Posted on September 29, 2016 in Countdown

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First D(eb)ate is a Doozy for Perspective Presidents

After an anxious build up, we finally got to see the Democratic and Republican candidates right up next to each other this week. We'll spare you the general recap (transcript here, a good fact check here) and try to sum up why the Arab American Institute is pretty concerned about how it all went down. In an election year that has been divisive, often times xenophobic, and way less than aspirational - - all we got Monday was more of the same, and most of it from businessman-in-candidate Donald Trump. The Republican nominee continued with his birther nonsense, added to his misogynistic blather, wouldn't back down from the stop and frisk insistence, and even bragged about cheating people out of money, legally. That's not the America we want, or know. We're left wondering why Donald wouldn't try to clean up his unpopular and offensive rhetoric on these topics - it must be because he truly believes it. But although most everyone is agreeing that Hillary "won the night," we've got to take issue with at least one of the punches she threw on the debate stage, and it wasn't directed at Trump. Clinton slammed Congress in what has become a regular stump speech blurb on "keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists." We covered this for you last week, but we'll keep trying to politely point out why the so called "No Fly, No Buy" legislation perpetuates a deeply flawed, discriminatory, and dubiously unconstitutional watch listing system. Maybe we've been too polite, which we can't say for Trump's debate style.

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The Craziest Hearing Since the Peter King Hearings That No One is Talking About

The short detour members of Congress are making to Washington, D.C. this month has brought some rushed, offensive, and downright unstatesmanlike attempts to dot their "i"'s and cross their "t"'s ahead of the elections. Their major focus seems to be on (finally) exercising oversight responsibilities for the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. The first hearing of the week called on the Director of the Office of Community Partnerships at the Dept. of Homeland Security (read: CVE) - to explain how the Obama Administration is handling domestic security challenges. While we applaud Congress for finally pressing for more information about Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs, we were astounded that a government official was asked to sit side by side with one of Steve Emerson’s favorite former members of Congress who had just attended the lastest gathering of a designated hate group. Wait, not really fair of us to pick on Pete Hoekstra when the chair of the subcommittee convening the hearing, Rep. Scott Perry (PA-4) was also there, but we digress. The hearing did not disappoint with one witness calling for CVE to become CVI (Countering Violent Islamism) and another who denied anti-Muslim bigotry or discrimination is a thing because Islam is an idea and ideas can’t be hated, but rather should be debated. Yikes. It wasn't an easy hearing for the CVE chief, who was left defending CVE's strategy-less approach - an effort we know to be at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive. We did however finally have it on record that CVE is focused on the American Muslim community because of its perceived risk for terrorist influence, which isn't something we can exactly celebrate but we are glad to hear some plain speech about CVE for once. Rep. Perry also deserves some flak not only for the absurdly assembled list of witnesses, but also because he led questioning that criticized CVE for not doing enough to profile, infiltrate, and other ways police American Muslims. A few friendly faces, like Rep. Bennie Thompson (MS-2) and Rep. Bonnie Watts-Coleman (NJ-12), asked sharp questions about why CVE is religiously driven and what impacts it had on the communities where it's been rolled out. We can't wait to finally see that long awaited CVE strategy that is now due to Congress sometime in October (about 2 years after Congress first funded it). 

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For Syria It Only Gets Worse, For the U.S. It's Only More Difficult

It has been a particularly devastating week in Syria as the last best chance for a diplomatic end to the conflict has gone up in smoke. Now, we're hearing that the U.S. might actually be abandoning negotiations with Russia, unless the Kremlin ends its relentless, brutal, and criminal attacks on Aleppo. And without a diplomatic track in play, the U.S. is left to do some really poignant complaining to anyone and everyone who will listen. There are so many stories to tell of the two remaining hospitals that have been closed down, humanitarian workers who need humanitarian aid themselves, and the untold number of preventable deaths after the ceasefire fell apart. The U.S. seems to be doing little more than complaining. We can and should thank our government for contributing another $364 million in humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, but it feels a lot like pouring water right down the drain. Not to say that $364 million won't help a lot of people who need helping, but how many more will be added to their ranks if aid is all we can give? The U.S. must do more - because if we don't someone else will and we probably won't like the results.

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Trump Hotel – Wait, We Mean Embassy - to Open in Jerusalem

At the end of last week, Trump met with the Israeli Prime Minister right off Bibi's first ever apology tour (wait, wait, it wasn't an apology). Netanyahu didn't need to butter up the Trump audience, though. We know that from Trump's previous endorsement of Israeli settlement growth - an endorsement so strong that he actually set up shop in a West Bank settlement. Well, last week Trump went one step further and promised Bibi that as President he would recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy there (it is currently in Tel Aviv). While the foolish promise has been made by a few past candidates for President, successive Democratic and Republican Presidents have refused to implement a Congressional mandate to do that very thing. Now it’s an annual embarrassment when Congress issues its opinion that the President should listen to them and move the Embassy. But Congress can't define U.S. foreign policy and we've been fortunate to have peace-believing Presidents who understand what a big, huge, earth shattering move it would be if the U.S. were to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem at the expense of any Palestinian future. Trump's affinity for defying political correctness has won him a lot of support, but maybe just maybe the issue of Jerusalem is finally when Trump learns that a little political correctness can go a long way in upholding U.S. credibility, morality, and above all else - how it can spare lives. But then again, Trump just got a small token ($25 million) of appreciation from Sheldon Adelsen, so maybe he learned just the opposite.

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Freedom of Speech Eroded by California and Pennsylvania Anti-Boycott Bills

This week California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law an awful, un-democratic bill that aims to stifle the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement. Now the 13th state to undercut free speech protections afforded to American citizens, California offers a new way to do so. After a long drafting and amending process, the final California bill requires big time state contractors to certify that they don't boycott in a discriminatory fashion (plain and simple: boycotting is ok if you are boycotting more targets than just Israel). Israel is, you'll note, the only boycott target explicitly mentioned in the bill. The bill is different than how most other states have approached outlawing BDS (some of which have the added bonus of conflating Israel and it's illegal settlements in the process). The bill advanced by the Pennsylvania state Senate yesterday is more typical. Pennsylvania is now very close to prohibiting the state government from doing business with any entity that engages in the boycott of Israel. It's been a bad week for free speech in America.

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