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.

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