'Call it by its name'

How hateful rhetoric feeds anti-Palestinian violence in the US

A boy holds a Palestinian flag during a march for Gaza, in Washington, DC
A boy holds a Palestinian flag during a march for Gaza in Washington, DC, on January 13 [Anna Rose Layden/Reuters]
A boy holds a Palestinian flag during a march for Gaza in Washington, DC, on January 13 [Anna Rose Layden/Reuters]

Burlington, Vermont – With Israel waging war in the Gaza Strip and violence reaching new heights in the occupied West Bank, Hisham Awartani’s family thought he would be safer in the United States.

That’s why, instead of going to the West Bank for Thanksgiving break, the 20-year-old Palestinian student and his two childhood friends decided to spend the US holiday with relatives in the small northeastern state of Vermont.

It’s also why Awartani’s uncle, Rich Price, didn’t think too much of the convoy of police cars that screamed past his house, sirens blaring, on the evening of November 25.

Awartani was supposed to be out of harm’s way in the quaint lakeshore city of Burlington. But a call Price received from his mother that night would remind him of the violence Palestinians face, even abroad.

“Hisham had called her and said, ‘Granny, I’ve been shot,’” Price told Al Jazeera from his dining room, where family photographs line the walls. Large windows look out onto North Prospect, the same street where Awartani and his friends Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ahmad were attacked.

Rich Price stands for a photo in his kitchen in Burlington, Vermont
Rich Price's nephew and two of his friends were shot a few blocks from Price's house while visiting Burlington, Vermont [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

“Their families decided it was safer for them to come to Burlington, Vermont,” Price said. “One of the really difficult things about this is that they came here specifically because we felt this was a safer place for them to be.”

The Palestinian students were wearing keffiyehs and speaking a mixture of Arabic and English when a man stepped off his porch, less than three blocks from Price’s home, and opened fire. All three were injured but survived. Awartani is now paralysed from the chest down.

“He’s doing incredible work and putting a lot of effort into his rehab, and I think it’s difficult. Now he’s back at Brown [University]. He’s having to actually experience what it means to be back on that campus in a wheelchair,” Price said.

The attack didn’t just upend Awartani’s life, though. It also spurred fear across the country, where Palestinians and their supporters said they have faced a barrage of hateful rhetoric since Israel’s military offensive in Gaza began in early October.

According to Price, the dehumanisation of Palestinians in the US is the primary factor that fuelled November’s shooting.

Turquoise hearts with the phrase, 'Neighbors Stand Against Hate', on the front door to Rich Price's house in Burlington, Vermont, US
Hearts with the message 'Neighbors Stand Against Hate' are stuck on the front door of Price's home [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

“The Palestinian struggle is one that is not told in a balanced way in this country,” he said.

“The rhetoric of people in politics, in positions of leadership — certainly after October 7 — that talked about the struggle as a struggle between good and evil is really dehumanising and dangerous rhetoric.”

That’s a view shared by nearly a dozen community advocates and experts who spoke to Al Jazeera for this story. They detailed how politicians, media outlets and pro-Israel groups have spent years dehumanising and demonising Palestinians — with sometimes deadly results.

The role of political rhetoric

A view of North Prospect Street, where three Palestinian students were shot in November, in Burlington, Vermont, US
A view of North Prospect Street in Burlington, Vermont, where Awartani, Abdalhamid and Ahmad were shot late last year [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]
A view of North Prospect Street in Burlington, Vermont, where Awartani, Abdalhamid and Ahmad were shot late last year [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

It can be difficult to determine what constitutes a hate crime, in part because bias is tricky to identify. Is a shooting like the one in Burlington anti-Palestinian? Anti-Arab? Anti-Muslim? Or some combination of those prejudices?

In the Vermont case, the man arrested has pleaded not guilty, and state officials and the US Department of Justice continue to examine whether to press hate crime charges.

While such an investigation can take months, experts said anti-Palestinian sentiment lies at the heart of the “relentless” wave of hate incidents since October.

“Frequently, we see stuff like it’s a keffiyeh that sort of starts the incident, and while that’s a well-known Palestinian identifier, there’s no way for us to know what’s in the head of the person committing the incident,” said Corey Saylor, research and advocacy director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

A boy holds a sign reading, 'I am not a threat!' at a vigil to mourn the killing of a Palestinian-American boy near Chicago
Mourners attend a vigil for Wadea Al-Fayoume, a Palestinian-American boy who was killed near Chicago in an October attack police say was motivated by hate [Jim Vondruska/Reuters]

CAIR said it received 3,578 complaints related to anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim hate incidents in the last three months of 2023 — a 178 percent increase compared with a year earlier. The cases range from doxxing, or posting someone’s personal information online without their consent, to violent attacks.

“You don’t get this wave if you don’t have a set of biases built into society in regards to particular Arabs and Muslims,” Saylor told Al Jazeera. “There’s a basis of hate there that has to exist for this wave that we saw in October, November, December to occur. It’s looking for someone to flip the switch, essentially.”

The wave has coincided with a rise in hostile rhetoric against the Palestinian people — in the occupied territories, in Israel and in the diaspora.

The war began on October 7 when the Palestinian group Hamas launched deadly attacks on southern Israel. In the following days, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant described Israel’s military campaign as a fight against “human animals” as he called for Gaza — home to 2.3 million Palestinians — to be placed under strict siege.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likewise painted the conflict as a battle between “the forces of civilization and the forces of barbarism”. President Isaac Herzog also said “an entire nation” of Palestinians was “responsible” for the Hamas attacks.

US President Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden has provided unequivocal support to Israel during the Gaza war [File: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

Israel’s defenders in the US made similar comments: Some members of Congress, like Representative Brian Mast of Florida, said there were few “innocent Palestinians” in Gaza. President Joe Biden, meanwhile, dismissed the mounting Palestinian death toll as “the price of waging war”.

Nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed since the military campaign in Gaza began.

Critics have also pointed to stereotypes in US media as contributing to the negative perceptions of Palestinians. For instance, an opinion column published in The Wall Street Journal in early February described Dearborn, Michigan, a city with large Palestinian and Arab-American populations, as “America's jihad capital”.

“There is a direct correlation: When the rhetoric goes up, so does the hate speech, and it often leads to hate crimes,” said Abed Ayoub, national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

In one of the most glaring examples, Palestinian activist and the ADC’s West Coast Director Alex Odeh was killed in 1985 when the organisation’s California office was firebombed.

The attack is believed to have been carried out by members of the far-right Jewish Defense League, but no one has been charged — leaving an open wound for the community.

“We’ve lost staff members that were killed because of the bombings from these really far, right-wing Zionist extremists. That poses a real threat,” Ayoub told Al Jazeera.

'Feelings of horror'

Mourners attend a vigil service for Wadea Al-Fayoume, a six-year-old killed in a Chicago suburb in October
Mourners attend a vigil for Wadea Al-Fayoume, a six-year-old Palestinian American boy who was stabbed to death near Chicago in October [Jim Vondruska/Reuters]
Mourners attend a vigil for Wadea Al-Fayoume, a six-year-old Palestinian American boy who was stabbed to death near Chicago in October [Jim Vondruska/Reuters]

Ahmed Rehab, executive director of CAIR’s Chicago branch, said he raised the alarm in October about “the volume of biassed and anti-Palestinian propaganda that was pouring out of the media and the statements from elected officials”.

Later that same month, a six-year-old Palestinian American boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, was killed in a Chicago suburb when his family’s landlord stabbed him 26 times. His mother was also severely injured.

Police said they were “targeted by the suspect due to them being Muslim and the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict involving Hamas and the Israelis”.

CAIR's Ahmed Rehab speaks during the funeral of a young Palestinian-American boy who was killed near Chicago in October
Ahmed Rehab speaks as mourners attend a funeral prayer for Wadea Al-Fayoume in Bridgeview, Illinois, on October 16, 2023 [Jim Vondruska/Reuters]

Rehab said the attack spurred “feelings of horror” in the community.

“This is a child stabbed 26 times by an adult, an innocent child who had done nothing to him,” he told Al Jazeera. Thousands of people attended the boy’s funeral in mid-October.

“In addition to the obvious, there is a feeling of abandonment and a feeling of being left out to dry because how do you protect against that?” Rehab said.

“It definitely feels like a grave sense of injustice. It feels like you’re alone and you don’t really know what to do. These protests in the streets [for Palestine], that’s not a strategy. That’s people crying out for justice when every other door has been shut.”

For Iman Abid-Thompson, a Palestinian American and director of advocacy and organising at the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, hate-filled rhetoric allows people “to fuel their own hate and violence” against Palestinians.

“We are oftentimes used synonymously with the term ‘terrorist’,” she said.

“These are the sorts of things that resonate with people, with US white vigilantes who think that, ‘Oh, my gosh, in order to protect America, I must protect us against these sorts of terrorists.’”

Years of dehumanisation

flowers lie on a list of names
Flowers lay on a list of names of Palestinians killed in Gaza since October 7 at a vigil and protest in New York on February 27 [Adam Gray/Reuters]
Flowers lay on a list of names of Palestinians killed in Gaza since October 7 at a vigil and protest in New York on February 27 [Adam Gray/Reuters]

That framing — of Palestinians as “terrorists” — is not new, explained Evelyn Alsultany, a professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California’s Dornsife College.

She traced that perspective back to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 when Palestinians were painted “as people you can’t reason with, who are terrorists and who are anti-Semitic”.

That narrative continued to grow after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 when Israel seized the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and other Arab lands. Multiple plane hijackings in the 1970s carried out by Palestinian armed groups contributed to negative perceptions of Palestinians.

Then with the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and the Iranian hostage crisis, “we got the conflation of Arabs and Iranians and Muslims as all the same,” Alsultany said. “By the time we got to 9/11, it was very easy to make the case that Islam writ large, Arabs writ large, were a threat to US national security.”

Demonstrating against Islamophobia
Muslims protest at a large antiwar rally in 2011 in New York City [File: Mario Tama/Getty Images]

Alsultany explained that conflating anti-Palestinian hate with Islamophobia not only erases the diversity of Palestinian society but “it also gives the impression that this is a religious conflict when it is not. It is a political conflict,” she said. She pointed out that, while most Palestinians are Muslim, some are Christian or Druze.

“It is connected to Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian racism — there are overlaps. But saying Islamophobia right now, which is the language that’s being used, is erasing Palestinians.”

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and a longtime community advocate, also noted that Palestinian and Muslim identities were being conflated as one.

In November, for instance, Biden unveiled plans to launch a national campaign to combat Islamophobia — at a moment when he was facing pressure to condemn violence against Palestinians.

“For too long, Muslims in America and those perceived to be Muslim, such as Arabs and Sikhs, have endured a disproportionate number of hate-fueled attacks and other discriminatory incidents,” the White House said in a statement announcing the initiative.

But according to Zogby, the Biden administration has things backwards. “It’s not Islamophobia, and it’s not, as the White House says, ‘Muslims and people perceived to be Muslims’. More often than not, it’s the other way around. It’s Arabs and people perceived to be Arabs,” he told Al Jazeera.

And within that targeting of “Arabs and people perceived to be Arabs”, anger over Palestine and Palestinian advocacy is a central cause.

“When three people went to jail for threatening my life after 9/11, it was Palestine [that] was the issue. The death threat I got back in the ‘70s — Palestine. My office got firebombed in 1980 — it was Palestine,” Zogby said.

'Call it by its name'

Posters of Biden at a fence outside the White House, urging him to demand a ceasefire in Gaza
Posters of US President Biden and plastic dolls are lined up next to a fence near the White House on January 13 [Anna Rose Layden/Reuters]
Posters of US President Biden and plastic dolls are lined up next to a fence near the White House on January 13 [Anna Rose Layden/Reuters]

For many years, Zogby said there was a sense that this steady stream of hate and discrimination wasn't something you reported or talked about. He explained that the mindset in the community was: “We have to be stronger than that and deal with it."

“I think that created an impression that really everything was OK, and it wasn’t OK.”

Zogby described losing jobs, being excluded politically and receiving threatening phone calls at home. The 1970s threat arrived as a note made of cut-out magazine letters — just like in the movies. The letters spelled, “Arab dog you’ll die.”

Part of his advocacy work now revolves around shedding light on instances of hate against the Palestinian community and other Arab Americans.

“Call it by its name. Call it what it is. It’s anti-Palestinian bigotry,” he continued. “It’s the refusal to accept Palestinians as equal human beings deserving of rights and punishing those who speak out in support of them.”

According to Zogby, part of the problem is that most Americans think there can be only one victim in the conflict between Israel and Palestine — and that victim is Israel.

“And so Palestinians or supporters of Palestinians aren’t victims, and that creates a sense of vulnerability. It creates a sense of frustration. It creates a sense of, ‘I don’t have equal rights in this situation.’”

Abid-Thompson from the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights added that Palestinian identity is often painted by Israel and pro-Israel groups as menacing.

“There was this idea that if you were Palestinian or were talking about the Palestinian movement, it’s threatening,” she said. “It’s threatening to the Zionist ideology. It’s threatening to the Zionist support that we have in this country, and it’s always unwanted.”

Pressure on campus

A view of the University of Vermont campus, in Burlington in February 2024
A view of the University of Vermont campus in Burlington in February 2024 [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]
A view of the University of Vermont campus in Burlington in February 2024 [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

But Ayoub at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said Palestinian and Arab Americans are increasingly challenging the negative narratives faced by their communities.

“There is a sense of fear and apprehension, but that’s not going to stop us from doing what we need to do,” he told Al Jazeera. “For our community, what’s important is we exercise our voice.”

He pointed to mass protests and grassroots campaigns that denounce the dehumanisation of Palestinians and seek to push US politicians to end the country’s unequivocal support for Israel. In states like Michigan, Palestinian, Arab and Muslim groups are campaigning against Biden’s re-election bid to try to challenge his stalwart support for Israel’s war in Gaza.

Demonstrators participate in the March on Washington for Gaza in January
Demonstrators gather in Washington, DC, for January's March on Washington for Gaza [Anna Rose Layden/Reuters]

“That’s how we’re going to push back against the rhetoric, the hate crimes, against everything — is we’re going to organise and mobilise around these elections. That didn’t happen after 9/11. That didn’t happen after any other point,” Ayoub explained.

But the violence that anti-Palestinian rhetoric fuels still ripples throughout communities like Burlington.

At the University of Vermont, located in the heart of the city, Danya, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, said she is still grappling with a lingering sense of insecurity.

She told Al Jazeera that she never felt safe on campus, even before the Gaza war. She asked to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.

As she spoke in a university common room, her voice dropped to a low volume as if she feared being overheard. She said some students have reacted incredulously upon finding out she is Palestinian. Others have responded by saying she needs to support Israel.

“Even when I tell people I’m Palestinian, I find myself whispering in saying it. I shouldn’t have to do that,” the 20-year-old, originally from a large Palestinian community near Chicago, told Al Jazeera.

A view of the street sign for North Prospect Street, where three Palestinian students were shot in November, in Burlington, Vermont, US
North Prospect Street is where the three Palestinian students were shot in November in Burlington, Vermont [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

But Danya explained the shooting of Awartani and his two friends in November left her particularly shaken. The gunfire erupted only a few blocks from campus.

It reminded her of her mother’s warnings to not wear her keffiyeh and to remove the Palestine-themed key chains from her backpack.

“My mom would always tell me, ‘Please don’t wear this. Don’t wear it because people get shot over this,’” she recalled. “So when it happened, I just kept replaying my mom’s voice telling me that.”

CAIR said 13 percent of the hate incidents since October were related to discrimination in education.

There have been “significant amounts of doxxing and attempts to make students pay a long-term price for speaking out on behalf of Palestinian humanity”, Saylor, CAIR’s research and advocacy director, explained.

A University of Vermont student wearing a sweatshirt featuring three maps of historic Palestine on the front
Danya says she never felt safe on the University of Vermont campus [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

Despite those risks, Danya remains undeterred. She wore a white sweatshirt with three maps of historic Palestine to her interview with Al Jazeera. She also continues to don her keffiyeh.

“That's just a part of who I am, and I don't want to let that fear get in the way of me proudly representing my heritage,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Because at the end of the day, I feel like people who have anti-Palestinian hate ... want us to feel scared and they don’t want us to be joyful — they don’t want us to be proud of our culture.

"But the more they keep pushing that, the more I want to be like, ‘No, I’m Palestinian. I’m proud.’”

Source: Al Jazeera