Obama tells Arab-American leaders trip will show commitment to statehood

President Obama told Arab-American leaders that his trip to Israel and the Palestinian areas would demonstrate U.S. commitment to partnering with the Palestinian Authority to bring about a state.

“The President noted that the trip is not dedicated to resolving a specific policy issue, but is rather a chance to consult with Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian Authority officials about a broad range of issues,” a White House official said after Monday's meeting with an array of Arab-American organizational leaders. 

“He underscored that the trip is an opportunity for him to demonstrate the United States’ commitment to the Palestinian people – in the West Bank and Gaza – and to partnering with the Palestinian Authority as it continues building institutions that will be necessary to bring about a truly independent Palestinian state.”

The official also re-emphasized the Israel focus of the trip, as outlined last week in a similar meeting with Jewish organizational officials.

“He also noted that the trip is an opportunity for him to reiterate America’s commitment to Israel’s security, and to speak directly to the Israeli people about the history, interests, and values that we share,” said the official.

Ziad Asali, the president of the American Task Force for Palestine, told JTA that the White House meeting lasted about an hour, and that much of it was in the form of questions and answers. He said there were about a dozen participants.

Obama's remarks were off the record, but participants could describe their own comments.

“The United States, through sustained, balanced, constructive engagement, can facilitate a peaceful, lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a resolution that is essential to long-term security in the Middle East,” said a joint statement from the American Task Force for Palestine, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Arab American Institute and the American Federation of Ramallah Palestine released after Monday's meeting.

The statement added that the groups “look forward to using this meeting as a springboard for robust ongoing conversations on U.S. policy in the Middle East.”

Asali said he stressed in the meeting the importance of renewing Israeli-Palestinian talks.

“Over the last period there has been a lot of deterioration, and the tide has to be stemmed,” Asali said.

In his meeting with Jewish groups, Obama said the prospects for renewing such talks were not good right now, but did not count out returning to the process within a year.

James Zogby, the Arab American Institute president, said he noted that Obama would address Israelis and would not have the opportunity to deliver a similar speech to Palestinians, but counseled means of sending a direct message to the Palestinians.

“There are ways to speak to the people directly,” Zogby told JTA. “There are  things to say to the people to help restore the sense of confidence they have in the future.”

Zogby said he advised a trip to a church or a Palestinian economic venture.

Obama reportedly is considering visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

“If they go to the Church of the Nativity,” Zogby said, “there's a whole lot they'll be able to see on the way there.”

Jewish and Arab American woman suing airline for racial profiling

A Jewish-Arab American woman is suing a U.S. airline and the federal Transportation Security Administration for removing her from an airplane and strip-searching her.

Shoshana Hebshi, whose mother is Jewish and father is Saudi Arabian, is suing Frontier Airlines and law enforcement for ethnically targeting her.

A SWAT team forcibly removed Hebshi, 36, an American citizen who lives in Ohio, and two Indian men in handcuffs from Frontier Airline flight 623 after it landed on Sept. 11, 2011 at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. She was held for hours, questioned and strip searched.

A fellow passenger had accused the three of acting suspiciously. Hebshi did not know the Indian men, who reportedly were sitting in her row.

The lawsuit was filed Jan. 22 in a federal court in Detroit. Also named in the lawsuit are the Wayne County Airport Authority, Detroit Metro Airport Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol.

Hebshi said in a statement that she was” frightened and humiliated,” and that she believes she was singled out due to her ethnicity.

“The illegal arrest and strip search of Ms. Hebshi is not simply a mistake made by an airline employee or government agency, but a predictable consequence of institutionalizing racial stereotypes and mass suspicion as law enforcement tactics,” Sarah Mehta, an attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, said in a statement issued Jan. 22. “Racial profiling is unconstitutional and counterproductive. No one is safer because an innocent mother of two was dragged off a flight, strip searched and held for several hours.”

The TSA would not comment to media on pending litigation.

Journalists’ group considers dropping Helen Thomas award

Helen Thomas’ decision to take her disparagement of Zionists from off the cuff (last May) to on the record (last month) has led a journalists’ group to consider dropping her name from a lifetime achievement award.

The Society of Professional Journalists is revisiting its decision last summer not to change the name of its Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award after Thomas, 90, told an Arab-American group in Dearborn, Mich., last month that Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street “are owned by the Zionists.”

Thomas, a 67-year-veteran of Washington reporting, resigned from her job as a columnist at Hearst last June after remarking to a video blogger that Jews “should get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to Poland, Germany and the United States. She later apologized, but her remarks in Michigan on Dec. 2 have raised fresh concerns about the sincerity of the apology.

“Ms. Thomas’ most recent remarks led to calls for a reconsideration of the issue by the executive board,” said Hagit Limor, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and an investigative journalist for WCPO-TV in Cincinnati.

The decision will be considered Jan. 8 at a meeting of the society’s executive committee. Ahead of the meeting, the society posted on its online magazine Quill what it said were two typical letters—one for renaming the award and one against.

Limor said the society, which advocates for press freedoms and promotes high-quality journalism through scholarships and awards, had been in touch with Thomas.

A message left at Thomas’ home by JTA was not returned.

Her website, helenthomas.org, still leads with her statement of regret, saying her remarks at the time “do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance.”

After her June remarks to blogger Rabbi David Nesenoff, the society considered calls from members and some Jewish groups to rename its Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement but decided against it, noting her apology and the off-the-cuff nature of the remarks, an official with the organization told JTA.

That changed a few weeks ago with her speech in Dearborn, where Thomas grew up.

“We are owned by the propagandists against the Arabs. There’s no question about that,” Thomas told the Arab Detroit group. “Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street, are owned by the Zionists. No question in my opinion. They put their money where their mouth is.”

Wayne State University, her alma mater, immediately withdrew its Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in the Media Award. Under deluge again, the Society for Professional Journalists said it would reconsider.

“This episode was a sad final chapter to an otherwise illustrious career as a trailblazer for women and minorities in journalism,” Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, wrote in the online letter to Quill seeking to rename the award. “Unlike her first off-the-cuff remarks into a camera, Thomas’ comments were carefully thought out and reveal a person who is deeply infected with anti-Semitism.”

Thomas, born to Lebanese immigrants, for decades was the White House correspondent for the United Press International wire service. She was among the first female journalists in Washington to break out of the traditional first lady coverage, scoring newsmaking interviews with Presidents Johnson through Clinton. When she left UPI to become a columnist for Hearst, she emerged as one of the first and sharpest critics of the Iraq war.

Wayne State’s decision was the right one, Foxman said in his letter, and “it should no longer be considered an honor to receive an award bearing her name.”

Countering was Lloyd Weston, a retired publisher and editor.

“The same First Amendment that protects my right to be a Jew and a Zionist in America protects Helen Thomas’ right to express her opinion of Jews and Zionists, no matter what that opinion may be,” said Weston, a Wayne State alumni who said his professors were likely “turning in their graves” at the university’s decision to rescind the honor.

The Society for Professional Journalists, established in 1909, granted Thomas its first lifetime achievement honor in 2000, and pledged to name subsequent awards for her. It has been awarded nine times since its debut. The award has no cash value.

On Saturday, the society’s executive committee could decide to rename the lifetime achievement award or not, or it could refer the matter to the full board, an official said.

Backlash Threat

As some 20 teens beat 18-year-old Rashid Alam with golf clubs and baseball bats in Yorba Linda on Feb. 22, they allegedly yelled “White Power!” The attack, which Alam’s friends said was unprovoked, left the recent high school graduate hospitalized with a fractured jaw and broken bones in his face.

Unable to speak because his jaw is wired shut, friends and family despair that he might have suffered permanent brain damage from the 65 blows he endured.

Police call the attack a hate crime, but have said that it began as a face-off between two rival groups that had fought in the past. Others said it was fueled solely by ethnic hatred.

Ahmed Alam, publisher of the Arab World newspaper in Anaheim, said his son’s beating underscored the vulnerability now felt by many Arab Americans.

“After Sept. 11, the average American thinks we’re all the same, all like Saddam,” said Alam, a U.S. citizen who emigrated from Lebanon in 1971. “They don’t know the difference between an Iraqi, a Lebanese and a Syrian.”

As war with Iraq continues, both the Arab American and Jewish communities must brace themselves for a possible backlash.As the body bags mount and U.S. forces get bogged down in the desert, extremists might vent their rage by beating or even murdering Arab Americans, as they did after Sept. 11.

Similarly, hate mongers, who have long painted Jews as communists, money-grubbing internationalists and peddlers of Hollywood immorality, might soon brand them as fifth columnists more loyal to Israel than to the United States. Rep. James P. Moran’s (D-Va.) recent speech to an anti-war group, accusing the Jewish community of pushing the United States into an ill-advised conflict, is but the most recent example of this blame-the-Jews mentality, experts said. Moran has since apologized.

With Arab Americans and Jews both under siege, these minority groups appear to be developing a measure of empathy, if not sympathy, for one another. Views on the Middle East still divide them and hard-liners on both sides continue to spew out invective, but voices of reason appear to be cutting through the shouts.

In the aftermath of Rashid Alam’s brutal beating, several rabbis contacted the Council on American-Islamic Relations to express their outrage at the crime, said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the group’s Southern California chapter.

Rabbi Allen Krause of Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo is among those who stood alongside the council. Krause, who has participated in several local interfaith events with Muslims and Christians, said he has long preached tolerance from his Orange County pulpit. The rabbi thinks that Jews, themselves victims of discrimination, should become more vocal in supporting American Muslims.

“The Torah doesn’t say Jews were made in God’s image. It says all humans were made in God’s image,” he said. “We are our brothers’ keeper.”

That’s not to suggest that relations between Arab Americans and Jewish groups have warmed considerably since the second intifada broke out in Israel more than two years ago. They have not. But the chill that plagued them seems to have begun to thaw ever so slightly.

“We oppose any kind of anti-Semitism,” said Jean Abinader, managing director of the Arab American Institute, a Washington-based advocacy group. “One, we’re Semites. Two, any kind of bigotry against somebody because of their religion or ethnicity is an act against humanity.”

Even before a single shot was fired in Iraq, hate crimes committed against people, institutions and businesses identified with the Islamic faith have skyrocketed, with 414 now under investigation by the FBI.

Already, some Muslims have grown fearful about speaking Arabic in public. Others have “Americanized” their children’s names to Sam from Osama or to Mo from Mohammed, said Ayloush of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“There’s a lot of anxiety and worry,” he said. “Now, it’s almost commonplace these days for Muslims to be subjected to verbal abuse, especially men with the beards and women in head scarves.”

Some Arab American leaders have criticized the Bush administration for helping to create a hostile environment. They are especially angry that federal agents have imprisoned, without formal charges, scores of Muslims initially suspected of terrorist activities but later deported for minor visa infractions.

Activists complain of discrimination against Arab Americans on domestic airlines, with several dark-skinned passengers being asked to leave planes without cause. The groups also grouse about right-wing Christian evangelicals demonizing Islam.

A growing number of American Jews also are under attack. Hate crimes against Jews, both nationally and locally, jumped significantly last year, according to a report soon to be released by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “I’m worried about people targeting synagogues and having hateful feelings about Jews,” said Amanda Susskind, the ADL’s regional director in Los Angeles.

As delicate as the situation is for Jews, it is arguably worse for American Arabs.

In a reflection of their potentially dire situation, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller recently met with leaders of national Arab American, Muslim and Sikh organizations. (Sikhs are neither Arab nor Muslim. But Sikh men wear turbans and have been attacked by extremists who mistake them for Middle Easterners.) Among other issues, they spoke about possible vigilante attacks against the groups and the need to continue working with the FBI.

Against this backdrop, the ADL has forcefully condemned violence against American Muslims, especially since Sept. 11. The human rights advocacy group will “continue to be outspoken on the issue,” national spokesman Todd Gutnick said. “We think attacks against Muslim Americans is wrong and un-American.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he detects no hostility toward Arab Americans. If extremists begin to harass them, though, the center will “publicly urge people to focus on the enemies of the United States and not on innocent Muslims living in America.”

On the eve of war, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo joined Hier, Cardinal Roger Mahoney and other religious and community leaders at the Museum of Tolerance to oppose hate crimes and discrimination. Delgadillo said his office would prosecute all perpetrators of such acts to the fullest extent of the law, adding that some good might emerge from these uncertain times. “I’m hopeful that all of L.A.’s diverse communities can unite and rise to the occasion.”

World Briefs

Shooting victims die

Two Israeli women, aged 79 and 56, died from wounds they sustained in Tuesday’s Palestinian terror attack in Jerusalem. The older woman was identified as Sarah Hamburger, a resident of Jerusalem. A mother of four, Hamburger was onher way to a lecture when she was hit by the terrorist’s gunfire. Hamburger was a seventh-generation Israeli.

Al Qaida Scouted Israel

An Al Qaida scout reported “exceptionally good opportunities” for terrorism in Israel and Egypt. According to the Wall Street Journal, the scout suggested in his report going after tall buildings and airplanes. The report was found on a computer used by Al Qaida operatives in Kabul. According to the report, the scout flew from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv on El Al with a new British passport.

After traveling around Israel, he went to Egypt by bus and then to Turkey and Pakistan by air. According to the report, the scout’s travels bear a remarkable resemblance to trips made by Richard Reid, who was trained by Al Qaida and was arrested recently on a transatlantic flight when he tried to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes.

Sharon Suit Strains Ties

Israel may consider cutting ties with Belgium if legal action against Ariel Sharon continues, Foreign Ministry sources said. Israel’s Army Radio quoted the sources as saying Israel does not rule out the possibility of cutting ties with Belgium if a Brussels court continues to hear a lawsuit filed against the Israeli prime minister. Sharon faces lawsuits filed by Palestinians and Lebanese accusing him of responsibility for the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, which was carried out by Lebanese Christian militias allied with Israel. Israel argues that the court is not authorized to consider the case, and to do so would violate Israeli sovereignty.

Conservative Rabbis Choose Israeli

The Conservative movement’s rabbinic arm is to be headed by an Israeli for the first time. The Rabbinical Assembly, which represents approximately 1,500 Conservative rabbis, mostly in the United States, will name Rabbi Reuven Hammer president at its convention next month in Washington. Hammer, who made aliyah from the United States in 1973, was one of the rabbis involved in the 1998 Ne’eman Commission, a group that sought to find a way for non-Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions in Israel that would be recognized by the government. He is a professor of rabbinic literature at the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies, the Conservative seminary in Jerusalem.

Arab American’s Invitation

Some American Jewish leaders are angry that a controversial Muslim leader has been asked to address the State Department next week.

Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, is scheduled to address State Department staffers Jan. 28 to speak on “Rising Voices of Moderate Muslims,” as part of the department’s annual Open Forum lecture series.

Al-Marayati has been criticized by Jewish leaders for comments he has made about the State of Israel, most recently claiming Israel should be a suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, has written to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Richard Haass, director of policy planning, asking that Al-Marayati’s invitation be revoked.

“Allowing Salam Al-Marayati to speak at the State Department will give him a podium and legitimacy that he does not deserve,” Klein wrote in the letter.

Al-Marayati’s comments on a Los Angeles radio show in the hours after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks outraged Jewish leaders and others.

“… I think we should put the State of Israel on the suspect list because I think this diverts attention from what’s happening in the Palestinian territories so that they can go on with their aggression and occupation and apartheid policies,” he said.

He later told the Los Angeles Times that the quotation was correct but taken out of context, and that he sent a “clarification” to Jewish leaders.

He has also justified suicide bombings in Israel, reportedly saying a bombing in a Jerusalem pizzeria last year was the “expected bitter result of the reckless policy” of the Israeli government.

“He represents the very thing we are fighting against,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said this week.

When the issue was raised at the State Department briefing on Wednesday, spokesman Richard Boucher said Al-Marayati was not invited by the secretary, but by the forum’s coordinators.

Israelis Face Extradition to U.S.

Two Israelis will be extradited to the United States to face drug dealing charges. Meir Ben David and Yossi Levi are suspected of distributing tens of thousands of Ecstasy pills in Florida. American prosecutors recently submitted a formal request for their extradition.

Wait for Messiah OK’d

The Vatican says the Old Testament validates the Jewish waiting for the Messiah. In a document that appears to show a shift in Catholic thinking, the Vatican declared, “The Jewish wait for the Messiah is not in vain.”

Jews and Christians both are waiting for the Messiah — though Christians are awaiting the second coming of Jesus, while Jews believe in a first coming, the pope’s theologian wrote.

Now part of official church doctrine, the document also calls on Catholics to recognize the moral value of the Old Testament. The document reportedly was released last month with little fanfare.

All briefs courtesy of JTA.

Junk Mail

There is no Editor of cyberspace, and that’s too bad. The latest e-mail craze to spread like the Melissa virus through the cc: box of various e-mails is the report of a man named Joseph Farah.

Farah is an Arab-American journalist who has cashed in on some Jewish Americans’ willingness to believe exactly what they want to believe. His report, called “Myths of the Middle East” has ricocheted from e-mail to e-mail. It has arrived at our offices dozens of time, usually preceded by the sender’s imploring, “You MUST read this!” or “Bet you don’t have the GUTS to print THIS!”

Farah’s “Myths” passes itself off as a set of “courageously” told “truths,”which, taken together, purport to prove that there is no Palestinian people, no Palestinian claim on land in the Middle East and no Muslim claim on Jerusalem.

Let’s forget for a minute that no serious Israeli leader believes this hooey. Better to look at who Joseph Farah is. He is a writer for a range of garden-variety outlets of the Christian far right. As Gershom Gorenberg reported in The Jerusalem Report (12/12/00), a Columbia Journalism Review piece on Farah documented his past as a former publisher of the ultra-conservative Sacramento Union and founder of the Western Journalism Center, which promoted dark theories on the death of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster.

On Farah’s WorldNetDaily, you can read his similarly insightful pieces on how President Bill Clinton ran an international crime syndicate from the White House, why guns reduce crime, and the evil of Steven Spielberg, whom Farah calls “a capitalist pig.” Cc that.

You can also peruse his article, “Jerusalem: The Burdensome Stone,” in which Farah cites chapter 14 of Zechariah “in the standard fashion of Christian fundamentalists who see Israel as a sign that the End is near,” writes Gorenberg. WorldNetDaily is full of links to works that envision a Middle East in which Israel rebuilds the Temple and Jews convert in vast numbers to born-again Christianity on the eve of the Second Coming.

It is sad and true that the same people who would slam the door on Farah if he came peddling his wares in person eagerly forward his Internet “scholarship.” The Palestinian problem is real, and Joseph Farah’s mythologies can only make it worse.