Anniversary of Arab American Recognition in Illinois
Two years ago in October 2018, Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan introduced legislation that formally recognized April as Arab American Heritage Month at a meeting of the Arab American Democratic Club. Madigan’s legislation made the declaration a state law. Here’s a story recalling that important event in Illinois.
Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan announced he has introduced a law to recognize April as Arab Heritage Month in Illinois. If approved, the law would add Illinois to the seven other U.S. States that now recognize April as a national commemoration month for Arab Americans. Illinois previously recognized November as Arab American Heritage month, but that tradition was destroyed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Chicago’s outgoing anti-Arab Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
By Ray Hanania
Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan announced Sunday a new law recognizing April as “Arab American Heritage Month,” saying the law represents the right of everyone “regardless of race, ethnicity or religion” to be represented by their government.
Madigan was among an array of 40 Democratic elected officials and candidates who addressed a gathering of nearly 500 Arab Americans at a breakfast forum hosted by the Arab American Democratic Club at Niko’s Banquet Hall in Bridgeview.
Among the more than 40 candidates and officials addressing the group were Karen Yarbrough, the unchallenged candidate to succeed David Orr as Cook County Clerk, Kwame Raoul, the candidate for Illinois Attorney General, and Congressman Dan Lipinski who defeated a tough Democratic Primary challenge from Marie Newman last March and who faces a Nazi candidate in the Nov. 6, 2018 General Election.
“I believe in inclusion. We believe in inclusion in our daily actions and how we treat other people. We believe that the government should reflect policies such as that,” Madigan told the Democratic forum.
“My view is that America is basically a welcoming country. We welcome new arrivals. We give people opportunity. President Trump is not implementing that policy in our actions taken at the border and the implementation of the immigration laws which are basically saying some are welcome and some are not. And once the government gets into the business of distinguishing between one person and another person because of their national origin, you have a big problem. It is our responsibility to stand up and state where we are on policies such as that.”
Madigan said House Bill 5971 will be sponsored by State Senator Steve Landek in the Illinois Senate, adding, “My expectation is that Governor J.B. Pritzker will sign it.”
Madigan’s law fills a void created by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel who devastated the Arab American community in Chicago and in Illinois immediately after taking office in May 2011. Emanuel refused to support the Arabesque Festival, which ran from 2007 until 2011, dismantled the Human Relations Commission to destroy the Advisory Commission on Arab Affairs, and suspended all Arab Heritage Month activities that traditionally had been held in November under former Mayors Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley.
A new national drive has been launched by a Washington D.C. foundation called ArabAMerica.com which designates April as Arab Heritage month. So far, the month has been recognized in Arizona, California, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, Texas, Virginia and Washington D.C. and there is a drive to make it a national commemoration through the U.S. Congress.
“This is an example of what American should be doing. It states all are welcome. All are welcome to our shores. All are welcome to job placement. All are welcome to our schools and our universities so that those who wish to work to get ahead can actually do so and enjoy the fruits of life in America. That is my commitment to the public,” Madigan said to a standing ovation.
The law “Amends the State Commemorative Dates Act. Designates the month of April of each year as Arab American Heritage Month to be observed throughout the State as a month to recognize the valuable contributions of Arab Americans to this State and to the various aspects of American society. Effective immediately.”
Congressman Dan Lipinski, who has attended every Arab American Democratic Club forum since he taking office in 2005, acknowledged past differences on Middle East issues but noted that he has an open door to community leaders and has introduced letters to President Trump criticizing cutbacks in funding for UNWRA (United Nations Relief & Works Agency).
“I know we don’t always agree on everything, but it is important that we sit down and work on those things we can work on,” Lipinski acknowledged.
Strongly criticizing Trump for “pursuing politics designed to divide people,” Lipinski said, “We need to come together. We see what he has done. Congress is supposed to be where policy comes from, but Congress has failed to check the president. I believe that Democrats will take the House of Representatives and put a check on President Trump. We need to bring people together and protect the liberties of every American.”
Samir Khalil, president of the AADC which was founded in 1983 and is the state’s first-ever Arab American Political Action Committee (PAC), said that every Democrat was invited to the event and most did show up.
Candidates and government officials attending included: Steve Landek, the mayor of Bridgeview and State Senator for the 17th Senate District; Lyons Mayor and Lyons Township Supervisor Christopher Getty; County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who is slated to succeed Luis Gutierrez as Congressman in the 4th District; Fritz Kaegi, who unseated longtime Democrat Joe Berrios as the Democratic candidate for Cook County Assessor; State Treasurer Michael W. Frerichs; Abdelnasser Rashid, who is Arab American and running for the 17th County Board seat; Hickory Hills Mayor Mike Howley; and, Bridget Fitzgerald the Western Spring Village Clerk who is a candidate for the Illinois Senate in the 41st District.
Also attending were: State Appellate Justice P. Scott Neville Jr., who was named to the Illinois Supreme Court; Judge Sam Betar III; Judge Linda Davenport; Judge Lisa Ann Marino; Hon. Jesse G. Reyes Appellate Court Judge; representatives for several candidates who could not make the event including Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, who annually hosts a gathering for Arab Americans and has translated her website into Arabic and other languages; Oak Lawn High School District 229 Trustee Safaa Zarzour; Worth Township Democratic Committeewoman Patricia Joan Murphy; and Donna Miller who is slated to become the new Cook County Commissioner in the 6th District.
Paul Vallas, one of nearly two dozen candidates running for mayor of Chicago in the Spring, also attended and reminded attendees that his father-in-law, Dean Koldenhoven, lost his job as Palos Heights mayor for standing up for the rights of Muslims to open a mosque in the suburb in 2004.
Maya Berry, the executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI) spoke on the importance of Arab American empowerment through voting and engagement in local politics.
J.B. Pritzker, the Democratic candidate for Governor, declined to attend. Pritzker had been criticized for his failed 1998 candidacy for Congress in the 9th District in which he denounced an Arab and Muslim group, the American Muslim Council (AMC) as “supporting terrorism.” Pritzker refused to publicly apologize for the comments but told a group of Arab business leaders last month he was “sorry.”
“We had hoped that J.B. Pritzker would attend and address the issue and he was given every opportunity to speak directly to Arab American and Muslim voters, but he chose not to,” Khalil said.
Khalil thanked the members of the organizing committee including Miriam Zayed, Rima Sweis, Ahmad Ramahi, Saad Malley, Sonia Khalil and Sufyan Shaltaf. Khalil also congratulated Roxane Asaf who sang the National Anthem at the start of the program.
TEXT OF THE NEW ILLINOIS LAW
“April as Arab American Heritage Month in Illinois”
House Bill 5971
Introduced by Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan
Illinois Senate Sponsor Senator Steven Landek
WHEREAS, It is appropriate and right to celebrate a diversity of cultures and heritages, and such celebration serves as a reminder that despite our differing backgrounds, everyone in Illinois is bound by a common hope for a better and more inclusive future for our children; and
WHEREAS, The Arab American community has a long and integral history in the United States; and
WHEREAS, For over a century, Arab Americans have been making valuable contributions to virtually every aspect of American society, including medicine, law, business, technology, government, and culture; and
WHEREAS, Tens of thousands of Arab Americans have served during World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, and the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after September 11, 2001; and
WHEREAS, The history of Arab Americans in American life often remains neglected and has been riddled with misunderstanding and bigotry; and
WHEREAS, Men and women of Arab descent have shared their rich culture, strong work ethic, and dedication to education, while embracing the American spirit of opportunity and helping us build a better nation and State for all; and
WHEREAS, It is estimated that there are approximately 450,000 people of Arab American descent in Illinois with more than 100,000 Arab American voters registered; and
WHEREAS, We recognize and celebrate the contributions to cultural diversity, economic growth, and the overall development of our State and nation made by the Arab American community; therefore
Be it enacted by the People of the State of Illinois, represented in the General Assembly:
Section 5. The State Commemorative Dates Act is amended by adding Section 6 as follows:
Sec. 6. Arab American Heritage Month. The month of April of each year is designated as Arab American Heritage Month to be observed throughout the State as a month to recognize the valuable contributions of Arab Americans to this State and to the various aspects of American society.
(Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian American former Chicago City Hall reporter and political columnist. He writes a syndicated column for the Arab News, Middle East Monitor and TheArabDailyNews.com. Visit his personal website at www.Hanania.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)