued: this community has been made invisible in terms of domestic political representation and has not benefitted from accurate portrayals in the media. Like the late Jack Shaheen, who catalogued over nine hundred villainous portrayals of Arabs in Hollywood films, Pennock found that in those rare instances where historical scholarship referenced Arab-Americans, the reference was dismal; the most common figure to be featured in this history is Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin of Robert Kennedy, and little else. This dynamic of largely ignoring and occasionally vilifying Arabs in the media is a historical process that Pennock argues has contributed to the scant mention of Arab-American activism in scholarship that deals with anti-war and leftist organizing in the 1960s and 1970s. Pennock’s work addresses this gap. Her first book explored efforts to regulate tobacco and alcohol advertising and she has taught a course on protest movements of the 1960s. Teaching the history of US leftist activism in a city with a large Arab-American community, Pennock identified the absence of Arab-American activist histories in the broader historiography of American leftist movements. Her book places this organizing history in the context of leftist organizing during the 1960s in the United States and the Arab world. Pennock pays close attention to local and transnational organizing efforts as the activists she profiles astutely followed and responded to events in their Arab homelands, especially Palestine.
Using national and leftist newspapers, the newsletters of Arab American organizations, as well as the personal papers of, and interviews with, key Arab American figures of this era, Pennock structures the text around events and themes that came to shape a generation of activists. The hallmark of this period’s activism was secular, leftist, pro-Palestine activism, according to Pennock. While intermittent attention was also paid to causes like the Yemeni Civil War, the focus was largely on Palestine. Pennock also maps how different American leftist formations responded to Arab activism and their defining cause, the Palestinian struggle. The author frames the Arab activism of the 1960s and 1970s as radical, leftist organizing. These efforts were also defined in terms of two major wars they responded to – the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. In the book’s penultimate chapter, which reads as an epilogue of sorts, Pennock identifies the origins of a rising “Arab civil rights movement.” Here, she identifies the historical actors and events that de-radicalized Arab-American activism. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s Pennock found this activism to be radical because it aimed to drastically transform American opinions on Israel-Palestine, in the 1980s, a new “de-radicalized” approach to activism emerged. This approach is characterized by seeking change from within the American political system in contrast to a politics of provocation from the outside. This constituted a shift in focus from U.S. foreign policy towards domestic politics and Arab-American civil rights, and efforts to run Arab American candidates for Congress. What moments in Pennock’s study offer perspective on later political transformations amongst Arab-American activists? How were these later transformations relevant to the commitments of activists in the 1960s and 1970s? The following is a non-exhaustive look at some important events.
Activism and Knowledge Production
Palestinian-American scholar Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and civil rights attorney Abdeen Jabara, helped establish the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG) as a response to the Arab defeat in the 1967 war. Its founders sought to achieve two aims. The first was to counteract pro-Zionist and Orientalist representations of Arabs in scholarship. The second was to promote accurate representations of Arabs in the public arena as a means of diminishing support for Israel amongst the American public.
The AAUG funded research that depicted the history and contemporary reality of the Middle East more accurately than figures such as Bernard Lewis and like-minded academics, whose research was in service of Zionist historical narratives and Orientalist historiography. In addition to their scholarship, AAUG members established the Arab Studies Quarterly journal. Pennock notes that several AAUG scholars also contributed to the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP). Together, the network of scholars, the establishment of a specialized journal, as well as the knowledge production embodied by MERIP helped the steady transformation of Near Eastern or Middle Eastern studies departments from being characteristically pro-Zionist and progenitors of largely orientalist scholarship to institutions that produced critical scholarship of the Middle East and its history. In fact, Lewis was a founding member of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in 1966. However, he left the group in 2007 for what he perceived to be a pro-Arab bias and an affinity for the scholarship of his rival, Edward Said (a former AAUG member). Through a reading of Pennock’s work, it seems that the project of AAUG members to promote critical perspectives on the region was successful in shifting discourse within the field. However, internal political disputes led to the dissolution of the AAUG. While there existed considerable consensus regarding the AAUG’s stance on Palestine, its membership was divided on other Arab issues of the time, like the Lebanese Civil War and the Syrian invasion of Lebanon in 1976. These internal disputes contributed to the eventual demise of the organization.
Inter-factional disputes similarly led to the dissolution of the Organization of Arab Students (OAS). A characteristic of the group was its close attention to developments on-the-ground in Palestine. OAS members organized around these developments which often led to factional disputes that often clouded the ability of the organization to grow, as becomes clear in Pennock’s work. This organization was inspired by a wave of anti-colonial and Third World struggles, and denounced imperialism and Zionism in their efforts. OAS chapters grew throughout the United States. They worked to advocate for Palestinian resistance efforts on campus, often forming coalitions with other leftist groups, particularly Black leftist organizations and student leaders. This threatened the Israel Lobby and in 1969 the Anti-Defamation League infiltrated the OAS national conference. This infiltration helped these Zionist forces to provoke a U.S. government investigation of Arab student activists. A majority of these activists were international students on visas; these investigations were an intimidation tactic that caused many to retreat from their political activism.
Labor and Community Organizing
The intersections of labor organizing, anti-war protest, and intersectional coalition building converged in 1973 when the Arab Workers Caucus (AWC) waged what was likely the first ever divestment campaign. They called on their union, the United Automobile Workers (UAW), to divest from its Israeli bonds – over thirty years before the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions call was issued by Palestinian civil society in 2005. Pennock details how this effort was also part of legacy of labor organizing in the Southend, the part of Detroit that housed the automobile industry. This case exemplifies the author’s observation that Arab labor activism in the Southend was informed by their non-Arab leftist counterparts. A group called the League of Revolutionary Black Workers particularly influenced the AWC. Through this relationship, the AWC developed a focus that was both local and transnational.
Similarly, the establishment of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) bridged transnational political concerns to the needs of the local Arab community.
Its founders sought to improve the quality of life of Arab immigrants that arrived in later migration waves, many of whom fled war in Lebanon, Palestine, and Yemen. Inspired by the Black Panthers, ACCESS’s provision of social services fit within a radical political program. Like the Black Panthers, the founders of ACCESS were subject to government scrutiny for their service to the local community. Persistent hostility towards this organization, which has maintained its commitment to guiding community members towards social services, is part of wider hostility towards Arab-Americans that has yet to dissipate. Even in an era with somewhat improved representation of Arabs in the media, there still exists an inability to empathize with this immigrant community. The origins of this hostility towards Arabs and Muslims far predates the rise of Trump or even the Islamophobic and anti-Arab backlash in the aftermath of 9/11, as evident in Pennock’s description of government surveillance of ACCESS in its earliest days.
Pennock’s careful use of the descriptor “Arab American” to describe the subjects of her research, who may or may not have identified as American, speaks to the meticulous nature of her study. She qualifies that a majority of these activists were Arab immigrants; many were on student visas, while others were Arabs born in the United States. For the sake of brevity, the author uses “Arab American” to refer to this group of activists as a whole, while acknowledging how this term might obscure the diversity of this group of people. Some might object to being labeled as “American,” even if they were born in the United States, or even if they had become naturalized citizens- the author deals with this seriously. For lack of a better term, the subjects of her study are referred to as Arab American, with the disclaimer that this term is flattening; it is quite flawed in capturing the complexities and diversity of these activists.
The examination of both scholarly literature and primary sources is thorough and innovative in approach. Pennock is equally restrained in her lucid analysis of the key events she details. She is careful not to overstate the reach of the activists whose work she examines, nor does she exaggerate their relevance within the anti-war movement. Furthermore, Pennock argues these earliest expressions of Black-Palestinian solidarity were driven by personal ties between individual leaders from Black and Arab groups. Nonetheless, she explains that some of the key support for the UAW divestment effort came from Black workers’ groups. Similarly, on campus, progressive Black students were leaders in expressing support for the PLO.
Significance of the Study
Pennock’s study transcends the limitations posed by area studies approaches. Relying upon archival research and interviews with activists of the era, Pennock presents a detailed narrative of events with nuanced and carefully qualified analysis. This text is useful for academic as well as activist purposes. For Middle East scholars it reveals how the impact of events within the region reverberated within the Arab diaspora, which then prompted organizing in response to these developments. For scholars of American studies it serves as a missing piece of the narrative on leftist organizing in the 1960s and 1970s. For activists, there are lessons to be learned in how preoccupations with factionalism had broken apart or halted the momentum of otherwise productive organizing collectives. There is also historical perspective on just how entrenched state surveillance and antipathy towards Arab activism has been in the United States since the 1960s at least. This highlights how both public scrutiny and covert FBI and CIA surveillance of Arab activists has been deeply entrenched in US political and popular culture decades before the events of September 11th and certainly before Trump’s electoral victory. Before Rasmea Odeh, there was Zain Abu Eain. Before Trump’s “Muslim ban,” there was Operation Boulder, a Nixon-era policy of halting visa issuance and questioning of every single Arab in the United States on a visa. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents visited Arab Americans at their school or homes. They intensely screened Arab visa applicants and used tips (often from foreign governments, especially Israel) to inform their decision to grant or deny visa applications.
The author’s interviews with activists involved with the AAUG, ACCESS, AWC, and the OAS, offers a retrospective that provides clarity regarding her assessments of Arab-American activism. However, while the text is written with apparent reverence for this generation of activists, it does not romanticize their efforts. The text is not celebratory in a way that obscures problematic gender dynamics or their inability to build a mass movement. At the same time, Pennock analyzes the lack of a mass movement for Palestine in historical context, analyzing this within the broader scheme of US and Middle East politics of the time. Pennock diligently and empathetically notes the massive pressure these activists faced. This work is a contribution to both American history and modern Middle Eastern history. It provides a richer understanding of leftist organizing in the United States during this era because it is inclusive of Arab American protest and activism. In the case of diaspora Palestinian organizers their advocacy and protest efforts in the United States also comprise a facet of Palestinian history itself considering that over half of the Palestinian population lives outside of historic Palestine as a result of Israeli settler-colonialism. I would argue that Palestinian diasporic organizing history is Palestinian history as much as it is part of contemporary US history.
Pennock was not trained as a specialist in Arab-American studies, but has produced one of the best new texts on the history of this community. Observing that her Arab-American students at the University of Michigan-Dearborn could not find their history in mainstream narratives of contemporary US history, she fills this scholarly gap and has offered a thorough guide to this piece of history, leaving little unexplored. Pennock also provides meaningful and substantive analysis of the implications of such historical moments, making The Rise of the Arab-American Left an important addition to a the body of literature on Arab organizing efforts in the United States.