Posted on March 12, 2013 in Countdown
Well, not everyone on the Countdown team, but yes that’s right, Arab Americans met with the President in the first part of his “listening tour.” Obama’s trip to the Middle East doesn’t officially start until next week, but he has already been hearing from key constituencies. Yesterday, the President hosted an Arab American meeting with community leaders at the White House. Pretty cool, huh? Well, it was about time! Yesterday was an important opportunity to give the President input on his trip, which will take him to Jordan, the West Bank, and Israel. Of course, we’d like to see the President put an end to illegal Israeli settlements, and end the occupation while he’s at it, but a comprehensive peace plan is not on anyone’s list of expected outcomes for this trip. So, what did we say at the meeting? Our message to the President was simple but important: deliver a message of understanding, concern and support to the Palestinian people directly. A just, lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should always be on the agenda, but there are certainly ways President Obama can help impact realities on the ground. Among other things, we suggested that statements of support for non-violent resistance to the occupation and a visit to Bethlehem would resonate throughout the region. And after the trip? There is already talk of continued engagement and follow-up to help build a constituency to push for peace talks.
News that Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) will not run for reelection next term is bittersweet news for Arab Americans in Michigan. Senator Levin, a long-time friend to the community there, has a mixed voting record on Israel and also voted for the National Defense Authorization Act, but he regularly engages with and advocates for his Arab American constituents. Needless to say, it will be an end of an era for Michigan. Senator Levin is the longest-serving Senator in Michigan’s history. So, when Levin leaves, who will seek his seat? How about Arab American Congressman Justin Amash? His name has already been floated. An Amash win would be bad for Democrats, but the 32-year-old libertarian isn’t exactly your average Republican ticket. He votes out of line with his party more than any other Republican except Ron Paul. Amash is great on civil liberties, and some would argue we are long overdue for another Arab American in the Senate. We will keep a close eye on this race for you.
Last week, Rand Paul spent nearly 13 hours filibustering John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA. It was truly an awesome spectacle, and it drew much-needed attention to the use of drones and targeted killings. Reactions to his efforts cut across party lines; Senate Democrats who vociferously opposed the Bush Administration’s myriad violations of civil liberties offered weak excuses for why Oregon’s Ron Wyden had been the only member of their caucus to join the debate on the floor. Ohio’s Sherrod Brown “had stuff to do” while Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey observed that “people are busy.” Not to be outdone, leading Republicans were just as hypocritical; only thirteen Republican Senators, including the Minority Leader and noted frenemy Mitch McConnell, got in on the action. During the Bush administration, McConnell helped pass laws that allowed warrantless wiretapping and indefinite detention, but the combination of a Democratic president and a conservative primary challenger have caused McConnell to change his tune. Not all Republicans were lining up behind Paul, however. The dynamic duo of Lindsay Graham and John McCain derided Paul’s filibuster as “ludicrous,” with McCain reprising his “get off my lawn” routine in calling libertarians “wacko birds.” Despite those objections, Paul’s filibuster received the ultimate conservative blessing from Rush Limbaugh, signaling an important rejection of neoconservatism by one of the party’s thought leaders. To a cynic, the lesson might be that civil liberties only matter when the other party is in power, but the re-emergence of a skepticism towards executive power is a positive sign for Republicans and for the country.
A few weeks ago, we wrote about the Department of Homeland Security’s practice of searching electronic devices without cause or warrant in “border zones.” At the time, DHS’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties had just produced an executive summary of their findings on the border policy (only 3 years late) that found no issue with the prevailing practice. In other words, they determined that forcing DHS agents to be suspicious of you before they can search your phones, laptops, and entire electronic history “would be operationally harmful without concomitant civil rights/civil liberties benefits.” Well, last week, the courts thought otherwise. In a 9th Circuit Appeals Court ruling, the court argued that, believe it or not, the 4th amendment does apply at the border, and DHS agents need to have some justification before rifling through your entire electronic history: “A person’s digital life ought not to be hijacked simply by crossing a border.” Now let’s just hope the 9th Circuit Court doesn’t get droned for “protecting terrorists.”
Earlier this month, we highlighted the experience of Nour Joudah, a Palestinian American teacher who has been blocked from re-entering the West Bank. For the past two months Nour’s been working with lawyers, activists, and the media to figure out why she’s been denied entry, and get back to her students at the Friends School. It’s a sad story, but it’s hardly new. On the bright side, it’s gotten a lot of media attention (though some of it is a little strange; the Houston Chronicle referred to her as “Arabian-born but American-bred”), and even some members of Congress have gotten involved. A few have even made the important connection that, while Israel continues to harass American citizens at its border, it’s been pushing legislation that would make it easier for Israeli citizens to travel to the US without a visa. We hope the irony will amuse Nour while she continues her legal battle from Jordan.
On Monday, a coalition of Muslim civil rights groups released an important report documenting the effects of the NYPD’s illegal surveillance programs on Arab American and American Muslim communities in the greater New York City area. The report was publicly presented to NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly at the department’s headquarters. Think he read it? For those who may have forgotten, the Associated Press revealed in 2011 that the NYPD conducts surveillance against Arab Americans and American Muslims without any suspicion of criminality, placing undercover agents in mosques, hookah bars, and university Muslim Student Associations. The NYPD has justified these incursions as necessary to defend against terrorist attacks, but by the department’s own admission, the spying has never discovered, let alone disrupted, any terrorist plot. According to the report, those surveillance programs have managed to destroy the relationship between Muslim communities and law enforcement. The report is full of examples of this distrust, but Inas, a university student, puts it succinctly: “Muslims aren't respected by the police.” The NYPD should repudiate its spying program and work hard to rebuild trust among Arab Americans and American Muslims. Until then, we’ll keep the pressure on.