Palestinian-American gets short shrift from Congress member

The “special relationship” between Israel and the United States is supposedly that of mutual respect for the rule of law and democracy.  American faith in Israeli democracy, however, was shaken recently when a 15-year-old child from Tampa, Florida, while spending his summer vacation with family in Jerusalem, was brutally beaten and arrested by masked Israeli police officers.

According to video footage and witness statements, Tariq Abu Khdeir was on his way home from his cousin Mohammad Abu Khdeir’s funeral procession when he was cornered in his uncle’s yard by masked men, beaten unconscious, and repeatedly struck in the head even after losing consciousness.

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Tariq is my cousin.  Like any older cousin and trained attorney, I started making phone calls to the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, the State Department, and the U.S. Representative’s Office – Kathy Castor (D) of the 14th District of Florida – Tariq’s district. 

Rep. Castor was non-responsive during those first most urgent days. Her failure to do right by a young constituent is surely in part a consequence of a commitment to the “unbreakable bond that exists between our country and the State of Israel,” even when a constituent is attacked and arrested by Israeli authorities. Tellingly, at the same time we desperately needed her to speak up on Tariq’s behalf, she was tweeting about saving the manatees. 

Advocates of Palestinian rights have long claimed, in part in fearful jest, that a Congressional resolution asserting Palestinians are human beings would not pass.  Castor’s inaction at least confirms one Congressional member worries more about the manatees than a brutalized Palestinian-American constituent detained by Israel.

Ultimately, I made the phone calls to embassies, ambassadors, and human rights organizations Rep. Castor should have initiated.

When her office finally responded to me several days later, it was to claim Tariq was not a constituent and to lay blame on one of her counterparts.  With her staff stalling, I visited her office in Washington.  What happened next shocks American sensibilities: I was kicked out.

Within seconds of sitting down with Castor’s chief of staff, I was verbally assaulted and berated.  The newspaper I carried with a picture of Tariq on the cover was ripped out of my hands and thrown to the table.  The staffer said aggressively, “Let me tell you how this is going to go.” 

Suffice it to say, it didn’t.  I asked key questions: What has Rep. Castor done to get Tariq home?  How can we get her involved?  Why hasn’t she contacted the State Department?  The staffer did not answer one question and at one point I picked up my phone to call Tariq’s parents, but he wouldn’t have it. “It’s not the way we’re going to do it.”  And that was that.  I was aggressively ushered out and the door slammed in my face.

Welcome to constituent services in the U.S. as a Palestinian-American.

Unfortunately, for many Americans of Palestinian descent, there is no debate as to whether we are being marginalized by the U.S.-Israel relationship; it is merely an accepted reality. It is a reality emphasized and reinforced by the unwillingness of our Congressional leaders and government representatives to defend American citizens from Israeli aggression and discrimination.

That discrimination is very real for Palestinian-Americans attempting to visit family in Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.  For months Israel has been on the defensive in response to American pushback against possible Israeli participation in the U.S. visa waiver program.  Rather than address why Israel does not treat all U.S. citizens equally, and openly discriminates against Americans of Arab or Palestinian descent at its borders, airports, and checkpoints, Israel’s defenders have attacked our veracity and insisted Israel should be rapidly voted into the program.

The fear is great that the U.S. Congress will fold on the equal rights of Palestinian-Americans.

Consequently, I am fearful of retribution during any future visit of Tariq’s family to Occupied Jerusalem because Tariq dared to take a beating without first flashing his American passport at Israeli secret police.  Without strong U.S. support, this may be his last visit there.

Representation has never been contingent on a hyphen, and unlike Israel we don’t discriminate between citizen and national.  Our citizens come in many forms, including 10th generation Jerusalemites from Tampa. Castor’s response and belated weak statement are a grave disappointment, but Palestinian-Americans have come to expect such dismal treatment from Congress.

Essayyad is a Palestinian-American attorney and policy commentator based in Washington, D.C.