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By Ray Hanania — These guys were the self-anointed “leaders” of Chicago’s Arab American community. They were regaled and celebrated by the community leaders as the ones who were helping to empower Arab Americans in the Chicago area. Those who questioned their leadership were chastised, isolated and boycotted from Arab American community activities. They buddied around with big shots at “community dinners” honoring Gov. Rod Blagojevich and former governors George Ryan and Jim Edgar, but also strengthened bounds with controversial elements of the Arab American community who embrace extremist views.They said their success meant the success of the Arab American community, which has been marginalized in Chicago since the day its first immigrants set foot in the city in the late 19th Century. Now we watch as each and every one of them has been indicted, charged, convicted or pleaded guilty in what is one of Chicago’s worst political corruption cases, and, more importantly, one of the Chicago Arab community’s most embarrassing moments.Rather than being leaders, these individuals showed they never cared about the well-being of the Arab American community. They have always been concerned about themselves.How do you explain Ali Ata, the former president of the powerful Chicago Chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee sitting in a room with Gov. Blagojevich and giving Blagojevich a $25,000 “donation” to the governor’s campaign fund?Blagojevich then appointed Ata to a top Illinois job overseeing the state’s finances, even though it was later determined that Ata, a small business entrepreneur and investor, had no real experience in managing state budgets. He later resigned when the job brought the Justice Department’s spotlight on his activities.And then, according to Ata’s confession and guilty plea, he paid $125,000 to campaign fundraiser and businessman Antoine “Tony” Rezko as a “thank you” for opening the door to Blagojevich and then getting Ata the job? Rezko is now on trial for bribery and exchanging state jobs for donations and profit.
Ata was not alone. He always stood next to the most powerful Arab American “leaders” in Chicago. Always on hand when the pictures were taken. Always there to make the big speeches. Always there at the occasional dinners.
During the entire time Ata headed ADC, it failed to do its job. ADC is an organization that defends the rights of Arab Americans victimized by discrimination. Yet the Chicago Chapter of ADC has never championed the cause of any Chicago Arab American victimized by discrimination. But they always raised money for the politicians. All of the efforts on behalf of bias victims have been led by ADC’s national office in Washington D.C.
There is no accountability in the Arab American community. When you question the work of the so-called “leaders,” they attack you as “divisive.” They exclude anyone who has the courage to ask publicly, “What have you really done for the Arab American community?”
How did they use the Arab American community?
The plot is simple. These so-called leaders organized events to celebrate Mayor Richard M. Daley, the late Cook County Board President John Stroger, Governors Edgar, Ryan and Blagojevich, and others.
They sold tickets, saying this was to bring the attention of the community to the government leaders.
In fact, what they did was to dupe Arab Americans so that they could turn to the government leaders and declare “look at the voters and constituents that we control who can help you when we snap our fingers.”
And they snapped their fingers. Often. And we, the duped community, came running. We wanted so badly to believe the dinners and the meetings and the celebrations were about our Arab Heritage and empowering our community.
But the truth is it was all about empowering the “empowerers.” The so-called Arab American leaders would get their pictures taken with Daley, Stroger, Edgar, Ryan and Blagojevich and showcase them to our community. Then, they retired to the backrooms where they parsed out jobs for themselves, for their family members, for their business associates and for their friends.
In the case of Ata, the $25,000 that was given to Blagojevich did not come out of Ata’s pocket. It was collected at a “fundraiser,” according to the plea deal Ata signed. Ata wrote the check and was listed on Blagojevich’s campaign finance records as the person donating the money. He and his pals got the “credit.” The community, which donated the money, never got the credit. They were never intended to get the credit.
The names of more than two dozen Arab Americans from Chicago have been dragged into this circle of shame, and another dozen names not yet made public are in the wings, waiting to be named.
We know all their names. The Ata controversy is just the tip of the Arab community iceberg; we can’t use the same old excuses that we are victims of the U.S. Attorney or the FBI. They are doing their jobs. By allowing these phony leaders to control our community, we are not being responsible.
The first Arab Americans came to Chicago just before the 1893 Columbian World Exposition. They settled hoping to build new lives and open doors of opportunity for their people back home in Palestine, Syria and Jordan.
Yet since that time more than 120 years ago, what have we received? Not one street and not one building named in our honor. Not one major elected office holder and not one major program to help Arabs Americans to recognize the efforts of the majority of Arab Americans in Chicagoland who have lived virtuous, honest and principled lives.
Well, we have received one thing. A scandal that hangs over our heads as an Arab American community. And we have no one to blame for this but ourselves.
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Ray Hanania is an award winning political columnist and author. He covered Chicago Politics and Chicago City Hall from 1976 through 1992. Hanania began writing in 1975 when he published The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper in Chicago (1975-1977). He later published “The National Arab American Times” newspaper which was distributed through 12,500 Middle East food stores in 48 American States (2004-2007).
Hanania writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at www.ArabNews.com, and for TheArabDailyNews.com, and TheDailyHookah.com.
Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Hanania is the recipient of four (4) Chicago Headline Club “Peter Lisagor Awards” for Column writing. In November 2006, he was named “Best Ethnic American Columnist” by the New American Media;In 2009, he received the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the recipient of the MT Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award. Hanania has also received two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild, and in 1990 was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.
His wife and son are Jewish and he performs standup comedy lampooning Arab-Jewish relations, advocating for peace based on non-violence, mutual recognition and Two-States.
His Facebook Page is Facebook.com/rghanania
Email him at: RGHanania@gmail.com
Visit this link to read Ray's column archive at the ArabNews,com ArabNews.com/taxonomy/term/10906
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