Bethlehem to Brooklyn: Palestinian-American's historic run for NYC Council

Bethlehem to Brooklyn: Palestinian-American's historic run for NYC Council
5 min read
03 March, 2017
Reverend Khader El-Yateem, a Palestinian-American pastor from Bethlehem, hopes to win votes from across New York's diverse communities, to represent them at City Hall.
Reverend Khader El-Yateem is well-known across communities in Brooklyn [credit: campaign website]
The Le Sajj Lebanese restaurant in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge was packed full of people last Sunday, 26 February.

The attendees were present to witness an historic announcement: An immigrant from the Palestinian town of Bethlehem was launching a campaign to be elected as the first Arab-American councillor for New York's City Hall. 

Reverend Khader El-Yateem, the pastor of the Salam Arabic Church in Bay Ridge, is well known and liked by Brooklyn's Arab and Muslim community. He has also forged important ties with other groups in the city, including the Jewish community.

Waving a father's day card from his daughter, El-Yateem spoke at the launch about receiving this card six years ago.

In it, his daughter praised him as fantastic, amazing, thoughtful and remarkable. El-Yateem told his supporters that he has tried to live up to the expectations of his daughter. 

Then turning to his supporters, Rev. El-Yateem said, "I will do my best to meet up to you all your expectations, because your problem, is my problem." 

The Palestinian-American clergyman said that his campaign would be "positive" and that he would not tolerate any negativity in his campaign.

"My promise is that this is not my campaign, it is your campaign," he said.

We are going to win because we are standing on the right side of history.
- Khader El-Yateem, candidate for NYC Council

The nominee for a seat at the New York City council vowed to fight for the "rights of those who speak and look different from the mainstream of America".

Reverend El-Yateem promised to be inclusive and to stand up for the rights of the stranger, the migrant and the needy.

"We are going to win because we are standing on the right side of history," he pledged, ending his short announcement.

Reverend Khader El-Yateem - born in 1968, in the Palestinian town of Beit Jala near Bethlehem - is running for the seat currently held by Council member Vincent Gentile, who has represented the 43rd District for more than 13 years, and who cannot run again come this year's election due to term limit.

El-Yateem arrived in the US in 1992 and he received his theological training at the Philadelphia Lutheran Seminary. He was then tasked with working with the local Christian community in Bay Ridge. Arab Christians had been slowly taking the place of some of the Europeans who had moved on from the Brooklyn area.

El-Yateem changed the name of the Salem Church to Salam Arabic Church, and began working with the local Arab-American community and with new immigrants who had made Bay Ridge their home. This demographic change over the years is perhaps one of the reasons Reverend El-Yateem has a chance of electoral success.

Linda Sarsour, who has become a national star in the American women's movement, is a strong supporter of Rev. El-Yateem's nomination.

She agreed to be the master of ceremonies of the launch event speaking highly of the interfaith leader and putting her support behind him.

An award-winning Arab-American and Muslim-American activist and organiser, Sarsour told The New Arab that Khader El-Yateem was a man of principles; one who shares universal values of dignity and respect with people of all backgrounds.

'At a time when we are divided as a country, Khader is a bridge-builder who has a track record of bringing people together to address important and complicated issues.'
- Linda Sarsour

"At a time when we are divided as a country, Khader is a bridge-builder who has a track record of bringing people together to address important and complicated issues. He doesn't shy away from the hard conversations and gives platforms for all people. He is the perfect candidate for the NYC Council. He is the candidate we deserve," she said.

Habib Joudeh, an Arab-American businessman and community leader also hailed Khader El-Yateem as the right man for the right position.

"He has passion for the community, he is well-respected and he is the best candidate for this time."

Joudeh complained that the Arab-American community in Brooklyn is not represented in official city, state or national circles.

"We are constantly being de-legitimised and if we are able to elect an Arab-American to City Hall this will be a huge step in the struggle to bring respectability to the Arab-American community," he told The New Arab.

Reverend El-Yateem - who has been active in interfaith groups - says he is also expecting to win votes from Brooklyn's Jewish community

In an phone interview with The New Arab, Khader El-Yateem sounded upbeat and confident that he would win the important democratic party primaries next September, and go on in November to become the first Arab-American to serve on the City Council.

"We have assembled strong team and we have forged very good ties with all relevant groups in Brooklyn. We have support from progressives as well as from a wide range of people."

Rev. El-Yateem noted that his campaign has been receiving endorsements and support from different groups. Donations ranging from $20 to $200 have been pouring in. El-Yateem says he is confident he will max out the amount allowed by election board which must not exceed $180,000 for the primaries, and the same amount for the general elections.

Reverend E-Yateem - who has been active in interfaith groups - says he is also expecting to win votes from Brooklyn's Jewish community.

"I have been serving as chaplain at the largely Jewish owned and run Maimonides hospital for six years and a number of Hassidic Jewish leaders have approached me to say that they, and their community, will be voting for me."

Ironically, the City Council elections have meant that a community which is feeling ostracised by President Trump and his administration, has been galvanised into action.

For many Brooklyn residents, the election of Reverend E-Yateem as a councillor to New York City Hall would the most fitting answer to the Trump administration's blistering attacks on Arabs and Muslims.

Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.

Follow him on @daoudkuttab

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.