Election Watch: November 2000 Presidential Election May Enable Muslim - and Arab-Americans to Flex Political Muscles

Article excerpt

ELECTION WATCH: November 2000 Presidential Election May Enable Muslim- and Arab-Americans to Flex Political Muscles

The secular American ideal is for neither ethnicity nor religious preference to influence a citizen's political preferences. Perfection would be for the Arab-American community to split right down the middle, with 50 percent supporting Democratic candidates and 50 percent supporting Republicans, and for Muslim Americans to divide likewise, with 50 percent supporting Republicans and 50 percent Democrats.

The problem is that it's an imperfect world and the Israel lobby has based its strength on a voting bloc of American Jews. Their influence in Congress seems to erect ever higher barriers to acceptance in the U.S. of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans and their political opinions.

Another reality is that, according to its own political leaders as quoted in Jewish weeklies, the Jewish community generally gives 75 to 90 percent of its votes to Democrats. There have been exceptions. Republican Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, a relative hawk on U.S. defense policy, is said to have received 40 percent of the Jewish vote against Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, a conciliatory Democrat if not an outright dove.

And Democrat Jimmy Carter, who was pushing Israel hard to sign a land-for-peace agreement with the Palestinians similar to the one he had brokered between Israel and Egypt, received little over half of the Jewish vote when he ran against Ronald Reagan. Those highs and lows illustrate clearly how deeply American Jewish voters are influenced by a candidate's support for Israel.

Things are much more complicated with Muslim- and Arab-Americans, who have been less extensively polled. Democratic candidates seem to have a slight edge with Arab Americans, and a stronger one among Muslim Americans of African descent, while a majority of other socially conservative Muslim Americans tilt toward Republican candidates. But where candidates stand on the Middle East, a subject of lively discussion at Arab-American and Muslim-American conventions, seems to have little measurable effect on how members of those two allied communities vote.

The result is that Jewish voters, though tiny in number since Jews are less than 2 percent of the population, have enormous political influence, both because they provide well over half of all the donations to Democratic political candidates, and because, as indicated above, they tend to vote as a bloc and therefore can swing a race to either candidate in closely contested elections. This bloc vote is helped by a consensus on, in the words of director Nathan J. Diamant of the political and legal affairs office of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, "support for Israel, arguably an issue that turns many American Jews into single-issue voters."

Again by contrast, Muslim- and Arab-Americans, who together may total as many as 10 million people, or 3.6 percent of the population, may have been less conscientious about voting, and even those who do vote tend to cancel each other out. Thus, to date, they have failed to exploit the fact that they have the potential to outnumber Jewish voters by nearly two to one. As a result they have wielded minuscule influence on U.S. domestic and foreign policies.

Happily, there are notable exceptions. In 1996 Muslim Americans voted as a bloc in New Jersey, and Pakistani Americans donated as a bloc in North Dakota. Two incumbent U.S. senators owe their victories in close election races to these actions. Undoubtedly there will be other such triumphs in this year's November elections at the local level, wherever there is a clear enough difference between candidates to unite the Muslim- and/or Arab-American voters.

A CLEAR CHOICE OF PRESIDENTS

In election year 2000 there is a clear foreign-policy difference between the presidential candidates of the two leading parties. It's not the first time. When Bill Clinton defeated George Bush in 1992, he received 85 percent of the Jewish vote, Unfortunately, there was little Arab- or Muslim-American effort to support Bush, whose work in support of a land-for-peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians had aroused the hostility of Jewish voters. …