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POLITICS MIDEAST CONFLICT

Spokesmen rally support in Dallas
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MOST AMERICANS’ knowledge of the bitter conflict in the Middle East is limited to the horror stories they read in newspapers and magazines and see on television telecasts. Many people understand little more than that this exotic clash of religion and politics frequently brings violent results; in fact, the picture that is painted is often too grotesque for us even to comprehend.

It is no wonder, then, that the manner in which the American press shapes this story has long been a major concern to Israel and her Arab adversaries. Indeed, the Middle Eastern struggle has become as much a battle for public opinion as for territory. Israeli and Arab proselytizers campaign throughout the world, rallying for support and trying to win converts to their respective causes. Here in Dallas, the debate is orchestrated by two men who express drastically different viewpoints, but who work with equally impassioned dedication.

One is an American Jew who must walk the tightrope stretching between Judaism, the religion, and Israel, the political entity. The other is an Arab whose loyalties are not divided, but who has trouble finding allies willing to stand up and be counted.



MARK BRISKMAN is the quintessential lobbyist. Regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B’nai B’rith, Briskman represents interests of the Dallas Jewish community as a watchman against anti-Semitism. A 36-year-old native New Yorker, Briskman has been in Dallas for six years, following a stint for the ADL in New Jersey.

The ADL, an American organization founded in Chicago in 1913, claims to have no formal ties with the state of Israel. It does, however, aggressively promote Israeli political interests. The rationale of the group, according to Briskman: “The ultimate anti-Semitic act would be the destruction of the state of Israel; therefore, we are vitally concerned about israel’s sur-vival.”

This task keeps Briskman busy. He gives approximately 50 speeches each year, about 30 percent of which are to non-Jewish groups. The ADL also arranges trips to Israel for politicians, journalists, religious leaders, businessmen and anyone else the Israeli government wants to court. Briskman also monitors local news media. Many editors in town hear from him when he detects what he thinks is an anti-Israel (or pro-Arab) fact or opinion in a news story or editorial.

Briskman explains his press role with the polish of a smooth public relations man: “We monitor the press from the point of view not of censorship, but of working with the press as friends. When the press is inaccurate, we all suffer… .Clearly, we try to sensitize and educate on editorial opinion.”

This is the kind of work Briskman’s ADL colleagues can carry on anywhere in the country. But in Dallas (a community with a Jewish population of approximately 25,000), Briskman has a unique responsibility: nurturing an alliance between Jews and conservative Christians.

When asked to rate the general knowledge of Dallasites about the Middle East, Briskman responds that “the Bible-believing, conservative Christians have a particular level of knowledge; they have a sense of Biblical history, they understand the meaning of Jerusalem.”

This support for Israel, he says, “is motivated by intense, sincere religious belief – literal belief in the Bible and that this is the fulfillment of prophecy which will culminate in the return of Jesus.” In simplest terms, fundamentalist Christians believe that prophecy will be fulfilled in stages, first with the Jews occupying their homeland as defined by Biblical boundaries and then with the return of the Messiah.

Briskman is thrilled with the support he receives from Christian clerics. “One of the biggest Zionists in this community,” Briskman says, “is Dr. W.A. Criswell. One of the biggest friends the state of Israel has is Dr. Criswell. And he’s anything but Jewish.”

Criswell agrees. “1 am a friend of Israel,” he says, “and I always have been. I couldn’t believe in the Bible and not be.”

Such an interfaith alliance is reassuring to Jews, even though many remain skeptical about the depth of Christian commit-ment to Israel. Some people think this is merely a marriage of convenience, with “even Jews” seen as being more reliable than Arabs. Beneath this ecumenical friendship run deep-rooted fears among Jews that anti-Semitism is never far away.

Anti-Semitism in Dallas, according to Briskman, is not particularly bitter. It exists principally, he says, “on the level of social discrimination,” with many clubs still barring Jewish members. But there is, he says, “a high level of anxiety among American Jews. Many Jews believe anti-Semitism is on the rise.”

These fears flourish when Israeli political or military activity is attracting attention. Many Jews worry that criticism of Israel is just the tip of the iceberg, that beneath the surface lies anti-Jewish, not just anti-Israeli, sentiment.

This summer’s war in Lebanon raised many questions about the true extent of American support for Israel. With the massacre in Beirut refugee camps, criticism of Israel and the Menachem Begin government has become insistent and widespread. This is the kind of situation that tests Briskman’s political skills.

He says he does not “equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.” He does argue, however, that when people don’t criticize Arab atrocities and then proceed to criticize Israel, “they are not motivated by real justice and real moral concern. They are motivated by a hostility toward Israel’s very existence and perhaps even a hostility born of anti-Semitism.”

Some people might see a touch of paranoia in Briskman’s outlook, but his worries are widely shared within the Jewish community. He is particularly distressed by what he considers the “romanticizing of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization]” and the increasing acceptance of Yasser Arafat as a “statesman” rather than as a terrorist.

Briskman attributes this improved image of Israel’s enemies to the increasing Arab influence in America. He says that in the Dallas area, Arab interests are represented on three levels: officially by the League of Arab States; unofficially by the General Union of Palestinian Students, a group with ties to the PLO (with chapters at North Texas State University and the University of Texas at Arlington); and indirectly by certain Dallas-based corporations.

Briskman considers the last category to be the most potent. “In Dallas,” he says, “the most effective Arab representation is the tangential representation provided by businesses with interests in the Arab world.” Among the companies benefitting financially from Arab contracts are defense contractors, oil industry companies and construction firms.

But proving such allegations against corporations is difficult. Briskman cites E-Systems, a major manufacturer of defense-related electronics systems, as one firm that provides de facto representation for Arab interests. According to Brisk-man, “E-Systems built part of the AWACs [Airborne Warning and Control System], so that on that specific issue, E-Systems was heavily involved” in lobbying for legislation that would allow the sale of the AWACs planes to Saudi Arabia. Spokesmen for E-Systems deny this, saying their involvement in the project is minimal and that “we do more business with Israel than with the Arab countries.”

Some Arab business contacts in Dallas are made through individual corporations via the American-Arab Chamber of Commerce. This organization includes 55 Dallas-area companies (53 American, two Saudi) with business connections in Arab states. According to chamber president Maan Ubidi, “the idea is to support business in the Middle East without getting involved in politics.” Ubidi says any dealings the chamber has with Arab embassies in Washington are merely referrals for commercial information. He says there is no substance to charges that an organized pro-Arab business lobby exists in Dallas.



BRISKMAN’S Arab counterpart is Ab-del-Muhdi Shuriedeh, director of the Arab Information Center of the League of Arab States. Shuriedeh sees nothing treacherous about a foreign national representing Arab interests as a balance to the vocal support for Jewish and Israeli concerns.

Shuriedeh, a 44-year-old lawyer, is a staff member of the Jordanian Ministry of Information, who is on loan from his government to the League of Arab States and is completing his first year in Dallas. There are six league offices in the United States, representing 21 of the 22 Arab nations (Egypt has been excluded since Sadat signed the Camp David accords).

Shuriedeh estimates that there are approximately 1,500 people of Arab descent in Dallas. Unlike Briskman’s principal accountability to the Dallas Jewish community and the American ADL, Shurie-deh’s role is determined by a distant and fragile consensus among the League’s members. He is primarily an information broker, trying, he says, “to promote better understanding of Arab problems, culture and heritage.”

A conversation with Shuriedeh quickly uncovers a basic pessimism about his task; he is here to explain the Arab viewpoint because, he says, that outlook is virtually ignored in American press coverage. In a backhanded compliment to Briskman and his colleagues, Shuriedeh says that “pro-Israel lobbying influences the nature of press coverage,” except for brief periods when events such as the Beirut massacres overwhelm any lobbying efforts.

Menachem Begin’s proposed visit to Dallas drew a protest from Shuriedeh, but it was one he knew would be futile. Of Begin, Shuriedeh says, “How can you accept him or receive him in Dallas after the Beirut massacres?… People accuse the PLO of being terrorists but do not accuse the Israelis of terrorism.”

Although he claims he has felt no hostility directed toward him in Dallas, Shuriedeh admits there are constraints on his activities. He says the League does not contact elected officials the way the ADL does because “officials are afraid that if we contact them they will be accused by the Israelis of being pro-Arab, and the Israelis will start to attack them. The Jews accuse anyone who does not support them of being anti-Semitic.”

The relationship between Jews and conservative Christians is yet another cause for Shuriedeh’s dismay. He says he doesn’t understand why Arabs don’t enjoy similar favor from Christian leaders. After all, he says, “Moses was an Arab, Jesus was an Arab and Mohammed was an Arab.” He says that in Dallas, “the influence of the Jews comes not from the Jews themselves, but from their supporters” such as the conservative Christian leaders.

In Dallas, as elsewhere in America, the battle for popular support that is waged by pro-Israeli and pro-Arab interests transcends religious issues; it centers on global politics. Briskman says that survey research claims that most Americans “view Israel as a reliable, democratic ally in the Middle East and as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism.”

To this Shuriedeh responds, “Why does the American government prefer three million people and ignore 155 million people who also consider themselves allies of the United States? If I were in a position of power in the United States, I would at least deal with the Arabs and Israel the same way -an equal way -and not be totally with one side.”

The policy he attacks as being illogical is precisely that which Briskman knows he must defend. Shuriedeh criticizes Ronald Reagan for continuing past presidents’ pro-Israel policies. Briskman has kind words for the Reagan administration, particularly when compared to the Jimmy Carter White House, which was perceived by many Jews as being unnecessarily well-disposed toward Arab interests. “God knows what would have happened in this country,” Briskman says, “had Jimmy Carter been president during the Lebanon campaign this summer. In our view, the response of President Reagan was reserved, accurate and nonemotional.”

Briskman always keeps an eye on Washington because, he says, “To a large degree the issue of public opinion is really reflective of what the White House is saying; the White House sets the terms of the debate.”

In this debate, the advocates of the Israeli cause seem to have the upper hand. Their constituency is large and vocal, and their political clout is well-established. This is true in Dallas as it is elsewhere in the United States. Although Shuriedeh insists that “not all American opinion is against the Arabs; not all are supporting the Israelis,” he is hard pressed to find concrete evidence of support for his cause.

It is unlikely that the Arab-Israeli debatein Dallas will ever become as loud and pervasive as it is in cities like New York. ButDallas is a part of the battleground andwill remain a vital arena for quiet persuasion from both sides.