Obama’s Selection of Sonal Shah and Rahm Emanuel Ruffle Feathers Among Some Immigrant Groups

By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor

Two of President-elect Obama’s early picks for his transition team and White House staff have stirred sharp debate among immigrant and ethnic groups in the US and overseas. One was the designation of Chicago Congressman Rahm Emanuel as the incoming White House chief of staff. The other, the selection of Indian American economist Sonal Shah, head of Global Development Initiatives at Google.org and a former Treasury Department and National Security Council official, to Obama’s transition team.

The choice of Emanuel caused some initial discomfort among two groups: pro-immigration advocates and pro-Palestinian groups. Demonstrating the fine line the president-elect has to walk in choosing a cabinet, Emanuel’s designation was greeted with optimism by Polish Americans, who make up a significant proportion of the population in Emanuel’s congressional district in Chicago.

Emanuel is considered a hawkish pro-Israel advocate — the son of an Israeli father, he served as a civilian volunteer on an Israeli military base during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. This has Jewish advocacy groups celebrating and getting ready to push their agenda in Washington D.C., particularly social issues like health care reform, public housing and welfare.

Emanuel is Jewishly active — his children attend a day school in Chicago, and during the most tense days of the financial crisis, he asked his Orthodox rabbi if he could take a conference call about the bailout package during Rosh Hashana. (His rabbi said he could.) Emanuel’s moderate Democratic views on domestic policy also put him in sync with much of the organized Jewish community.

On foreign affairs, the newspaper said Obama’s team “is shaping up to be centrist and pragmatic, strong on Israel and likely to use special envoys to deal with overseas conflicts.” The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though, is not seen as a priority when compared to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But what pleases Israel supporters about Emanuel displeases advocates for the Palestinians.

“Israel may well be the Achilles heel of Obama’s progressive pretensions,” wrote Anjali Kamat in Samar (South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection.)

It’s particularly disheartening given the respect he once held for reputed Palestinian intellectuals like Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi. A day after winning the Democratic nomination, Obama told AIPAC that Jerusalem should be Israel’s undivided capital. Now, just two days after being elected President, he named the hawkish pro-Israeli Rahm Emmanuel as his chief of staff, crushing any hopes that the coming administration might have a fairer policy on the Palestinian question.

But Arab American columnist Ray Hanania said he is not worried by Obama’s “growing pro-Israel cabinet.”

He is not going to become a war-mongering extremist as is his predecessor George W. Bush. And, none of his appointments, not even (Vice President-elect Joe) Biden who declares himself a “Zionist,” can ever come close to the fanaticism and anti-Arab hate embraced by Bush’s cabinet of Israel-philes.

Hanania said he considers the Obama team “far more moderate and supportive of a negotiated peace accord, while Bush’s pro-Israel contingent were right-wing fanatics who viewed peace talks as a tactic that effectively delayed peace and gave Israel the excuse to exploit the status quo.”

The addition of Sonal Shah to the transition team also shows how each choice Obama makes can have unforeseen — and perhaps unintended — consequences among a wide variety of groups that are watching him put together his new administration.

Shah’s appointment seemed to go mostly unnoticed by U.S. media, but in India and Pakistan it has caused a stir. The 40-year-old economist, said The Hindustan Times, “has well established rightwing leanings.”

Denouncing those alleged links with extreme nationalistic groups, three organizations of Indian Americans published a statement saying they will increase their efforts to educate “American politicians and business leaders about the attempts by the Hindu ultra-nationalist Hindutva movement to infiltrate the power centres of the U.S. society by giving big donations and through volunteer work.”

Pro-Pakistani groups are not happy, either. Pakistan’s Daily Times quoted Professor Vijay Prashad, chairman of South Asian history at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., saying,

(Shah) was an active member of the VHPA, the U.S. branch of the most virulently fascistic outfit within India. The VHP’s head, Ashok Singhal, believes that his organisation should ‘inculcate a fear psychosis among (India’s) Muslim community.’ This was Shah’s boss. Till 2001, Shah was the National Coordinator of the VHPA.

“Our family has been engaged in community work for ages. (Sonal’s father) Ramesh is associated with various community groups and associations,” her mother Kokila Shah said. “That doesn’t mean we have links with RSS. Such reports might affect Sonal’s progress.”

Sonal Shah, however, does appear in a VHP webpage as a national coordinator of a 2001 earthquake relief effort organized by the group’s American chapter.


  1. patelini

    Sonal Shah, you have very wrong impression. I like you to visit Indicorp your self ,visit work she and her siblings have done for their fathers country, which they did not had time to spend during their superb upbringing in USA, with great education and religious unbiased moral values and association with many religious and economical development NGO organizations, have developed excellent true program of elevation poor and uneducated to next level in their life. Mr Prasad seems just talking professor. Nothing to do but trash great work. I question Mr Prasad if have guts to show his own great work close to this great women. Asd aman of great talent, I question if he has done 5% of her work.

  2. Pingback: The Chosen Ones « InnoRed

  3. hunbug_grinch

    A group of prominent Indian and Americans of South Asian descent, drawing from policy experts, journalists and industry leaders such as Cricket journalist Prem Panicker , National Public Radio]journalist, Arun Venugopal, and Bilaal Ahmed of Impak, all of whom know Shah personally, have affirmed her commitment to human rights, tolerance and the rule of law.

    They publicly deplore the unfounded accusations against her, stating, “We urge that liberal civility be restored and individuals like Sonal not be unfairly targeted.”


    Sanjay Puri of the United States India Political Action Committee]also criticized these allegations, saying that “It is the first time an Indian American has been elected to the transition team of a president-elect. It is an honour that is shared by all Indian Americans. Shouldn’t we be celebrating her success?”

    .Salil Tripathi published at the [[Wall Street Journal]] that Vijay Prashad has “been challenging Shah” since 2001 and that the accusations against her are ” preposterous, tendentious and disingenuous”http://www.livemint.com/2008/11/12225200/In-defence-of-Sonal-Shah.html?h=B]. Larry Brilliant of the World Health Organization and the [[Seva Foundation] a long time associate of Shah, has pleaded to “help stop the bigots who are maligning her (Shah)” and “stop circulating their venom”.[http://wetware.blogspot.com/2008/11/in-defence-of-sonal-shah.html In defense of Sonal Shah]

  4. Hunbug Grinch, thanks a lot for the comment and the links. It’s clear from reading them that the debate has remained strong within the South Asian community about Sonal Shah’s alleged associations.

  5. Jatin

    Why does Sonal have to hide her Sangh Parivar affiliations, why not be upfront about it and admit it was a mistake to associate oneself with them.

  6. hunbug_grinch

    Debate my big brown butt! This is just another racist propaganda attempt by the far-left Forum of “Indian” (Pakistani) Leftists (formerly the Forum for “Inquilabi” ie JIHADIST Leftists), a Pakistani-ISI sponsored hate group that sports such charming personalities like American Neo-Nazi Wendy Campbell, Hezbollah al-Manar conspiracy theorists and Pakistani Islamists under leftist garb.

    FOIL is a virulently racist anti-India and antisemitic hate group that spreads libels about successful Indian American minorities in order to encourage racial discrimination against them.

    This is the same group that spreads antisemitic blood libels that “Jews were behind 9/11” and that the recent Mumbai attacks were “orchestrated by ‘Hindu Zionists'”, whatever the hell THAT means.

  7. Paris Mathew

    The Sang parivar (which includes VHP and RSS) is exploiting the certain feeling in Hindu majority. They are systematically drilling beliefs like
    1) Hindus are oppressed in their own land
    2) Minorities are being appeased at expense of Hindus
    3) Hindus are denied justice

    As a result, I see escalation of religious fights never seen before. I never heard of hindu-christian roits when I grew up in India. This hate propaganda is courtesy Sang parivar. Their propaganda machinery is well oiled and functioning. Their propaganda justifies every crime committed against Indian minorities.

    Why did gujarat killing take place? Because hindus were burnt in train.

    Why were Christians attacked in Orissa? Because swami was killed by christian.

    Sonal Shah was active member of this group. She appears to wear a double face.

  8. hunbug_grinch

    1) Hindus are oppressed in their own land

    Hindus ARE oppressed in their own land, see:



    2) Minorities are being appeased at expense of Hindus

    To a large extent, they are. That is why we just had one of the worst Islamic terrorist attacks in Indian history just now, and the government does nothing. Madrassa after madrassa opens up in the country side indoctrinating Muslims into advocating discrimination, violence and genocide of Hindus and Jews, and the government actively encourages it.

    Frankly you Hindu haters have started picking up conspiracy theories and racism from Neo-nazi and radical Islamist groups. Attributing unprovable and fantastic conspiracies is precisely what the Nazis did to Jews.

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