PRESIDENT BIDEN’S UNSWERVING defense of Israel’s relentless bombing of the Gaza Strip reminds me of my last meeting with a friend and colleague at the Hartford Courant newspaper in Hartford, Connecticut.
On a spring day in 1985 my op-ed on the killing of several Palestinians by Israeli troops had appeared in our newspaper. Robin Frank pinched me on my left arm as I was editing a story.
“Dinner at Gianni?” she asked, as I turned around and looked at her.
“Sure,” I said.
Frank was a leftist Jew and a staunch Zionist. At our meetings at the Courant café and other places, we used to trash then-President Ronald Reagan’s latest dig at welfare programs, extol socialist leader Michael Harrington’s portrayal of poverty in America, Karl Marx’s pitch for ultimate freedom in his German Ideology, and so forth.
That evening, as we sat across a table at the Gianni restaurant, I was taken aback.
Frank’s eyes were burning with rage.
“I didn’t know that you hate Jews,” she said.
In the article I had criticized Israel’s “colonial occupation” of Palestinian territories and “brutal” treatment of Palestinians, etc.
Did I know, my friend asked, that Palestine had been “the land of the Jews for ages” but had been occupied by “nomads and yahoos” before the establishment of Israel?
I realized that Frank’s knowledge of Jewish and Palestinian history was based more on Jewish propaganda than facts. I told her that both Jews and Palestinians inhabited the same land since ancient times and lived peaceably together in the hills around Jerusalem. “I don’t hate Jews, Robin,” I said. Both Jews and Palestinians, I continued, were nomads before they settled down as peasants and artisans. “But your calling Palestinians yahoos seems to me to reflect your racial bias toward them.”
Robin stood up. “You called me a racist!” She exploded. She picked up her purse and stamped away, paying the bill at the cashier’s counter.
I wondered if Frank had invited me to the meal for a dressing down and wanted it to be our parting dinner. Later, I tried twice to have a conversation with her, but she didn’t have the time.
In any case, I still think that staunchly progressive on many issues as she was, Frank’s attitude toward Palestinians was tinged with racial prejudice. I bet I have prejudices of my own, which I am not aware of.
Joe Biden, a centrist-turned-progressive Democrat, has been known for his blind support for Israel, which I have been following since the 1970s, when he was a senator from Delaware. During the current conflict between Israel and Hamas, he has been the only world leader to offer a blanket defense of Israel’s bloody and devastating bombing of Gaza. In the 15-member U.N. Security Council the United States, under his orders, was alone in blocking two attempts at issuing a statement calling for an immediate end to the Israeli-Hamas hostility. He obviously wanted Israel to continue its slaughter and destruction in Gaza. Biden’s first public comment on the Israeli bombing of civilian targets in Gaza was, “Israel has a right to defend itself.” He did not answer Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) question if “the Palestinians have a right to survive.”
After the Netanyahu government had slaughtered more than a hundred Palestinians, including children and women, the American president proclaimed that Israel had not “significantly overreacted” to Hamas rockets, which had killed eight Israelis. In all this, Biden did not mention, even once, the Israeli raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque and its worshipers in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Neither did he comment on the Israeli initiative to expel Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem to make room for Jewish settlers. The two events had prompted Hamas to start firing rockets and missiles into Israel. When Biden was compelled by domestic and international pressure to try to stop the bloody Israeli aggression, he said he “support(ed) a ceasefire” between Israel and Hamas. He did not call for, let alone demand, a cessation of hostilities.
Biden’s utterly callous attitude toward the havoc Israel is wreaking in the abysmally impoverished enclave blockaded by Israel and Egypt flies in the face of his widely publicized human rights rhetoric and otherwise admirably progressive agenda. Biden plans to lower the eligibility age for Medicare; forgive federal loan debt for those making less than $125,000; raise $2 to $4 trillion in taxes to pay for progressive plans and programs; levy a 95 percent excise tax on pharmaceuticals if the industry doesn’t accept price controls, and so forth. His $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief law is probably the most progressive piece of legislation enacted by Congress since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In fact Bien’s strong support for black civil rights and other issues promoting black interests have made him quite popular in that community, which was pivotal to his winning the Democratic presidential primary against Bernie Sanders. But racial tolerance and empathy is selective in America. Many Americans, disabused of prejudice toward blacks, can be, and have been, hostile toward Arabs, Muslims and Asians. A brown-skinned Muslim, born in India, I have encountered racial gibes and taunts from progressive colleagues and acquaintances. (Where did I park my “camel”? Did I have a second wife tucked away in my “old country”? It was a reference to polygamy practiced by some Muslim men. How could I learn to write English so well? And so on.)
The Democratic Party, until the early 1970s, was honeycombed with anti-black racists. (Republicans by and large are racists.) The Democratic Party used to be the party of slavery, KKK, Jim Crow, and segregationists. And many Democratic presidents, including the otherwise progressive ones, were diehard racists. Woodrow Wilson, who promoted freedom and the right of self-determination for peoples abroad, was an anti-black racist pig at home. He mandated racial segregation of the federal workforce, reversing the gains the blacks had made following Reconstruction. His segregation order hurt blacks most at the Post Office, in which 60 percent of workers were black; and the Treasury Department, which employed the second-largest number of blacks.
Monroe Trotter, the black editor and publisher of the Guardian newspaper, published from Boston, had campaigned for Wilson’s election. A brilliant Harvard scholar and civil rights leader, Trotter led a black delegation to the president to complain about his segregation order. Wilson argued that racial segregation would “prevent any kind of friction between the white employees and the Negro employees.” Trotter protested the president’s argument, citing “the established fact … that for 50 years white and colored clerks have been working together in peace and harmony and friendliness.” The 28th president replied that he had been “offended” by the civil rights leader’s insolence and ordered him out of the White House.
FDR is widely considered the most progressive among American presidents, and yet he was among the most racist of them. His internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II is widely known. Less known is his staunchly anti-Semitic attitude and policy. He persistently refused to allow Jews from Nazi Germany to immigrate to the United States. He suggested that they be resettled in Venezuela, Ethiopia or West Africa. He even opposed plans to resettle fleeing German Jews in the Dominican Republic or U.S. Virgin Islands because of those countries’ proximity to the United States, which, he feared, could enable them to infiltrate into America. When the passenger ship St. Louis with nearly 1,000 German Jews fleeing Hitler’s persecution headed toward the United States, Roosevelt did not respond to telegrams requesting that it be docked on the U.S. shore. The State Department forced it to return to Antwerp from where many of them were herded into concentration camps. In the end, wide circulation of the news of the Holocaust forced Roosevelt to admit some Jewish refugees. Historian Rafael Medoff wrote that Roosevelt’s anti-Semitism stemmed from his belief “that America was by nature, and should remain, an overwhelmingly white, Protestant country; and that Jews, on the whole, possessed certain innate and distasteful characteristics.”
Harry S. Truman was another innately racist Democratic president. He recognized Israel because Jews were among his ardent campaign activists. But he brushed aside reports of the harrowing ethnic cleansing of the new state of Israel of its Palestinian inhabitants. Jews, mostly from Europe, expelled 700,000 Palestinians (some of them were displaced by war) from their ancestral homes and lands. Truman also opposed interracial marriage. He often used racial slurs and told racist jokes. He accused civil rights activists of being masterminded Communists and called Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a troublemaker.
The Democratic Party has shed much of its anti-black racism, thanks to the struggle and sacrifices of many blacks and whites in the Civil Rights Movement. Anti-black and anti-Semitic comments today are unacceptable in America. But anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, and anti-Asian racism remains alive and well in American society. And in the halls of Congress, which strikes you when you listen to the comments of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), or Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) on the floors of the House and Senate.
But the tide is turning. Last week, for the first time in American history, the floor of the House of Representatives vibrated with biting criticism of an American president’s defense of Israeli aggression against Palestinians. Many critics of Biden’s and America’s callousness toward Palestinian dispossession, subjugation and persecution under Israeli occupation saw it as anti-Arab racism and likened it to racism against blacks.
“The Black and Palestinian struggles for liberation are interconnected,” tweeted Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), “and we will not let up until all of us are free.”
- Mustafa Malik, editor and publisher of this blog, lives in Bangladesh.