A deeply disturbing barometer of American passions inflamed by the Israel-Gaza war is the spread of vitriolic anti-Palestinian hate speech and political violence. There has also undoubtedly been a surge of anti-Semitic hatred, but the two most shocking incidents have involved murderous violence aimed at defenceless Palestinian Americans.
On October 14, a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy, Wadea Al Fayoume, was stabbed 26 times and killed by his family’s landlord in Illinois, who also stabbed his mother repeatedly. The suspect, Joseph Czuba, aware of their West Bank origins, reportedly accosted them over the war. When the boy’s mother suggested they pray for peace together, he allegedly began wildly stabbing them.
That’s still the most horrifying Gaza-related terrorist attack in the US, although there have been numerous anti-Palestinian and anti-Jewish incidents and hate crimes since October 7. But a recent attempted triple murder in Vermont comes a close second.
Three Palestinian-American university students were reportedly shot in Burlington by suspect Jason Eaton, who apparently took offence at their mixed English-Arabic conversation and the fact that two of them were wearing distinctive Palestinian black-and-white kuffiyat (scarves). According to police, the suspect did not speak but simply opened fire on the group before fleeing. Two of the three friends are reportedly in stable condition, but the third, Hisham Awartani, may never regain the use of his legs.
These apparent hate crimes, which may include two additional similar murders quite possibly motivated by the conflict, arise in a context of poisonous dehumanising rhetoric against Palestinians in Israel and among notable American figures, especially on the political right.
Florida Senator Rick Scott has predictably rushed to the forefront. As the Biden administration has been trying to organise a bill that would combine humanitarian aid for Gaza with additional support for Israel and Ukraine, Mr Scott countered with legislation that would block all aid intended for Gaza. Other legislation would potentially redirect any Gaza aid to support the Israeli military.
Mr Scott’s bill also seems intended to block even private support for UN agencies that care for Palestinian refugees, including in Gaza. Several Republican senators have repeatedly denounced all aid to Gazan civilians on the spurious grounds it could help Hamas.
Not to be outdone, a group of House Republicans introduced legislation in early November that would block any new visas, refugee or asylum status, or other temporary protected status for anyone with Palestinian Authority travel documents and even revoke visas and protected status for Palestinians who received them on or before October 1. For good measure, it orders immigration authorities to expel all Palestinians who accordingly lose their status.
“This is the most anti-Hamas immigration legislation I have seen, and it’s well deserved,” declared the bill’s main author, Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana, shamelessly conflating all Palestinians with Hamas. He is best known for his numerous ethical scandals when he served as Donald Trump’s secretary of the interior.
Mr Trump, inevitably, has used the Gaza conflict to try to resurrect his notorious and failed “Muslim ban” barring all immigration from a list of seven Muslim-majority societies.
He used his bespoke social media platform, Truth Social, to trumpet the incoherent and bizarre claim that: “The same people that raided Israel are pouring into our once beautiful US, through our totally open southern border.” Most other Republican presidential candidates rushed to join him in suggesting that the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel somehow demonstrates why President Joe Biden’s border policies – which are anything but “totally open” – are dangerously misguided.
His closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has never been to Gaza and knows less than nothing about Palestinians, stated flatly: “If you look at how [people in Gaza] behave, not all of them are Hamas, but they are all anti-Semitic.” Mr DeSantis is one of several state, university and school leaders who have shut down pro-Palestinian student groups, often citing the slogan, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, as evidence of intolerably anti-Semitic and even genocidal sentiments.
Not only is the phrase highly ambiguous, although many reasonably infer it to reject a two-state solution, totalising territorial ambitions are hardly restricted to some student groups.
Much of the Israeli power structure either openly or implicitly embraces exactly this idea in its Jewish context, as demonstrated when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN in September brandished a map depicting Israel including all of the occupied Palestinian territories. Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich – also known for his affinity for such maps – observed in March that “there is no such thing as Palestinians because there is no such thing as a Palestinian people”.
Nonetheless, genuinely anti-Semitic rhetoric and hate crimes in the US have also been flourishing during the conflict.
Brian Levin of the Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino (on whose advisory board I serve), notes that: “The bigoted backlash from the Israel-Hamas war is causing online invective and disinformation to skyrocket, while anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hate crime incidents are spiking to possible decade highs, and in the case of anti-Jewish hate crimes, a possible record in the US.”
In several notorious and disgraceful incidents, students and even professors on university campuses appeared to praise the October 7 killing spree in southern Israel. There has been, alas, virtually no end of voluble encouragement throughout US society of Israel’s war in Gaza often coupled with an implicit or even explicit assertion that the innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza, children included, have brought all this death and devastation upon themselves.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog insisted that “it is an entire nation out there that is responsible” because the Palestinians in Gaza “could have risen up” against Hamas, but because they didn’t, “it is not true this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true”. The implications are unmistakable.
This logic has been on full display in a great deal of American discourse since October 7, and especially on the Republican far right, with deadly consequences. So, it’s hardly surprising, yet highly alarming that there’s been more of a spillover of the Hamas-Israel violence in the US than almost anywhere beyond the immediate environs of Israelis, Palestinians, and their hundred years of ever-crueller warfare.
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