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EXCLUSIVE: Biden aides apologise privately over attack on Linda Sarsour

In a private call with community activists, a recording of which was obtained by MEE, Biden campaign officials said statements against Sarsour were an 'egregious misstep'
'We are not in the business of condemning people and large swathes of the community,' said campaign official Symone Sanders about the attack on Sarsour (above) (AFP/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

Top aides to presidential candidate Joe Biden have apologised to Arab and Muslim Democrats over an attack on Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour by the campaign, in an effort to quell anger over the controversy.

In a private call with dozens of prominent activists on Sunday, Ashley Allison, national coalitions director for the Biden campaign, said she was "sorry" for the comments that a campaign spokesman made against Sarsour. 

'I am sorry that that happened. And I hope that whatever trust was broken, that this conversation is one small step to help build back the trust'

- Ashley Allison, Biden campaign

Top foreign policy adviser Tony Blinken also expressed "regret" over the incident during the virtual meeting.

Anger erupted after a Biden campaign spokesman had condemned Sarsour and suggested that she was antisemitic over her criticism of Israel.

Allison said she empathised with "the pain" that the campaign had caused to Arabs and Muslims by disavowing Sarsour.

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"I am sorry that that happened. And I hope that whatever trust was broken, that this conversation is one small step to help build back the trust, but that is not the last time we have this conversation," Allison told the activists.

Sunday's call was off-the-record, but Middle East Eye obtained a recording of it.

The controversy 

Sarsour, a well-liked figure in progressive Arab and Muslim circles, has been a target of rightwing attacks over her support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

On Tuesday, she made a brief appearance on a panel as part of the Democratic National Convention, where she discussed voter engagement in the Muslim community.

Donald Trump's campaign was quick to condemn her appearance, saying that Biden endorsed "her bigotry" against the Jewish people.

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Biden's campaign responded by denouncing and distancing itself from the Palestinian-American organiser.

"Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel and a vehement opponent of antisemitism his entire life, and he obviously condemns her views and opposes BDS, as does the Democratic platform," campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement late on Tuesday.

"She has no role in the Biden campaign whatsoever."

The comment drew the ire of numerous Arab and Muslim activists and groups, including many that had pledged support for Biden. Prominent organisations, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Arab American Institute (AAI), the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and Emgage, urged the campaign to retract the statement.

Progressives also came to Sarsour's defence. MoveOn, an influential leftwing group, called the Muslim activist a "leader in the fight for justice for all of us".

"Biden can support Israel without implying that critique of Israeli gov’t policy is antisemitic or condemning advocates for Palestinian rights," MoveOn said on Twitter earlier this week.

"Moving forward, it is critical for the Biden campaign to prioritize building a big tent that respects, represents, and welcomes progressives and Muslim and Arab Americans, even where policy disagreements exist."

'Egregious misstep'

Blinken acknowledged the "hurt and disappointment" that the comments against Sarsour caused.

"Historically, Republicans and Democrats have been quick to dismiss Muslim, Arab-American and especially Palestinian-American voices, and I want to reiterate on behalf of all of us our support for your communities," Blinken told the activists on Sunday. 

He pledged that the Biden campaign and future administration will be "genuinely inclusive" and ensure Arab and Muslim representation at the decision-making level. 

"My apologies for what we did and what happened," Blinken told attendees, pledging to continue the conversation with community advocates.

It was not clear whether the Biden aides planned to make this apology public. The campaign did not respond to MEE's request for comment by time of publication.

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Symone Sanders, a Biden adviser, stressed on Sunday's call that the campaign did not equate criticism of Israel to antisemitism and recognises "constitutional right to free speech on issues like BDS". 

Sanders added that Bates' remarks were a collective mistake by the campaign, not solely the spokesman's fault.

She called the statement an "egregious misstep" that damaged the work that Democratic Muslim advocates have been doing to mobilise the community to vote in November.

"That's not how we do business… We are not in the business of condemning people and large swathes of the community, absolutely not," she said. 

"And we are just not going to try and do better going forward, we are going to do better going forward. This will not be a situation that will happen again."

Blinken echoed Sanders' assertion that Bates was not individually to blame for the statement against Sarsour.

"This should not be on our colleague who put it out… I dropped the ball on it, and I take responsibility for that, and I regret that," Blinken said.

Campaign responds

Amer Zahr, a Palestinian-American comedian and the president of New Generation for Palestine, said the Biden aides' remarks during the meeting are not enough, and the apology to Sarsour should be issued publicly.

"A private apology, where Linda Sarsour was not even present, simply does not suffice for a very public attack on her and our community," Zahr, who was not on the call on Sunday, told MEE.

"They allowed this to simmer for days. And now, if they expect our community to simply accept this backroom stuff, I’m afraid they will be unpleasantly surprised. Apologies and retractions must occur in the same forum where the egregious acts occurred. Linda Sarsour was not maligned in a private phone call. She was condemned publicly."

After the MEE story was published about the meeting, Sanders told CNN's Jake Tapper that the campaign rejects Sarsour's views.

 "We met to affirm Vice President Biden's unshakeable commitment to working with Arab, Palestinian, and Muslim Americans and to standing up against anti-Muslim prejudice, and to make clear that we regretted any hurt that was caused to these communities," Sanders said according to Tapper.

"We continue to reject the views that Linda Sarsour has expressed."

- This article has been updated to include remarks by Biden aide Symone Sanders as reported by Jake Tapper.

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