Intolerance, especially when it comes to issues involving the Middle East, is a destructive force that has distorted American politics and our policies, rendering us powerless to provide constructive leadership across the Arab World. Such intolerance was on display last week following Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley's appearance at the Arab American Institute's National Leadership Conference (NLC) in Dearborn, Michigan.
O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland, is one of the three remaining contestants in the Democratic presidential primary. In his address to the NLC, he spoke passionately both about the Syrian refugee crisis and Israeli and Palestinian victims of recent violence in Jerusalem. What was deeply distressing was the intolerance some supporters of Israel displayed not only toward O'Malley's remarks, but the very fact that he made them at an Arab American event.
Because O'Malley was the first candidate to champion the cause of Syrian refugees and because the first full day of our NLC was devoted to the refugee crisis, we were pleased that he accepted our invitation to deliver a keynote address. Before his remarks, O'Malley asked to meet with a small group of recent refugees who had made their way to Michigan. He joked with their children, listened to their stories, and responded with compassion to their plight.
While his formal speech to the NLC covered a range of topics, his focus was on the issue of the refugees, how we welcome them and how we treat them. He explained that the issue was of personal importance, noting how as Governor he kept on his desk a sign from the 1890's which read "Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply". "It served", he said, "as a daily reminder" that "we were all immigrants" and that many groups, including his great grandparents, had to confront intolerance.
Because his family overcame discrimination and exclusion, O'Malley said that he was determined as Governor to "make the American Dream a reality for all people". During his two terms in office, he signed into law a "Dream Act" that provided educational opportunities for 36,000 children of undocumented residents. And he actively recruited Arab and Muslim Americans to serve in his Administration.
O'Malley then turned his attention to the scourges of bigotry and intolerance and the negative impact they had on Arabs and Muslims, observing how "this Islamophobia and xenophobia had entered the debate about those fleeing the horrific violence in Syria". He pledged to fight this because "we are a nation of immigrants and refugees...[and] we must not forget what it means to...yearn for a better life". He then reaffirmed his call to the Administration and Congress to admit 65,000 Syrian refugees, closing with this challenge--"Will we listen to our better angels or will we slam the doors and build walls?"
O'Malley concluded his address bringing this same values-based approach to the recent violence in Jerusalem. His remarks were compassionate and balanced and that was enough to prompt some supporters of Israel to attempt to manufacture a controversy.
In order to understand the intolerance of O'Malley's critics and just how distressing this entire situation is for Arab Americans, it is important to read the former governor's words, in full.
Here's what he said:
"Like everyone here, I have been concerned by the recent developments in Jerusalem and in cities across Israel and the West Bank.
"We have lost 50 Palestinians in the recent violence. Many of them were only teenagers, their entire lives before them. We have lost 8 Israelis, including a 19 year-old and an American couple shot in front of their young children.
"Some of the people in this room have family members who've been affected. All of the victims were sons and daughters, brothers or sisters, or parents of children. All of them leave behind grieving families with holes in their hearts.
"This senseless violence produces nothing except more tragedy and mistrust. It does nothing to move the parties closer to a peaceful and lasting settlement.
"Both sides must take steps to end this violence and address the underlying causes of it. Both sides must make the resumption of final status talks a firm priority.
"Part of those talks must include fair, safe and adequate access to religious sites in Jerusalem and elsewhere. People have a right to worship. Provocative actions on either side must be avoided.
"I am a strong supporter of the two-state solution, which would meet Israel's critical security needs and affirm the dignity of the Palestinians to live as a free people in an independent state of their own".
The reaction to these words was immediate and intolerant. Some Jewish and right-wing publications criticized O'Malley for suggesting that "both sides" bore responsibility for the violence. His campaign was pressured to "clarify" or "repudiate" the remarks. Despite the fact that O'Malley's rather benign framing of the issue closely tracked the language used by the State Department, and despite the fact that he proposed that equal access to "religious sites" be part of future Israeli-Palestinian talks, his critics felt the need to pummel the candidate into submission because he had committed the unpardonable sins of displaying compassion for and finding fault in the behavior of both sides and because he had done so before an Arab American audience.
Evidence of the disdain O'Malley's critics have for my community was exemplified by comments made by a "Democratic strategist" Hank Sheinkopf and columnist Jeffery Goldberg. Sheinkopf was nasty saying "Obviously seeking support from any place he might find it, a desperate former governor...has lost all touch with reality". Goldberg was equally dismissive noting that "Martin O'Malley [was] not going after the Jewish vote"--as if they are the only voters who matter.
We have had long experience with such intolerance that seeks to marginalize Arab Americans while punishing candidates who treat us and our concerns with respect. I was present in 1984 when a prominent Senator told Jesse Jackson that he could never expect to be a leader as long as he courted the "Ay-rabs". And I remember a few years later when Ron Brown, then Chair of the Democratic Party, was coming to speak to our NLC and was threatened by a prominent donor who told him "if you even go into that room to speak to them, we will stop sending money to the party". For months, in 1992, the Clinton campaign was pressured to exclude Arab Americans. And, in 2003, then presidential candidate John Kerry was punished after he denounced Israel's construction of the barrier wall at our NLC.
Despite this distressing state of affairs, we continue our efforts to provide leadership for our community and a forum for compassionate leaders like Martin O'Malley to address critical issues facing our nation. Whether discussing America's responsibility to welcome Syrian refugees, the need to combat xenophobia and exclusion, or the need to demonstrate concern for both Israeli and Palestinian lives, we remain committed to open and tolerant discourse. It is only way to advance desperately needed change in our politics and policies.
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