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Joe Biden owes Linda Sarsour a public apology

One of the most defining characteristics of President Trump’s personality is his consistent refusal to apologize, even when he has obviously behaved wrongly. It’s something observers have pointed out about Trump ever since he launched his campaign in 2015.

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Joel Swanson Image by Noah Lubin

But Joe Biden makes a point of portraying himself as a different sort of person, someone big enough to offer an apology when it is deserved.

If Joe Biden wants to contrast his own, supposedly more decent and compassionate personality with that of President Trump, he owes a public apology to Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour for slandering her during the convention.

Last week, Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist and former co-chair of the Women’s March, spoke briefly to the DNC during one of the conference’s virtual assemblies. The appearance was controversial due in part to Sarsour’s vocal support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel, something Republican activists immediately jumped on. In response, Biden’s team issued a strong condemnation of Sarsour as someone who has “no role in the Biden campaign whatsoever,” and reiterating that Biden “obviously condemns her views and opposes BDS.”

Most controversially, the spokesperson intimated that Sarsour was anti-Semitic, when it insisted that “Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel and a vehement opponent of anti-Semitism his entire life, and he obviously condemns her views and opposes BDS.”

Following this harsh public disavowal, and the outcry that it sparked among Sarsour’s allies on the left, reports emerged this week that Biden aides privately reached out to Muslim and Arab Democratic Party activists, expressing regret for denouncing Sarsour publicly in such harsh and unforgiving terms; Sarsour herself was not present at this private meeting.

A private apology to a group of Muslim activists that did not even include Sarsour, following a loud and widely-cited public denunciation, is simply not good enough. Joe Biden owes Linda Sarsour a personal and public apology, and the Muslim American and Palestinian-American communities have every right to demand one.

Of course, no one is asserting that Joe Biden, who allegedly personally intervened to prevent the Democratic Party platform from denouncing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, has to suddenly endorse BDS, or agree with Sarsour on every one of her beliefs.

But the DNC featured an array of speakers representing points of view that Biden does not endorse in full. After all, Biden’s leading opponent in the primaries, Senator Bernie Sanders, gave one of the most anticipated speeches at the DNC, and no one assumed this meant that Biden had dropped his longstanding opposition to Senator Sanders’s signature policy proposal of Medicare for All. And Sarsour herself stated that she did not expect the Biden campaign to agree with her on every issue, but that the whole point of the DNC was to present a “big tent” party. “‘Big tent’ means that you are going to have to come to terms with having people in your party that you don’t agree with; that is what a big tent means,” Sarsour said in response to the attack against her.

Sarsour’s great crime seems to be that she is unapologetically Muslim and Palestinian, in a Democratic Party that remains all too reluctant to fully embrace those identities. And the hypocrisy of this stance coming from the DNC is galling.

The Biden campaign seems to want to feature Muslim-American activists on its own terms, when it is convenient to draw a rhetorical contrast between his own multiracial and multifaith coalition and the white Christian coalition represented by President Trump. That’s why Biden has made ending Trump’s Muslim ban such a central part of his campaign platform, why his campaign has privately conducted outreach to Muslim voters in the crucial swing state of Michigan. It’s also why Biden’s DNC acceptance speech so centrally highlighted Trump’s praise for “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, which Biden says convinced him to run for president in 2020. The DNC also included footage from the Women’s March, co-organized by Sarsour, in its convention highlight reel.

Apparently Biden’s team are happy to feature both the Women’s March and Muslim activists when it is convenient for them.

But it is deeply hypocritical for Biden to want to feature Muslim voters to draw a rhetorical point, then refuse to listen to what these voters are actually saying about their political interests and goals. When the Biden campaign hosted an outreach event to Muslim American political activists at the DNC, he angered many Muslim activists by refusing to even mention Palestinian rights at all until explicitly asked about it during the questions. Many Muslim activists left this outreach event feeling angry at the Biden campaign for taking them for granted, and Abdullah Hammoud, a Muslim member of the Michigan House of Representatives, noted that Muslims left the meeting feeling like they would have to hold the Biden campaign “accountable for the decisions that they make from day one that they assume office.”

This is because polls show that the majority of American Muslims prioritize Palestinian rights, and a plurality rated Joe Biden’s former boss President Obama’s handling of Palestinian issues as “poor.”

American Jews often report feeling like they have to check their Zionist or pro-Israel politics at the door in order to enter progressive and left-wing spaces in the United States, to prove their bona fides as “good Jews” with proper leftist anti-Israel politics. But what the Biden campaign is asking of American Muslims, through its denunciation of Linda Sarsour, is essentially the mirror image of this demand.

Biden is asking Muslim voters to check their pro-Palestinian politics at the door of the Democratic convention, holding events for Muslim voters that do not even mention Palestinian rights.

If American Jews would bristle at the idea of a Jewish politics that demands all Jews ignore Israel entirely, we should be equally sympathetic to Muslim voters who do not want to check their Muslim identities at the door when it comes to Palestine.

Of course, that does not mean that American Jews all need to endorse BDS, or agree with Linda Sarsour and other Muslim activists on every issue. But American Jews should be more sympathetic than most to the idea that our religious and cultural identities influence our politics, and should not ask Muslims to forget their Islamic identities when they engage in political debates.

And Joe Biden owes Linda Sarsour a public apology for forgetting this fact.

Joel Swanson is a contributing columnist for the Forward and a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. Find him on Twitter @jh_swanson.

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