Democrats Cannot "Have Double Standards": An Interview With State Rep. Abdelnasser Rashid
Rashid, the first Palestinian in the Illinois General Assembly, talks with Nashwa Bawab about Gaza, Biden, Wadea Al-Fayoume, and the settler attack on his childhood home of Turmusaya.
As the Israeli military continues an unprecedented assault on the besieged Gaza Strip, with the death toll of Palestinians reaching more than 10,000 at the time this article is being published, local and national elected officials have been weighing in — with the overwhelming majority boasting unequivocal support for the Israeli government and endorsing the billions that President Joe Biden wants to hand over to fuel Israel’s war machine. (The White House even pushed for a measure that effectively gives Israel a check to purchase $3.5 billion in arms in complete secrecy.)
The Chicago City Council, for example, passed a resolution on Oct. 13 condemning Hamas and supporting Israel as their military was in the midst of dropping some 6,000 bombs on Gaza. The resolution was met by protests at City Hall. Nationally, at least 23 members of the House of Representatives — including Illinois Democratic Reps. Delia Ramirez, Chuy García and Jonathan Jackson — support a cease-fire.
There are 435 members of the House of Representatives, making the call for a cease-fire come from just over 5%. Even stalwart progressive champions like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are not calling for a cease-fire (Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin on Nov. 2 became the first senator to call for a cease-fire).
But, like Ramirez and the other members of Congress calling for a cease-fire, there have been other key voices pushing for an end to the violence in Gaza — including here in Illinois.
On Oct. 8, 18 members of the Illinois General Assembly, including State Rep. Abdelnasser Rashid — the first Palestinian-American to serve in the Illinois General Assembly—issued a letter calling for “de-escalation and peace.”
Later in October, at the annual event for the Chicago branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Rashid, one of the featured speakers, decried the “shame” of the U.S. government for supporting the assault on Gaza and the shame of other elected officials who are “standing by” as this all unfolds.
Over the summer, Rashid took his family to visit his childhood home in Turmusaya, a Palestinian town in the West Bank that is being encroached on by illegal Israeli settlements. In Chicago — which is home to the largest population of Palestinians in the United States — Palestinians from Turmusaya are the second largest group.
On June 21, settlers rampaged the town, killing a Palestinian and injuring at least a dozen others. These pogroms by Israeli settlers against Palestinians have become more frequent in the last several years, many being carried out under the purview of the Israeli military.
And while the assault on Gaza has much of the world’s attention, settlers in the West Bank are increasingly committing acts of violence against Palestinians and working to drive Palestinians from their homes. In one case, near Nablus, an Israeli settler shot and killed a Palestinian man who was harvesting olives. In an article for In These Times, Ryah Aqel also described the wanton violence of extremist settlers in the South Hebron Hills.
Since the beginning of their assault on Gaza, the Israeli government has also captured and imprisoned some 2,000 Palestinians from the West Bank — many of them being held in administrative detention which allows the Israeli government to jail them without charges or trial. This is on top of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners already being held (there are now more than 10,000 imprisoned Palestinians).
These cases and what Rashid’s family faced this summer are an example of what advocates for Palestine mean when they say, “History didn’t start on October 7.”
Rashid and I talked extensively about the attack on Turmusaya shortly after it happened. He explained that it’s a common part of life for Palestinians who live in the West Bank and a part of the Israeli government’s policy toward Palestinians in general. We recently reconnected to talk about the current assault on Gaza, the grief felt after the murder of Wadea Al-Fayoume, and the current political pulse both locally and nationally. (Al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old Palestinian boy, was murdered in a hate crime in a Chicago suburb on Oct. 14.)
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NASHWA BAWAB: Can you talk about what you’re feeling right now? And what are your thoughts on the current situation?
REP. ABDELNASSER RASHID: My heart is very heavy, and it has been for the last couple of weeks. Seeing the horrific violence that’s happening in Palestine and Israel, horrified to see civilians being targeted. For me, it doesn’t matter who the perpetrator is, or who the civilian is, you cannot target civilians, whether it’s Israeli civilians or Palestinian civilians. And at the same time, we know that this did not begin on October 7. This has been going on for a long time. Unfortunately, what I’ve seen since October 7 is this inability to grapple with the fact that 6,400 Palestinians [prior to Oct. 7] were killed over the last 15 plus years. Gaza’s under a 16-year siege and there’s a decades-long occupation that has made life unbearable for Palestinians, particularly in Gaza under the siege. And if we’re serious about achieving peace and security and safety for Palestinians and for Israelis, then we have to address the root causes of the conflict.
BAWAB: I know you were visiting Turmusaya over the summer when there was a settler attack. Could you tell me a little bit about that event and how you connect what happened there to what’s happening now?
RASHID: As a recap of what happened over the summer, I was visiting my childhood home with my wife and our kids. I was very excited to introduce my family, my wife and children, to the village and to our family members there. And on Wednesday, June 21, a group of armed Israeli settlers invaded the village, torched an entire neighborhood, shot a bunch of people, killed a young man. All with the support of the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli government that looked the other way even though these attacks had been advertised ahead of time. I’ll stop there on that one.
The situation has been bad for a very long time, the status quo has been untenable for decades. But it’s gotten significantly worse since the election of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and his far-right government that, even according to Joe Biden, it is the most extreme government he’s seen in Israel’s history.
The types of leaders alongside Netanyahu are people who are calling for wiping Palestinian villages off the map, people who are actively encouraging settlers to take up arms against Palestinian civilians, people who are using very genocidal language about Palestinians in general. These are the same types of people who also endorsed the policy of no food, water, electricity or medicine in Gaza in response to this latest event.
It should not surprise us that Israel is acting in a way that is violating basic human decency, violating international law, committing war crimes in Gaza. The Israeli government is completely and utterly unhinged and has been for a long time, which is why we’re seeing the devastation that we’re seeing in Gaza. The idea that any civilized country would order the evacuation of 1.1 million people over a 24-hour period with nowhere to go, and then bomb them as they’re going to those places and bomb the streets and order evacuations of hospitals as those hospitals are treating people and then attack a hospital, killing 500 Palestinians — this is not normal. This is consistent with the genocidal language that ministers in the Israeli government have been using for quite some time.
BAWAB: Can you talk about what the atmosphere was like at the janazah for six-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume?
RASHID: It was really heartbreaking. People were in so much pain because of the fact that a six-year-old boy, a Palestinian boy in Plainfield, Illinois [was murdered]. To my understanding, the boy and his mom had a good relationship with the landlord. The boy’s father says that the landlord had built a treehouse for him. I read in one other report that the boy actually ran to the landlord when he came to kill him because he knew this old man and was going to greet him.
The fact that he was stabbed 26 times all over his body with a military-style knife retrieved from his abdomen during the autopsy — that reality?
It was the way in which many in the media and many elected officials, particularly on the federal stage — including the President — responded in a way that dehumanized Palestinians, that gave Israel’s unhinged Netanyahu-controlled government, carte blanche to do anything that they wanted without regard for human life, without regard for civilians, without regard for what the long-term strategy is to actually achieve peace. That environment directly led to this brutal murder. People were sad, but also angry — and that’s an understatement. It was one of the hardest things to have attended in my life.
BAWAB: I actually went to the janazah and the burial, and I also noticed that the Palestinian, and the Muslim community in general, were really angry and making this clear connection between how the mainstream media is talking about them and how they’re drumming up support for this genocide, and also making a clear connection to the failure of the U.S. government who gives Israel a $3.3 billion check every year for the weapons they use on Palestinians. I know you said a little bit about it, but I was wondering if you wanted to say more.
RASHID: It has unfortunately been incredibly painful and obvious that the rhetoric that has been used since October 7 — frankly before but especially since then — has been one that dehumanized Palestinians. By removing the history and context from what’s going on today, it created a situation where not only do we have a brutal attack on an already besieged Gaza, but that same hate and Islamophobia is spilling into the United States and specifically into Plainfield, Illinois.
BAWAB: It’s sad to see Palestinians dying by the thousands in Gaza, but even one dying in Chicago, I’m sure it’s so hard for our community. I also did want to talk about a letter you put out recently. I was wondering if you could give me some more information about the letter and what things have been looking like inside the legislature, what has been the response to it?
RASHID: The letter came out after we had seen the initial attack on Israel and the attack on civilians in Gaza that had already killed over 300 people. It was a call for de-escalation. It was mourning the lives lost of Israelis and Palestinians and completely rejecting any justification for killing civilians, and also recognizing that the only path toward a lasting peace is one that recognizes Palestinian human rights. It was a very simple letter, it was one whose language was negotiated to be what it was to be able to attract the signatures of, thankfully, 17 of my colleagues. I’m very grateful for the incredibly diverse set of signatories. We had Black, African-American, Latino, Asian, white signatories, legislators who are new and who have been serving for a long time, House and Senate. I was very heartened to see such a significant number of my colleagues stand up and call for de-escalation and understand that the only path forward was one that recognized the humanity of the Palestinians.
BAWAB: I want to ask you about what happened in the City Council on Oct. 13, about the resolution supporting Israel, which was passed, and the response it garnered.
RASHID: As you know, I’m not a member of the City Council, but I was watching closely the events that unfolded there. There was a resolution standing unequivocally with Israel and said absolutely nothing about the need to protect Palestinian civilians, or the Israeli occupation and siege on Gaza. And it rightfully got a significant amount of pushback by members of the City Council. While it did end up passing, it barely received the number of votes needed to actually call it for a vote. It almost died because so few aldermen actually wanted it to be brought to the City Council to be voted on. There were multiple rounds of procedural votes before it was forced onto the City Council floor for a vote, and they ended up doing a voice vote rather than a roll call vote on that. So we don’t necessarily have a specific indication of exactly who voted for or against it in the end, but we do know how members of the City Council voted on the procedural resolutions.
BAWAB: Operations by the Israeli military happen in Gaza every few years, but the last time there was a major one was in 2014, and I think a lot of people have noticed that the rhetoric has really changed since then. I was wondering what you have to say about it?
RASHID: The American public, and in particular the Democratic base, has shifted dramatically in recent years and over the last decade. In fact, go back to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, when the DNC did a voice vote on whether to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, and they had to manufacture support for it. If you listen to the audio, you’ll see that it was actually shot down in the voice vote. But the chair of the DNC at the time manufactured the outcome that the DNC had wanted, which is that it was to pass. And that was in 2012. It’s been more than 10 years since then. We’ve had the movement for Palestinian freedom and justice do significant work on campuses, in faith institutions, in the labor movement, in electoral politics. People have gotten an opportunity to get a deeper understanding of what’s happening, and they’ve had access to media that is not entirely one-sided due to the ability of people to get additional information online compared to the past. [Including] of course, social media being a source of information, and live events or testimonials from the people impacted, particularly in Gaza. So absolutely, the American public and Democrats in particular have moved. Poll after poll and survey after survey show that Democrats are incredibly sympathetic to Palestinians. And it should come as no surprise that there was so much tension at the Chicago City Council, because where many elected officials are at is so out of sync of where the American public is.
BAWAB: I agree. I feel like the grassroots have done a lot of work to really push rhetoric, and the seed that they planted is bearing its fruit, as they say. Since we’re talking about the Democratic Party, I wonder what you think Biden’s chances are in 2024. Because I’ve been seeing people talking about how this is going to kill his campaign chances and people promising that they won’t vote for him next year. We even saw someone in the State Department resign over the Biden administration’s efforts to continue sending weapons to Israel.
RASHID: I have been encouraging everyone I know in leadership positions in the Democratic Party to call the Arab and Muslim and Palestinian leadership in their district or in their states to gauge where they’re at. Because there is absolutely a sense that Palestinians, in particular, but also allies of the Palestinian struggle for freedom and equality, that we’ve been abandoned. And there will, unfortunately, be reverberations from that. I am hoping that we get a cease-fire immediately, and that America course-corrects its shameful foreign policy on Israel and Palestine. Anybody paying attention in the Democratic Party should know that this is creating a significant risk, particularly in states like Michigan, Georgia, and other swing states. And they ought to take a really careful look at how U.S. foreign policy toward Israel is impacting the ability of the Democratic Party to be the big tent party that it claims to be.
BAWAB: I noticed at the janazah and burial people chanting, “Biden is not my president.” I really think that this is going to be something that Democrats are going to have to reckon with.
RASHID: I’ve said this, but I want to reiterate it, which is that it is absolutely imperative that elected officials — and particularly those in the Democratic Party who are trying to build a coalition of constituencies to support Democrats — not have double standards when it comes to human rights and democracy. Something as simple as a cease-fire should have been called for long ago. Accountability for Israel, for Netanyahu and his far-right government is something that people have to really reckon with. And I’m talking about Democratic elected officials all the way up to the President, and particularly those in Washington, D.C. If we want to have peace and safety for Palestinians and for Israelis, and if we want to address the so many other important issues around the environment, around reproductive health, around education and student debt, we need a movement of people with us and we cannot completely throw Palestinian, Arab and progressive voices for human rights to the side and expect that there won’t be a reaction.
BAWAB: There have been calls for the U.S. government — which sends the Israeli government more than $3 billion every year — to end their aid to Israel. Do you think that with this momentum, that’s something that can be built on? And that we can eventually get the United States to stop sending billions of taxpayer dollars to Israel?
RASHID: We absolutely need to be calling on the United States government to stop providing military funding to an Israeli government that has a horrific record on human rights. That has been documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as committing the crime of apartheid. If America wants to be a moral voice in conflict around the world, it cannot expect to have that voice while supporting the inhumane and unjust treatment of Palestinians. And that begins by not providing military funding to Israel while it commits these egregious abuses of human rights.
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Nashwa Bawab is Assistant Editor at In These Times. She is an organizer and reporter with bylines in The Intercept, Electronic Intifada, Texas Monthly, The Texas Observer and more.