Updated Apr 29, 2024 - Politics & Policy

"A turning point": Why Arab American Heritage Month was different this year

Photo illustration of a Syrian Arab immigrant from Ellis Island, on a background of a US map with Arabic writing, a tile mosaic design, and a New York cityscape in the foreground.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum.

A month-long celebration of Arab American history and contributions that often get overlooked took on a resounding new meaning this year. Advocates say it will never be the same.

The big picture: April 2024's Arab American Heritage Month came as the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza coincided with rising hate crimes in the U.S. Ongoing anti-war campus protests and newly politicized Arab American voters have given the month additional urgency.

  • Warren David, co-founder of the Arab America Foundation, and other Arab American activists launched Arab American Heritage Month in 2017 and got DC Mayor Muriel Bowser to issue a declaration for the month.
  • Since then, governors in nearly all states in 2023 steadily issued declarations honoring the Arab American Heritage Month — designed to counter stereotypes and reduce anti-Arab bigotry.
  • "I've been an activist 40 years, and I've never seen it like this before," David told Axios.

State of play: Across the country, hundreds of thousands of college students have built encampments and staged demonstrations on campuses to demand a ceasefire in Gaza and that their universities divest from Israel or companies that support the country.

  • The multiethnic protests also are holding teach-ins with faculty that touch on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Arab Americans.
  • Arab American advocacy groups have sent shawarma sandwiches to student protesters as demonstrations host Arab dancers and musicians in what are largely peaceful events.

Between the lines: David said Arab Americans have been ignored and dismissed for decades, but the surge in support is coming thanks to a young coalition of Latinos, Black Americans, Native Americans and progressive Jews.

  • "This is a turning point."

Flashback: President Biden issued the first presidential declaration recognizing Arab American Heritage Month last year.

  • This year, Biden's declaration acknowledges the pain Arab Americans are feeling with the war in Gaza.
  • "The trauma, death, and destruction in Israel and Gaza have claimed, and continue to claim, far too many innocent lives ‑- including family and friends of Arab Americans across our Nation," the declaration says after citing Arab Americans' contributions during World War II.
  • "We are committed to working with the Arab American community, who remain critical advocates for the Palestinian and Arab people and a just and lasting peace."

What they're saying: James Zogby, founder and president of the DC-based Arab American Institute, told Axios the war in Gaza, which has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians according to the local health authority, served as a painful backdrop for this year's honorary month.

  • "We didn't know what to do. I mean, how do you celebrate Arab American heritage when there's a genocide unfolding...when there's famine?"
  • Yet, with the student protests and city councils passing resolutions calling for a ceasefire, it felt like "the wind is in our sails."

Zoom out: Anti-Arab and Muslim hate crimes have surged in the U.S. since the war between Israel and Hamas began in October.

  • In November, three college students of Palestinian descent were shot in Burlington, Vermont in what police believe was a hate crime.
  • The U.S. Justice Department is also investigating the cancellation of some Arab American events after Oct. 7 to see if civil rights groups were the target of any discrimination by hotels and cities, David said.

There was also a higher, elevated feeling of celebration this year.

  • Arab Americans now have a more sophisticated infrastructure with civil rights groups and nonprofits, Ghassan Rubeiz, a contributing writer to the digital news site, Arab America, told Axios.
  • "Gaza has provided a historic opportunity to deal with some basic issues like stereotypes about Arab Americans."
  • Zogby said that for decades, political candidates turned down endorsements and returned political contributions from Arab American groups, but a new politicized population that can shift the upcoming election is changing that, too.

What's next: The U.S. Census announced last month that, for the first time, the agency will have a category for people of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) heritage.

  • That could produce the most comprehensive data on an estimated 3 million Arab Americans the nation has ever seen.
Go deeper