Posted on August 01, 2014 in Countdown

Profiling and Spying OK? We Know Why…

The line between liberty and security continues to blur, as news such as Greenwald’s revelations in the Intercept about NSA surveillance and the FBI’s counterterrorism practices emerge every few weeks. We only need to look at the latest AAI Poll on American Attitudes Toward Arabs and Muslims to understand why these practices continue without much outcry. The poll shows there is continued erosion in the American public’s favorability toward Arab Americans and American Muslims. This likely fuels the finding that 42% of Americans believe racial profiling of our community is justified. And taking a page from Michele Bachmann’s handbook, when asked about the ability of individuals to serve as public servants, 36% felt that Arab Americans would be influenced by their ethnicity and 42% of American Muslims by their faith.  As AAI President Jim Zogby said, “We’re at the lowest point now since we began polling.” Not good indeed. Still, the way forward is clear. Education about and greater exposure to Arab Americans and American Muslims are the keys both to greater understanding and to insuring that our rights are secured. 

Free at Last? Anti-Surveillance Legislation Appears Before the Senate

Speaking of surveillance, on Tuesday, Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) unveiled an updated version of the USA Freedom Act, which will lead to stricter surveillance restrictions if passed. A version passed the House in May, but with compromises that watered down privacy protections. You know where we stand on this: the NSA has been keeping databases on the identity, location, and duration of all calls in the United States, a clear overstep of constitutional rights. AAI signed on to a recent letter that encouraged top members of the Senate to swiftly pass this new, unadulterated form of the USA Freedom Act. The bill would drastically limit the bulk data that can be collected by the government. But don’t get your hopes up just yet. We have all been on this “USA Freedom Act” roller coaster ride before, and the bill will not be able to be voted on until after the August recess, since, you know, our esteemed leaders deserve a break on all the hard work they’ve done in the past couple of months…And don’t forget, it’s an election year. In the thick of the election cycle, we’re betting it will be a less than ideal time to get anything passed. Let’s hope our members of Congress can lose the “do-nothing” attitude and do something on NSA surveillance.

Reintroducing the New and Improved US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act

Amid escalating violence between Israel and Gaza and the upcoming August recess, Sen. Barbara Boxer has reintroduced a bipartisan Senate bill that “sends a clear message that America’s bond with Israel remains unbreakable.” The U.S. – Israel Strategic Partnership Act, which passed 410 – 1 in the House in March (now that’s bipartisanship!), was initially held up due to original language that pretty much permitted and validated well documented cases of discrimination against Arab Americans and American Muslims seeking to enter Israel or Palestine by allowing Israel admittance into the U.S. visa waiver program. In a key change that recognizes Israel’s history of discrimination, the new language of the bill now clearly states that Israel must extend “reciprocal privileges…without regard to race, religion, national origin, or ethnicity.” You don’t say. While that is a welcome change, the reintroduction also provided an opportunity for our elected officials to bolster their pro-Israeli street cred while Gaza remains under attack. As this “we can’t quit Israel” headline suggests, it seems that most members of Congress remain comfortable ignoring Israel’s gross violations of human rights despite shifts in public opinion against Israel’s actions. 

Defending Israel Before our Secretary of State

If our elected officials can’t criticize Israel (see above), you’d think they’d at least defend their own Secretary of State. Well, despite harsh criticism from Israeli officials on Secretary John Kerry’s desperate work to stop the violence in Gaza, and two scathing pieces in Haaretz on Kerry from Barak Ravid and Ari Shavit, our Secretary of State has gotten little support. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki did defend her boss, saying, in reference to Israel, “This is not the way partners and allies treat each other.” For Congress, it’s a different story. It looks like friendship is not weighed in constructive feedback and mutual cooperation to shared goals, but in how willing you are to pick up the tab when your ‘buddy’ is running low on ammunition. Instead of defending the unjustified criticism of their country’s most senior diplomat, Congress came out in droves to support Israel’s right to self-defense, criticized recent votes by the United Nations, and scrambled to reaffirm and commit new military assistance before the August recess. Just today, the Senate passed legislation to give Israel some extra cash for the Iron Dome (after some surprising Republican efforts to block and stall). Meanwhile, Israel continues its “awkward ally” streak. You hear that Politico? Maybe you should update that list. And we didn’t even mention the fake transcript of a “conversation” between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu “leaked” by an Israeli news agency. How low will they go?

Paying Respect to the Victims in Gaza

As the tragedy in Gaza continues, we are saddened by the stories of the victims who have lost their lives. On Wednesday, AAI joined other organizations and community members to mourn the loss of life in Gaza during a candlelight vigil, where we read the names of those killed in the conflict. It took an hour and a half, and the list of names continues to grow. Efforts are being made to remember these people and their individual stories through important websites like “Beyond Numbers.” A running list of names is kept on the International Middle East Media Center’s website. These are names like the eleven members of the Balata family, who were all killed in a single Israeli airstrike. These people were not “terrorists”. They were an electrician named Naim, his wife, his six daughters, his son Yahya, his grandson, Abdul Karim, and his niece Hadeel. Allah, Naim’s oldest son, is the last surviving member of his family.  We have to make sure these Palestinians do not remain nameless or faceless. The vigil on Wednesday honored these individuals and shed light on the ongoing tragedy in Gaza.