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Thursday July 17, 2014

Countdown Vol. 12, No. 20

Before and After White House Iftar, There is Still Work to Do

This year, the annual White House Iftar was once again not without controversy. Normally a time to celebrate faith and community (as AAI did in our offices the following evening), this year’s White House Iftar was plagued by politics. Whether the Twitter-driven pressure to boycott and self-praising posts, the shameful tweet from Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer (whose #AskDermer Twitter stunt today is also a sight to be seen), or the insensitive and tone deaf remarks from President Obama, the opportunity for critical engagement was undoubtedly impacted. Still, thoughtful pieces and critiques are moving the conversation forward. At AAI, we believe disengagement is definitely not the answer and given the importance of the issues, not a privilege we can take. Neither is politicizing and undermining an annual tradition our community has worked so hard to have recognized. As demonstrated by President Obama’s remarks at the podium, a discussion of the effectiveness of this engagement is necessary. We hope our elected officials take note – there is plenty of work to be done and these recent events are nothing short of troubling.

When it Comes To Palestine, Does Congress Always Need to be Prodded?

After the brutal murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir and the senseless beating and arrest of his Palestinian American cousin Tariq Abu Khdeir, we heard nothing but crickets from Congress. AAI is still pushing members of Congress to speak out in behalf of the Abu Khdeir family. We’ve heard important statements from Reps. Karen Bass and Keith Ellison’s offices and social media responses from Representatives like Charles Rangel. It’s extremely unfortunate that we even have to ask for these statements, and expressions and sympathy are far too few. Not to mention, some Members of Congress used the opportunity to bolster and push out dangerous talking points. Take Rep. Louie Gohmert, who actually responded to AAI’s suggestion with anti-Palestinian rhetoric and praise for Israel, stating that, “…after the atrocity against the Israeli boys, Hamas and other Palestinians rejoiced and praised the killers of the teenage Israelis as ‘heroes.’” Or there are the recent House resolutions, which are gaining co-sponsors and moving forward with scant references to Palestinian suffering or Israel’s actions. If you think the White House has work to do, don’t even bother with Congress. Well, technically, bothering with Congress is exactly what we have to do, so we’ll stay at it.

Inch by Inch, It Just Gets Worse for the NSA

With the recent Glen Greenwald revelations that the NSA and FBI closely monitored 202 American Muslims from 2002 to 2008 for the apparent reason that they are Muslim, there must have been a full-throttled response and condemnation from our leaders, right? Not exactly. Both the NSA and FBI have denied that the targeting had religious motivations, but the five named targets are well-established American citizens, and at least one of them is quite certain that his religion played a role. The other 202 “U.S. Persons” monitored and mentioned in Greenwald’s report go unnamed, which means this could really be the tip of the iceberg. We haven’t even mentioned that this targeting could be done within the framework of the law. Add to that the recent news that the NSA apparently doesn’t have the time or personnel to follow through on their own procedures and destroy irrelevant communications made by or concerning U.S. citizens, and it looks like we may have more icebergs ahead. These troubling revelations feed further into the negative narrative of U.S. agencies violating American civil liberties in the name of national security with slippery-slope implications.

Naftali Bennett Goes Off Script to Excuse the Inexcusable

As the fifth major confrontation in nine years continues between Israel and Hamas and the Palestinian death toll nears 200, Israeli officials engage in only one form of diplomacy— fear-mongering. Questions about the Israeli bombardment of Gaza during an interview on BBC Newshour prompted Israel’s Economy Minister Naftali Bennett to adopt the scare tactics usually reserved for Islamophobes. Despite Israel’s barrage of rocket attacks on Palestinians, Bennett argues it is Hamas that is responsible for “systematically and cynically killing its own civilians.” Apparently, this violence is part of Israel’s larger goal of protecting the entire region from the restoration of a caliphate. Bennett defended Israeli airstrikes as part of this fight for “freedom and democracy” against “sharia law.” You heard right…the rhetoric of U.S. fringe groups has made its way to Israel, where leaders have distorted their country’s violence and indiscriminate airstrikes. Don’t worry though, Bennett didn’t stop there. Apparently, Palestinians mourning the deaths of their loved ones are simply “whining to BBC and to the rest of the world.” Sorry to say, Bennett, the rest of the world is taking note. Of course, we all know Prime Minister Netanyahu is no stranger to this distorted narrative (he’s said that while Israel employs missiles to protect its civilians, “Hamas uses civilians to protect their missiles”). We’re seeing how far leaders will go to excuse the inexcusable.

U.N. Takes Matters into its own Hands

In a welcome and unanimous vote on Monday, the United Nations Security Council authorized cross-border convoys of emergency aid to Syrians in rebel-held areas despite objections from the Assad regime. Previously, aid convoys required approval by the regime, which obviously sounds like a terrible approach to alleviating some of the hardships Syrians are facing. According to the New York Times, nearly half of all Syrians, that’s a little over 10 million people, need assistance and half of those people are in rebel-held areas. February’s resolution that initially allowed aid to enter Syria was rebuffed by the Assad government or was only distributed to places held by Assad. The recent move by the Security Council is aimed at making sure aid does not have to be held up by a regime known for its starvation tactics and use of aid as a weapon as the conflict enters its fourth year. Convoys can now travel through crossings in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. While it took a lack of economic or military enforcement of the resolution to get a “yes” vote from China and Russia, and as the Syrian crisis is relegated given recent eruptions in Gaza and Iraq, it is still an important step forward in a conflict that has gone on for far too long.

A Refugee is a Refugee

As the debate heats up over whether to “protect the border” or “protect the children” – let’s hope those aren’t mutually exclusive, by the way – the children arriving at our southern border from Central America are caught in a limbo caused by U.S. government inaction. As Arab Americans, we understand the difficulty of treating people from conflict countries as refugees who deserve our sustained support and assistance in fleeing troubling circumstances in their countries. Take Syria, where it took months before the United States eased restrictions holding up many from fleeing the ongoing crisis to come to the United States. Our track record on Syrian refugees is still mixed. Now, the same thing is happening, albeit closer to home. The United Nations has already urged the United States to designate these migrants and children “refugees,” which would allow for asylum and could potentially pave the way for a regional agreement to help with the recent influx. With President Obama’s recent announcement to go-it-alone on immigration reform, it’s now looking like executive action won’t be enough for our country to tackle the humanitarian tragedy on our southern border. Could this be the trigger that pushes Congress to get moving to protect these children and our border?

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