Washington, DC – Civil rights advocates in the United States have been warning that dehumanising rhetoric about the Israel-Hamas war could translate into attacks on Palestinian, Arab and Muslim American communities at home.
Those fears appear to have materialised in the ugliest way when a six-year-old Palestinian American child was stabbed to death in a suspected hate crime near Chicago on Saturday.
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While President Joe Biden has strongly condemned bigotry “in all its forms” since the start of the war, Arab advocates say his administration’s approach to the conflict is fuelling hatred against their communities.
Addressing the current atmosphere, Maya Berry, the executive director of the Arab American Institute think-tank, decried efforts to demonise support for Palestinian rights.
“We had a press secretary stand at the podium, behind the presidential seal at the White House, and say that advocacy for human rights — by calling for a ceasefire, by acknowledging the Palestinian victims — was ‘repugnant’,” Berry told Al Jazeera.
That incident occurred on October 10, when White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked about statements progressive lawmakers made calling for a ceasefire. The reporter posing the question alleged that some of those lawmakers had equated Israel’s actions with those of the Palestinian group Hamas.
“I’ve seen some of those statements this weekend, and we’re going to continue to be very clear,” Jean-Pierre replied. “We believe they are wrong, we believe they’re repugnant, and we believe they’re disgraceful.”
The conflict erupted on October 7 when Hamas launched a highly coordinated attack against Israel from the besieged Gaza Strip, killing more than 1,300 people and taking dozens captive.
Israel responded with a declaration of war and an ongoing bombing campaign that has killed at least 3,785 Palestinians, including hundreds of children in Gaza.
Vilifying rights advocates
With the war raging, activists say communities that support the Palestinian cause have been on edge as officials and media figures in the US advance a narrative that conflates advocacy for Palestinian human rights with support for Hamas’s attack.
Last week, New York Governor Kathy Hochul was asked about her message to members of the state’s Palestinian community “who fear for their own civilian loved ones” in Gaza. She responded by calling for “law-abiding Palestinians to reject Hamas”, without mentioning violence against Palestinians.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins called a peaceful protest for Gaza on Saturday a “pro-Hamas rally” in a now-deleted social media post.
Afterwards, in a statement to Al Jazeera, Jenkins said she removed the post after listening to concerns from the Arab and Muslim community. She cited graffiti that said “death 2 Israel” that was sprayed in downtown San Francisco on the same day as the march.
“We must acknowledge that both our Arab, Muslim and Jewish communities are in pain because of the loss of innocent lives and fearful of what may come next. No form of hate will be tolerated in San Francisco,” Jenkins said.
Palestinian rights supporters fear the backlash they face will be amplified by calls for unchecked violence in Gaza, particularly from the political right.
For example, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said earlier this week, “As far as I’m concerned, Israel can bounce the rubble in Gaza.” Another senator, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, described the conflict as a “religious war” — one in which he sided with Israel.
“Do whatever the hell you have to do to defend yourself,” he said of Israel’s attacks on Gaza. “Level the place.”
We’re in a religious war and I unapologetically Stand with Israel. pic.twitter.com/AQDY4ELrmJ
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) October 11, 2023
A history of violence
For advocates, the political commentary in the US overlooks a long history of violence against the Palestinian people.
Berry highlighted the plight of Palestinians, from the mass displacement in 1948 to the occupation of their territories in 1967 to the siege on Gaza over the past 16 years.
Leading rights groups, including Amnesty International, have also accused Israel of imposing apartheid on Palestinians.
“All of that gets reduced to: ‘You are advocating for positions consistent with Nazis and ISIS,'” Berry said. “With that, I worry our fellow Americans are being told to fear us or attack us. This has been a moral bankruptcy of the public discourse.”
That fear crystallised when six-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume, a Palestinian American child, was stabbed 26 times by his family’s landlord on Saturday.
Local authorities said the suspect attacked Al-Fayoume and his mother, who was injured, “due to them being Muslim and the on-going Middle Eastern conflict involving Hamas and the Israelis”.
Palestinian communities across the country were shaken in the wake of the news.
“Anytime that there is a hysteria that dehumanises any people, we shouldn’t be surprised that this sort of thing happens,” Palestinian American analyst Yousef Munayyer told Al Jazeera after the attack.
President Biden was quick to condemn the suspected hate crime. “This horrific act of hate has no place in America and stands against our fundamental values: freedom from fear for how we pray, what we believe, and who we are,” he said in a statement.
“As Americans, we must come together and reject Islamophobia and all forms of bigotry and hatred.”
But Berry said condemning religious bigotry is not enough. She added that the Biden administration has failed to approach the conflict with the “simple” principle that the killing of civilians must be condemned no matter who perpetrates it.
“Their inability to do that — their inability to acknowledge Palestinian suffering — has reduced those voices of ours that do to marginal people that need to be condemned or, at best, sidelined,” she said.
“It is why defending religious liberty is safer for those who do not want to speak of anti-Arab bigotry and the history of exclusion my community has faced because of our support for Palestinian human rights.”
For his part, Abed Ayoub, executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said Biden’s statement came too late.
“The administration was warned multiple times that there is going to be an increase of hate crimes that could lead to violent crimes against our community in the US,” Ayoub said.
“And they continued with their misinformation. And they continued with their ignoring of the Palestinians in our perspective and erasing our narrative from the public discourse.”
Last week, Biden falsely claimed that he saw pictures proving that Hamas “decapitated children”, sparking an outcry from Arab American advocates.
‘Tensions are high’
Mariam Charara, the executive director of the Arab American Civil Rights League (ACRL), an advocacy group based in Dearborn, Michigan, said there is growing frustration amongst Arab Americans as the conflict continues.
“The tensions are high. Emotions are high as well,” Charara told Al Jazeera. “And it’s unfortunate because some of them are also losing hope in how the system is run.”
Dearborn, a Detroit suburb that is home to a large Arab community, has been the target of a flood of bigoted comments online over rallies in support of Palestinian rights.
As Mayor of the City of Dearborn, my top priority is ensuring the safety of our residents. Given recent events, I want every member of our community to know that we are taking all necessary precautions. The Dearborn Police Department is ramping up patrols, working overtime, and…
— Abdullah H. Hammoud (@AHammoudMI) October 15, 2023
A man from a neighbouring city was arrested last week for making threats on social media against Palestinian Americans in the suburb.
Munayyer, the analyst, said that although Arab Americans are concerned for their safety, they “also feel that there is an urgency, particularly in the Palestinian community, to speak up for those Palestinians in Gaza — who are at the greatest risk in this very dangerous moment”.
Ayoub also said that the Arab Americans are not deterred by attempts to silence them.
“We’re a strong community; we’re an organised community. We are a community that has resources and skills,” he told Al Jazeera. “So we’re going to push back. We’re going to fight back. We’re not going to take this lying down.”
Usaid Siddiqui contributed to this report.