Every day, Feda Abd al-Rahman, 28, helps her husband Belal take orders from hungry customers at their privately owned shawarma stand, Jerusalem Pita Grill, located in a Los Angeles produce market frequented by Middle Eastern and Jewish Americans.
Born to Palestinian parents, Abd al-Rahman immigrated to the US from Kuwait 25 years ago to pursue the American dream. Part of that dream is the power and freedom to vote for a president, something Abd al-Rahman takes seriously.
Four years ago, she did just that, voting for President George Bush.
“Many people at our mosque told us to vote for [President Bush] because he would help Arab-Americans,” Abd al-Rahman says over her shoulder, as she walks towards a customer to take an order.
“We’ve already tried Bush. We gave him four years and nothing has happened except for war,” she told Aljazeera.net
One million voters
A 9 July tracking poll conducted by Zogby International to monitor the voting trends of 500 Arab-Americans had Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry leading with 51%, Bush at 24% and Independent candidate Ralph Nader at 13%. Twelve per cent were still undecided.
The poll also found that the economy was the most important issue for Arab-American voters, followed by national security and healthcare. Foreign policy figured low in the poll.
Zogby says Arab-Americans
“We have factory workers, teachers and businessmen who are Arab-Americans that care about domestic issues,” James Zogby told Aljazeera.net.
He believes Arab-American voters are already familiar with Bush’s policies – domestic and foreign – but still want a new president.
“People are not happy with what they’ve got,” he said.
“I believe as the campaigning continues, Kerry will develop for voters a clear understanding for why people should vote for him,” he added.
Tilting to Kerry
Abed Hammoud, president of the Arab-American Political Action Committee (AAPAC) and assistant prosecuting attorney of Wayne County, Michigan, voted for Bush in 2000, but may be leaning towards Kerry on 2 November.
“It breaks my heart to see not only our American soldiers die every day in Iraq, but to also see our fellow brothers and sisters dying in Iraq and Palestine; it’s something that needs to be changed right away,” he told Aljazeera.net.
Most Arab-Americans who voted for Bush in 2000 find they are likely to vote for the Democratic candidate this time.
“I voted for Bush in 2000 because, truthfully, I believed he would help the Middle East peace process and be kind to Arab-Americans,” said Eman Fahmine, a claims examiner for an insurance company in Los Angeles.
Arab-Americans thought Bush
“But today I will root for John [Kerry] because he is great on domestic issues and can help in the Middle East.”
Joy Haidar, a marketing communications manager in Boston, Massachusetts, believes Gore’s vice presidential candidate in 2000 was a crucial reason why he lost the Arab-American vote.
“Unfortunately, Lieberman being Jewish was one of the reasons Arab-Americans didn’t vote for Gore in 2000,” she said.
Haidar also believes the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process had a role to play.
“Bush came with a fresh plate, and we were looking for someone new to take on that role,” Haidar said, referring to Bush as a peace negotiator between the Palestinians and Israelis.
“But now, politicians don’t differ that much on foreign policy, and that’s why we should vote for Kerry, because of his ideals on domestic issues. It would be a disaster if Bush won this election,” she told Aljazeera.net
Loyal to Bush
But not all Arab-Americans agree that Kerry is a better choice for America and – despite the poll showing domestic issues as the priority – point to Bush’s foreign-policy record as a beacon for a second term.
George Salem, chairperson and co-founder of AAI and a solicitor for the US Department of Labor during Ronald Reagan’s administration, believes Arab-Americans will vote for Bush because second-term presidents accomplish much more.
“Are you willing to roll the dice with a candidate whose voting record fully supports Israel?” he says of Kerry. “Or a president who has called for peace in the Middle East, security for Israel and a Palestinian state?” Salem asks, referring to Bush as the first US president to call for a Palestinian state.
In matters of foreign policy, the
Rhonda Hudome, former assistant deputy secretary of energy in the Bush administration from 2001 to 2003, campaigns for the Bush/Cheney ticket because she thinks they are the right team to lead for the next four years.
“I shudder to think what Al Gore would have done if he was in office during 9/11,” Hudome said.
Hudome stresses Bush was the first US president to mention Arab-Americans during a national debate in the 2000 election and has more Arab-Americans appointed in his administration then any other administration.
“It’s historical and sets a precedent,” she said.
The Nader equation
But clamouring for votes is a two-way street, and Hammoud says both Kerry and Bush need to play to the Arab-American vote.
“We have the Independent candidate Ralph Nader vote, or we vote for no one which is a big stance in itself,“ Hammoud said. “This is something we do not take lightly.“
The Nader equation has been a nightmare for Democrats since the 2000 elections when they alleged that US Vice-President and presidential candidate Al Gore lost because of “diverted” votes.
Will Nader throw a spanner in this
Although campaigners have claimed “a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush“, Suzanne Adely, community organiser for the Arab American Action Network, a non-profit and non-partisan organisation, says she is taking a symbolic stance and is voting for Nader.
“The most tragic political reality in the US is not that Bush is in office, but it’s that we don’t have enough choices in who we vote for. At the end, there is not that big of a difference between the Democratic party and the Republican party,“ Adely said.
“Arab-Americans and others should put an effort towards the Green party, even if it takes 20 years. If we don’t, we will be ruled under this one party system,” she added.
But are enough Arab-Americans going to the polls?
Adely believes some Arab-Americans are involved, but not enough. She feels the events of 11 September 2001 silenced many in her community because of fear.
“We had to work harder to put back any legitimacy to our causes, and towards the Arab-American community.“
An issue both Democratic and Republican Arab-Americans agree on is their community needs to do more to be recognised as a viable force in the national political arena.
Will enough Arab-Americans
Salem insists that for the Arab-American community to be heard, not to be taken for granted and to declare the fate of the presidential election, young Arab-Americans need to be politically active and be willing to stand up and declare their Arab ethnicity.
“The [Arab-American community] has not been given enough credit for getting involved in the political system and we are doing real well, but there is a lot more to do out there,“ Zogby said.
While Feda believes Arab-Americans need to do much more to make a difference in their community, she trusts her vote this November will speak louder than any words.
“I don’t think anyone I know is voting for [Bush]. It’s time we get him out of the White House and put Kerry in.“