Guest Commentary: As a Muslim, I Condemn Attacks on All Civilians. President Biden Should, Too.

Photo by Naaman Omar apaimages; Palestinian News & Information Agency (Wafa) in contract with APAimages

Condemnation of the Israeli government is not the same as — and must never cross the line into — antisemitism.

By Nhiad Awad

Long before helping to establish our nation’s first Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, I was a child trapped in a Palestinian refugee camp with little prospects for a bright future.

Like the children of so many other Palestinian families ethnically cleansed from their homes in 1948, I spent the first 17 years of my life without access to electricity, running water or regular meals. We stood in line for hours to receive food and attended school in tents set up by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Although I eventually made it out of the camp and built a new life in America, I never escaped the impact of life as a refugee. The conditions I experienced led me to develop chronic kidney disease early in life, which Oxfam says is an increasingly common problem for Palestinians in Gaza due to water pollution. After decades of managing that illness, I had to undergo transplant surgery earlier this year.

Despite the generations of injustice my family and I experienced, and despite the injustices Palestinian families are experiencing in Gaza today, our faith and values ensured that we never made the mistake of supporting injustice against anyone else.

That’s why I began my recent, now-controversial appearance at a conference about Palestinian human rights on Nov. 24 by addressing a completely different topic: antisemitism.

“We as human beings, as Muslims, as Palestinians, see it as evil the way it is, and (it) should be condemned because antisemitism is a real phenomenon, a real evil, and it has to be rejected and combated by all people regardless of their faith tradition, ideology or those people who have no ideology,” I said. “It is an attack on humanity and should be clearly condemned by all people.”

I began on this note because I wanted to emphasize upfront that condemnation of the Israeli government is not the same as — and must never cross the line into — antisemitism.

What I said was nothing new for me or CAIR. We have always condemned violence against both Palestinian and Israeli civilians. We have repeatedly and “unequivocally” condemned the attacks against Israeli civilians on Oct. 7, as well as past attacks on Israeli civilians dating all the way back to suicide bombings that began in the 1990s.

Although our record is clear, some of my words at that recent conference on Palestinian human rights should have been clearer.

While emotionally recalling my own childhood trapped in a refugee camp, discussing what Palestinians in Gaza have endured in the world’s largest open-air prison for 17 years and thinking about the Palestinian civilians who briefly and peacefully walked outside the broken Gaza separation barrier in a brief moment of freedom, I said:

“Yes, I was happy to see people breaking the siege and throwing down the shackles of their own land, and walk free into their land that they were not allowed to walk in.”

Weeks after the conference, an anti-Palestinian website published a spliced-together clip of my speech featuring that remark without any context, triggering a flood of misleading, clickbait headlines from rightwing media outlets.

Even though I released a statement that clarified my words and reaffirmed my condemnation of the violence perpetrated against Israeli civilians on Oct. 7, a Biden administration spokesperson inexplicably mischaracterized my remarks as somehow “anti-Semitic” and attempted to undermine CAIR.

The Biden administration’s reaction highlights the double standards applied to Muslim and Palestinian Americans, whose words about Gaza are heavily policed and often misconstrued in ways never done to the Israeli government’s supporters.

Consider that the White House did not disavow or even criticize the major Israel advocacy organizations that hosted Pastor John Hagee, a notorious antisemite and anti-Muslim bigot, as a speaker at the recent March for Israel. Instead, the administration sent a speaker to the event.

Worse, the Biden administration has not issued a single public condemnation of Israeli leaders for their explicitly homicidal statements about Palestinian civilians, from declaring there are “no innocent civilians in Gaza,” to justifying the total siege of all Palestinians in Gaza by calling them “human animals.”

Instead, the administration has enabled the Netanyahu government’s attacks on Gaza, questioned the number of Palestinian civilian casualties and justified the killing of Palestinian civilians as the “price of war.” Last week, the United States just stood alone in blocking a ceasefire resolution in the UN Security Council even though President Biden has reportedly admitted in private that he knows Israel is conducting “indiscriminate bombing” in Gaza.

This moral hypocrisy and inconsistency must end.

All Americans who speak about Palestine and Israel should exercise caution with our words, oppose all forms of bigotry, including antisemitism and anti-Palestinian racism, and clearly reject the targeting of both Palestinian and Israeli civilians.

It is long past time for President Biden to embrace this morally consistent position. He should start by securing a permanent cease-fire in Gaza and pursue a just, lasting peace before more generations of Palestinians grow up in refugee camps and witness a lifetime of injustice.

Nihad Awad is the co-founder and executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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