Bearing Witness

An open letter to President Barack Obama

President Obama, I cried a few days ago as I marveled at your historic and amazing win. I couldn’t help it. It was amazing the way that you were able to transcend racial, ethnic, and age lines to bring Americans together. You inspired me to believe in the US again.

You see, I moved to the United States from Palestine in July 2001. History soon shaped my experience in the US, and I found myself in a country where being Muslim and Palestinian made me a threat. I survived the hate-filled stares on 9/11, the people calling me “Victor” since “Hammad” is “too hard to say.” I got searched for three hours at SFO airport as a suspected terrorist where I was not allowed to call my family or know my rights, and had my computer’s contents searched. A portrait of President Bush looked over me. For the seven years I have lived in America, President Bush has been in charge. The America I moved to was not the one I always imagined. The America of hope and opportunity turned out to be the America of discrimination and horrible public education.

Growing up in a small town near Ramallah in Palestine, I always had an image of an America of opportunity. An America where dreams come true and people are judged by their character, not skin color or background. I dreamed of the America where one’s religion didn’t define them. You see, I lived my entire life in an area where I was first judged by my perceived nationality and religion. As a Palestinian in an Israeli-occupied military zone, there was no opportunity. A green “hawiya” listing my Palestinian background and religion kept me in an open-air prison. There, I watched my classmates run out of school to escape hovering Israeli F-16s, and watched the police station next to my school get bombed. To get to school, about two miles away, took at least an hour. We had to take a taxi through back roads, in snow (yes, it snows sometimes in Palestine), rain, wind, and heat. I sat in the corner of an 8-person taxi to and from school each day. It wasn’t just the back roads that were built for Palestinian drivers that made us feel subhuman. (Israeli highways circling through the West Bank are reserved only for Israeli Jewish settlers who illegally are transferred and build “hilltop communities” on private Palestinian land). It was also the two checkpoints Israelis made me walk through to get from my Palestinian town to the next city where my school was located. It wasn’t seeing people beaten or spit on that got to me. It was that as a 13-year old, I had to walk for a quarter mile every day to cross through the checkpoint on a mountain and wait for another checkpoint to get me to school. The problem was that Israel’s “security” regime took away my sense of security. Israel’s web of 500 checkpoints in the West Bank alone was part of the reason my dad’s restaurant failed. My story is not unique and is filled with privilege. Most Palestinians my age have been shot at or arrested. 6 million Palestinians still live in refugee camps. I was also lucky, since I had an American passport—which was the only reason Israel sometimes looked at me as a human being. My family was able to leave. Most Palestinians aren’t.

Throughout this campaign, I have watched you distance yourself from your former colleagues and friends because of their Palestinian background. I watched Foxnews report on Palestinian Professors as “terrorists” and was disappointed that you had no comment on the subject. I stood by when you retracted your comment that “Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.” I stood by as you remained silent about those who called you “Muslim,” as if it were a slur. I understood you needed to get elected, and that as a Black man in the US, it wouldn’t be easy and that it wouldn’t make sense to stand up against the ignorance and racism that has been increasing against Muslims and Arabs in the US. I watched you deny being a “Muslim” but never heard you say that it shouldn’t matter if you were. I rooted for you to win the Democratic nomination and spent a weekend with friends campaigning for you in South Carolina. I was there when you won by a landslide, and rejoiced at your speech. I didn’t wash my hands for a few days after shaking yours.

 I am not a one-issue voter. I did not, DID NOT, vote for you because of your policy on Palestine and Israel. You see, if it was this issue that I judged you by, I would not have voted for you. I watched you give a hawkish pro-Israel speech at AIPAC the day after you won the nomination. I understood the state of US politics and the need for you to not take a controversial or new stance on an issue that would lose votes in the Jewish-American community that was already skeptical of this man whose middle name was Hussein.

However, I was still disappointed by the levels you sunk to appear as “Israel-loving” as possible. I listened with shock as you declared that Jerusalem should “Israel’s undivided capital.” Even President Bush did not try to change international law or take a stance on a final status issue without Palestinian and Israelis negotiating it. And was happy the next day when you clarified your remark.

I was working with young Palestinians in three West Bank refugee camps and used your story as inspiration for them to see hope in their future and to follow their dreams. These kids are third and fourth generation refugees living in crowded refugee camps, and waiting for any of their basic human rights to be implemented. Then, I saw the difference in your visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. You spent over 27 hours in Israel, visiting museums, civil society, different government organizations and religious sites. In the Palestinian areas, you spent half an hour at President Mahmoud Abbas’ compound, which caused many main streets in Ramallah to be closed for ordinary Palestinians. As if the checkpoints weren’t enough.

I wondered at the time whether you saw the Qalandia checkpoint as you were whisked through in your motorcade. Did you see the wall that cuts across the land? Did you see how tall it is? In Berlin you gave a speech a few days later saying: “When you, the German people, tore down that wall – a wall that divided East and West; freedom and tyranny; fear and hope – walls came tumbling down around the world. From Kiev to Cape Town, prison camps were closed, and the doors of democracy were opened.” How could you justify a wall that divides Palestinian territory, steals land, is not built on the green line, and is in some places twice as large as the Berlin Wall and four times as long? If it was about security, then the wall could have been built on Israeli territory and not around water sources and illegal settlements. 

Did you know that in a bakery in Ramallah, they prepared “O” pastries in your honor? You probably didn’t since you asked to leave Ramallah early to return to Tel-Aviv leaving behind a prepared Palestinian meal at Abbas’s compound. As a Christian, shouldn’t you feel disappointed that the Church of the Nativity, where it is believed Jesus was born, is cut off from Jerusalem by a wall that is 30 feet tall with multiple watch and sniper towers? You probably don’t know, since you didn’t visit the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, where Palestinian Christians are emigrating in record numbers since the building of the wall and the impact on the local economy.

Then, I remembered what it was that you stood for and that caused me to become a supporter. I listened when you discussed hope and opportunity in the US. Speaking of race you said: “”the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding.”

I wonder if you also can apply this statement to your policy in Palestine. I didn’t speak up during the election, because I believe you ARE the best choice for America. Now, I ask whether you will stand for human rights and against discrimination?

This has nothing to do with so-called “shared values” with Israel. This isn’t about being pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. This is about being pro-justice for a better future in the Middle East. This is a way to address the base of many conflicts in the Middle East. This is to improve the moral standing of the US and to hold our “allies” accountable for their actions. It is about using our leverage to push an agenda of justice, peace, equality, and democracy.

Mr. President-elect, the day after your nomination, you chose Rahm Emanuel , an Israeli as your Chief of Staff known for his hawkish pro-Israeli politics. His father was involved in the Irgun, a Zionist terrorist organization that murdered British troops and Arab civilians in Israel. I wonder if you would have appointed an equally-qualified person who happened to be Muslim. And if that person’s father was involved in a bombing that killed 60 people, would it really not be an issue? The same father is quoted to have said to an Israeli newspaper (in an article with the headline: “Our man in the White House”): “”Obviously, he will influence the President to be pro-Israel. Why shouldn’t he do it? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to clean the floor of the White House.”

I am so proud of the United States for electing you as our President. I am proud to have voted for you. Now, I wait, along with millions in the US and around the world, to see if you will be different when it comes to Israel and Palestine. I genuinely hope you can hold Israel accountable for the more than 3 BILLION in aid we send every year. These are my tax dollars at work—lets make them work on bringing down walls and finding a lasting solution that allows for justice and freedom for Palestinians (which is not opposite to Israeli security). Lets improve our image and reputation in the Muslim and Arab world. Let’s not get muddled in President Bush’s “us vs. them,” and “axis of evil” bullshit.

Because we can change, extremists in the Muslim world can no longer use the argument that America wants to bring a new crusade. By voting for the son of a Muslim from Kenya, we have silenced the extremists. Now, lets do something fresh and positive to keep them silent forever. Let’s be the America of hope and justice.

* An open letter to Barack Obama by hammad hammad an American of Palestinian heritage.

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January 27, 2009 - Posted by | Media | , , ,

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