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'We shouldn't settle for crumbs': Palestinian Americans stage virtual walkout of Biden meeting

Activists accuse Biden's campaign of treating Palestine as Muslim issue, rather than foreign policy matter
By Azad Essa in Newark, New Jersey

Several high-profile Palestinian-American activists and organisers staged a virtual walkout of a meeting with an adviser to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in early June over the campaign's approach to Palestine, Middle East Eye can reveal. 

The walkout on 3 June took place minutes into the meeting, following a heated exchange between Amer Zahr, a well-known Palestinian activist and Farooq Mitha, Biden's Muslim outreach manager, in which Zahr accused the campaign of not taking the Palestinian issue seriously. 

The exchange on Zoom, which was recorded, shows Zahr condemning the Biden campaign's decision to send its Muslim outreach manager to engage Palestinian activists on a foreign policy issue like Palestine. 

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"A couple of weeks ago, the Democratic Majority for Israel [a pro-Israel super PAC] had a call with the Biden campaign. In fact they got a speech from Tony Blinken, the campaign's national security adviser, a very high ranking guy," Zahr said.

"With all my respect to all the work everyone does, including Farooq, a call at this level, a call to talk about Palestine and to talk about substantive policy things, is frankly a little insulting.” 

"We are as worthy as any other community, to meet with top foreign policy advisers, to meet with the candidate himself. I don't think anything can be achieved by this call. I am going to leave this call. I recommend other people leave, too." 

In response, Mitha said anyone who "doesn't want to be on the call, didn't have to be on the call" and that "he [Zahr] could leave if he wanted to."

When Osama Abuirshaid, the national policy director of American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) interjected to talk about a separate incident, Zahr was kicked off the call. 

In the minutes that followed, it is understood that several activists, including Abuirshaid and Jinan Shbat, a Palestinian-American organiser, also left the call in protest. 

The Zoom meeting, entitled "Muslim American Young Professional Engagement: The Palestinian Community & Their Perspectives", was attended by about 15 individuals associated with organisations involved in Palestinian solidarity efforts in the US. 

The incident, Palestinian-American activists say, encapuslates the callous approach of the Biden campaign to the question of Palestine in the face of increasing encroachment, an escalation in brutality in the occupied territories and the looming spectre of annexation. 

Shbat told MEE that Palestinian organisers had engaged with Mitha "a number of times", but it was clear to them that they were not being heard nor was their message reaching higher-ups in the Biden campaign.

Shbat said that prior to the call with the Biden campaign, Mitha had been urged to bring on a diverse set of Palestinian stakeholders to talk about the issue.

'We are being told we should be grateful that Biden is even recognising Palestinian conflict. This is not how you get people to believe in your candidate'

- Jinan Shbat

"But when we logged on, it was again mostly Muslims. And again, it was Farooq, who is not listening to us. So what was the point of this call," Shbat said.

Whereas Biden was sending letters of support to Israeli organisations including the Democratic Majority for Israel, Palestinians were being forced to raise issues with the campaign's Muslim outreach manager, who wields no control over foreign policy, Shbat said. 

It is not clear how many others walked off or if the meeting continued after the walk-outs.

Neither the Biden campaign nor Farooq Mitha responded to several attempts for comment and clarification.

"I know Biden is Zionist and nothing is likely to change if he becomes president, but we deserve a seat at the table with the national security adviser so we can raise our issues. They just want us to keep quiet and just vote for him," Shbat said.

"We are being told we should be grateful that Biden is even recognising the Palestinian conflict. This is not how you get people to believe in your candidate.

"We are basically being told: 'It's either us or Trump, and if you don't vote for us, it will be your fault'."

'Biden is hostile to us'

The Biden campaign continues to draw the ire of anti-war campaigners and the Palestinian-American community for its vague policy stances on issues and conflicts that directly impact Americans. It has also drawn immense flak from other communites of colour for staffing gaffes and ill-judged appointments. 

In March, the campaign was condemned for having appointed Amit Jani, a supporter of India's Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as Asian-American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) national vote director, a role that included outreach to the Muslim community. 

Farooq Mitha was subsequently appointed as the Muslim coordinator, while Jani has remained on Biden’s staff as AAPI vote director.

With annexation of the occupied Palestinian terrorities expected in early July, and still no clear-cut American opposition to the provocation in sight, Palestinan activists are growing increasingly frustrated that Biden has made no attempt to distinguish himself from President Donald Trump on the issue.

Earlier this week, about 100 organisations called on Biden and Trump to adopt a just and principled foreign policy towards the state of Israel and the Palestinian people, one that prioritises freedom, dignity and equality for all people. 

'I would really urge the Biden campaign, that if they wanted to talk seriously about Palestine... to treat our community with the respect we deserve'

- Amer Zahr, Palestinian activist

In mid-June, a coalition of more than 50 organisations urged Biden to make aid to Israel conditional and to reverse Trump's decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Biden has not budged on any of these demands.

Last month, the Biden campaign released its Muslim policy plan, which they say would protect the civil rights of Muslim Americans and reverse some of Trump's Islamophobic policies. At the time, several commentators said the plan was vague and lacked specifics and condemned the decision to include its policy on Palestinian rights in the section on Muslim Americans. 

Palestinian activists have repeatedly argued that Zionists have attempted to frame the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a religious issue, a tactic that erases Palestinian Christians as stakeholders and furthers the misconception that interfaith dialogue, rather than the fulfilment of Palestinian political aspirations, may lead to an eventual solution.

"It's been a long-standing tactic to make it Jews versus Muslims. No one wants to get involved in a religious conflict. When it is framed as civil rights and human rights, it's much easier to explain to the American public," Zahr says.

"And that's the way we Palestinians talk about it... Bernie Sanders wasn't perfect on the question of Palestine, but he fundamentally changed the conversation and included our voices in what he said about this issue."

"Biden is openly hostile to us. The Biden community is going to have a rude awakening if it thinks it can just come to the Arab-American community and Palestinian-American community, and say: 'Hey, I am not Trump'. It doesn't work with us. We are politically savvy and engaged. Frankly, we have large populations in swing states."

The activist and comedian continued, with a parting message for the Democratic candidate: "I would really urge the Biden campaign, that if they wanted to talk seriously about Palestine and seriously engage with people who wanted to talk about Palestinian rights, to treat our community with the respect we deserve."

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