Talking to an Arab and Palestinian Audience Shouldn’t Lose You the Jewish Vote

Recognizing that Palestinians are dying too, as did Democrat hopeful Martin O'Malley, shouldn't be controversial. But in the 2016 presidential campaign it's risky merely to acknowledge the suffering of both sides.

Reuters

The Arab American Institute invited every major presidential candidate to address its National Leadership Conference last Friday in Dearborn, Michigan. Only one showed up: Martin O’Malley, a long shot Democratic hopeful who once served as governor of Maryland. 

Good for him. For more than a century, America’s wars have fueled bigotry against Americans supposedly linked to the enemy. During World War I, the victims were German-Americans. The city of Cincinnati even banned lunch counters from serving pretzels. During World War II, the victims were Japanese-Americans, more than one hundred thousand of whom were taken from their homes to desolate internment camps in the interior of the country. 

Since September 11, the victims have been Arab and Muslim. And the bigotry is growing worse. According to the Arab American Institute, 43 percent of Arab Americans say they have experienced discrimination because of their ethnicity or country of origin, up from 30 percent in 2003.

During this presidential campaign, Ben Carson, who now leads the Republican pack in Iowa, has said Islam is “not consistent with the Constitution” and thus a Muslim should never be elected president. Donald Trump, who leads in New Hampshire, last month encountered a man who declared, “We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims. Can we get rid of them?” Trump responded: “We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.”

In this environment, O’Malley deserves credit for saying that, “When I look in the eyes of immigrants,” — including Arab immigrants — “I see my grandparents,” who suffered discrimination because they hailed from Ireland. He deserves credit for condemning the recent attacks on American mosques, attacks that have gone largely unnoticed in this year’s campaign. And he deserves credit for urging that the United States admit 65,000 Syrian refugees, as requested by the United Nations.

But far from winning him praise, O’Malley’s appearance has become a political problem. That’s because, in his remarks, O’Malley bemoaned the fact that  “We’ve lost 50 Palestinians in recent violence, many of them teenagers – their entire lives before them. We’ve lost 8 Israelis, including an American couple shot in front of their young children.” He also called on “Both sidesto take steps to end this violence and address the underlying cause of it.” And he’s declared himself “a strong supporter of the two-state solution, which would meet not only Israel’s critical security needs,” but “affirm the dignity of the Palestinian people to live as a free people in an independent state of their own.”

In response, my Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted that, “Martin O’Malley evidently not going after the Jewish vote.” But there’s little evidence that expressing empathy for Palestinians costs presidential candidates Jewish votes. In 2007, Barack Obama told an Iowa audience that “Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.” In his book The Audacity of Hope, he talked about hearing Palestinians “talk of the indignities of checkpoints and reminisce about the land they’d lost.” Yet Obama beat Hillary Clinton among Jewish voters in Massachusetts, Connecticut and California. And he won 78 percent of the Jewish vote against McCain that fall.

For his part, Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf slammed O’Malley for “seeking support from any place he might find it,” as if there’s something disreputable about seeking Arab votes. And he accused the former governor of having “lost all touch with reality.”

But what’s striking about O’Malley’s comments is precisely his acknowledgement of reality. When Clinton issued a statement on the violence in Israel earlier this month, she only mentioned Jewish deaths. Recognizing that Palestinians are dying too, as O’Malley did, shouldn’t be controversial. But in the 2016 presidential campaign, it’s risky merely to acknowledge the suffering of both sides.

Urging that Israeli, as well as Palestinian, leaders “take steps to end this violence and address the underlying cause of it” acknowledges reality too. It acknowledges the reality that all West Bank Palestinians, and the vast majority of their brethren in East Jerusalem, lack citizenship in the country in which they live.

That reality doesn’t justify Palestinian violence. But insisting that the primary cause of that violence is anti-Israel “incitement” — as many in Congress claim — is utterly magical. It’s the kind of thinking that collapses once you actually talk to Palestinians. 

Which is why establishment Jewish organizations generally discourage American politicians, and their own members, from doing so. Hillel’s guidelines make it almost impossible for Jewish student groups to invite a Palestinian speaker. When AIPAC and other Jewish organizations take members of Congress to Israel, they almost never meet ordinary Palestinians. In 2008, hawkish Jewish groups attacked Obama for merely maintaining a friendship with the Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi. In October, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on Palestinian incitement. No Palestinian was invited to speak.

Talking endlessly about a group of people without talking to them is a recipe for dehumanization. It’s that dehumanization that O’Malley challenged by speaking in Dearborn last Friday. It’s a sign of the intellectual and moral poverty of the 2016 campaign that he was the only one.