Let’s Talk About Palestine

Friday mornings are basically the only time of the week when Amman is quiet.  With a population of over four million people, heavy traffic and crowded sidewalks are common at any time of day or night.  I joked with a friend recently that rush hour traffic in the DC area is on par with 2am traffic here in Amman.  Fridays are different, though.  As a Muslim-majority country, many citizens spend their mornings in Friday prayers.  The streets are empty, the stores are closed, and there is not much to do other than relax and reflect.

As it is, there is much for me to reflect on. My overseas assignment is ending in a few days, so this is my last weekend in Jordan.  It is a bittersweet feeling for me.  While I am happy to return to my friends and loved ones in Virginia, Amman has started to feel like home to me in some ways.  Aside from my work experience and my ability to visit amazing archaeological sites such as Petra, I have been able to forge many new friendships while I have been here.  This is partially due to my attendance at events hosted by the Shams Community.  Shams is a local nonprofit organization housed off of Amman’s lively Rainbow Street that hosts weekly dinners and discussions, as well as social events such as hikes and film screenings.  The attendees and volunteers who host the events are a diverse mix of expats and locals, and the discussions I have had at Shams have given me a much more thorough understanding of some of the struggles facing Jordanian society.

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Rainbow Street in Amman

 

As a Jewish-American with a name that tends to give away my heritage, the prospect of spending time living in an Arab country was a little nerve-wracking at first.  Certain members of my family and community expressed concern for my safety, and some even actively tried to discourage me from taking on this assignment.  It is a common stereotype in the United States that the hatred of Arabs towards Jews is so visceral, that any Jew who dares show up in an Arab country is sure to get strung up within seconds of stepping off the plane.

Thankfully, I have not found this to be the case here in Jordan.  While I have been told that anti-Jewish attitudes are fairly common among the older generations, they are more akin to the silent bigotries that many hold in the United States.  While those attitudes are certainly repugnant, they are also fairly benign, and I have never once feared for my safety since I have been here.  Among the younger generations, attitudes are far more progressive. While I have not made a habit of advertising my heritage to those who don’t need to know it, I have been able to reveal it without concern to co-workers and the people I have met at Shams.

With that said, Jordanians are not shy about expressing their opinions about Israeli government policy, which is understandable given their background.  It is worth noting that some 70% of Jordan’s population are of Palestinian origin.  Israel’s independence in 1948 and the subsequent conflicts that followed led to a large Palestinian refugee population, which still exists in Jordan today.  While the majority of Palestinian refugees from the West Bank are fully-naturalized citizens (Jordan is one of the only countries in the Middle East to extend citizenship rights to Palestinians), they still generally hold a second-class status and some have arbitrarily had their citizenship rights revoked.  Most refugees from the Gaza Strip do not hold citizenship, and still reside in one of Jordan’s ten Palestinian refugee camps to this day.

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Jerash – a Palestinian Refugee Camp in Jordan

I do not have the time to get into a detailed background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or ensuing refugee crisis, but this Vox article can provide more background if you are interested.  Needless to say, the UNRWA estimated in 2012 that there were approximately 5 million Palestinians with refugee status (mostly descendants of Palestinians whom were displaced in the 1948 conflict).  Of that amount, 1.5 million lived in refugees camps in Jordan and Lebanon.  Additionally, 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza and 2.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank live under Israeli military occupation as a result of the Six-Day war won by Israel in 1967.

The status of the occupied territories is a very contentious issue.  While there have been multiple attempts by the Israeli government and the Palestinian authority to negotiate for a politically independent state in the occupied territories, these negotiations have been sabotaged by parties on both sides.  For example, Israel has a far-right contingent which has long held opposition to an independent Palestinian state, believing that all occupied territories should be open to Jewish settlement.    This contingent has gotten violent to the point where Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an extremist in 1995 for his role in the Oslo Accords.  As Israel’s government has been shifting incredibly far to the right under Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, political and financial support for settlements in the occupied West Bank has grown considerably, often leading to the demolition of existing Palestinian settlements.

On the other hand, Israel has faced major security concerns as a result of the occupation.  Israeli civilians have historically been targeted by multiple terrorism campaigns in both the West Bank and Gaza.  The situation in Gaza was worsened in 2006 with the election of Hamas, an extremist group that infamously refuses to recognize Israel’s statehood as legitimate.  In response, both Israel and Egypt sealed their borders with Gaza, effectively leaving Gaza as an open-air prison.  Hamas has instigated violence by shooting rockets and flaming kites across the Israeli border.  However, to call Israel’s response to these attacks disproportionate would be the understatement of the year.  Living under the threat of rocket strikes is undoubtedly terrifying and an unacceptable situation, but Israeli infrastructure ensures relatively few casualties from these attacks.  Under the other hand, thousands of Gazan civilians have been killed by Israeli retaliatory airstrikes, and the infrastructure in Gaza has fallen into a deadly state of disrepair.  Gazans only have access to four hours of electricity per day, and 97% of Gaza’s water supply is contaminated.  Since Israel controls all imports into Gaza, it is difficult to bring in the supplies necessary to rebuild this essential infrastructure.  These factors have led to widespread protests, which Israel has been responding to with even more violence.

Protests

I want to illustrate that in this conflict, there is no side that can be considered blameless.  Both sides have violent and extremist factions which have impeded peace talks.  But the fact of the matter is that the Palestinians, especially those residing in Gaza, are facing a massive human rights crisis right now.  Israel has a right to defend itself against armed militancy, but any actions it takes need to be within the confines of international law.  Indiscriminately blockading an entire geographical region, launching multiple bombing campaigns, and then denying essential infrastructure to everybody within those borders is not an acceptable way of waging warfare.  Similarly, the West Bank settlement movement is widely considered to be a violation of international law.

I feel it is my responsibility both as an aid worker and a member of the American Jewish community to speak up against Israel’s current policies towards the Palestinians.  The American Jewish community has a long history of promoting progressive values and speaking out for the human rights of oppressed people, but I think we often have a blind side when it comes to Palestine.  We don’t like to believe that a country that holds so much hope and significance for us could be guilty of these types of crimes.  But the more willing we are to defend the indefensible, the more we are betraying our own values.

Homeless Veterans Before Refugees (and Other Refugee Myths)

Several variations of a meme have been circling around the Conservative corners of the internet for some time: a picture of a homeless veteran in the snow or lying on a sidewalk with a caption like: “Homeless Veterans Should Come Before Refugees.”  The over-arching narrative that has been emanating from far-right circles is that refugees are flooding Western cities, contributing to crime, rape, extremist ideologies and terrorism.  They drain our social welfare system and contribute to veteran homelessness.

This seems like a pretty cut and dry case, right?  After all, veteran homelessness is a major problem in America.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that 39,471 veterans are homeless on any given night.  Many suffer from mental illness or substance addiction.  If that is the case, why should we fund any refugee programs while veterans are sleeping on the streets?

The problem is that this far-right narrative is largely a myth, steeped in the same xenophobic scare tactics that prevented the West from accepting European Jewish refugees after World War II.  This post will address and debunk a number of the myths surrounding refugee programs in the United States:

Myth One: If Politicians Do Not Support Refugee Programs, They Will Instead Combat Veteran Homelessness

I am sure most of you have seen a meme like this floating around social media at some point:

Veterans

or this:

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According to the right-wing narrative, America should not accept any refugees from areas destroyed by war or national disaster, because those tax dollars would be better served by helping homeless veterans.

There is a glaring flaw in this logic, though.  It is predicated on the assumption that the politicians who oppose domestic refugee settlement programs would rather use those tax dollars to solve veteran homelessness.  In actuality, that is rarely the case.  Members of the Republican Party have largely been the biggest opponents of refugee programs on Capital Hill.  But their track record regarding programs that support veteran homelessness, unemployment, and health is dismal at best.  Here is a small sample of the programs for veterans which have been blocked by Republicans in recent years:

  1. In 2010, Mitch McConnell shut down the Homeless Women Veterans and Homeless Veterans with Children Act of 2010, which would have expanded assistance for the aforementioned groups.  It would have also increased federal grant programs to decrease veteran homelessness.
  2. In 2012, Senate Republicans blocked a bi-partisan bill which would have brought veterans to work looking after federal land, which could have gone a long way towards curbing veteran unemployment and homelessness.
  3. In 2014, the Senate killed The Military Pay and Restoration Act, a bill that would have drastically improved the quality of health care for veterans and their families.  It would have also improved mental health treatment for veterans transitioning to civilian life.  It would have offered in-state tuition protection for veterans seeking a university education after service.  The bill was killed with a vote of 56-41.  Only Republicans voted “nay” on the bill, and a total of two Republicans actually voted in favor of the bill.
  4. Also in 2014, Republicans in Congress allowed food-stamp programs to take a $5 billion hit.  According to the Center for Priority Based Budgeting (CPBB), “in any given month, a total of 900,000 veterans nationwide lived in households that relied” on food stamp programs.
  5. In 2015, Republicans in the House Appropriations Committee removed more than $1.4 billion in veteran services from the 2016 Federal budget.  These cuts included $690 million for VA medical care and $582 million in VA Construction projects.
  6.  The GOP recently passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut to appease their corporate benefactors.  Social welfare programs (including programs for veterans) are always the first on the chopping block after massive tax cuts.  In fact, the $1.3 million spending Omnibus signed by President Trump last week rejected a major expansion of the caregivers program that “provides stipends to family members of severely disabled vets.”

The point in highlighting this issue is that the “homeless veterans before refugees” argument only holds water if politicians are opposing refugee assistance specifically because they intend to appropriate that funding to address veteran homelessness.  Republicans have historically opposed the vast majority of social welfare or relief programs, regardless of who the beneficiaries of those programs are.  What is being presented is a straw man argument to frame anti-immigration and anti-refugee rhetoric in a patriotic light, while not allowing action to be taken on either issue.  The fact that anybody who has served our country is left to sleep in the cold at night is a disgrace, but politically exploiting this issue in order to cover up xenophobia is equally disgusting, especially when you’re part of the problem.

Myth Two: Refugee Resettlement Efforts and Ending Veteran Homelessness are Mutually Exclusive Goals

Homeless Vets

If these memes are to be believed, the U.S. Government is faced with a dire choice: help veterans, or provide assistance to refugees.  As the previous section of this article demonstrates, Republicans in Congress and the White House have not been making spending for either of these programs a major priority.  In fact, in fiscal year 2015, only 4% of total federal spending was dedicated to veteran affairs (including both discretionary and mandatory spending). Only 2% of total spending related to international affairs.  The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) estimates than in 2016, $1.6 billion went to refugee and entrance assistance.  That might sound like a large total, but within the context of a multi-trillion dollar budget, it is a drop in the bucket.

Additionally, an internal study funded by DHHS founded that refugees actually brought in $63 billion more in government revenues than they cost over the past decade.  This conceptually makes sense.  More productive members of the work force will in the long-term lead to an increase in tax revenue.  This additional revenue can help fund, among other things, additional veteran assistance programs.  There is absolutely no data backing up the idea that these two things are mutually exclusive.  The United States government has the fiscal wherewithal to support both homeless veterans and refugees; it is our lawmakers who are refusing to fund programs for either of those groups.

Myth Three: Refugees Resettling into the United States are Not Vetted 

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“But Mark!” some of you are protesting at this point.  “Even if we can afford to resettle refugees in the United States, should we really be letting just anybody in the country?  Many of these countries are havens for terrorism and extremist ideologies.  Why should we endanger American lives to help foreigners?  Are these people are even vetted?”

The truth is that refugees who are resettled in the United States undergo an extremely rigorous screening process long before their feet ever touch American soil.  This screening process includes:

  1. Registration and Data Collection: Most refugees are referred by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) which collects a large amount of data for each referred individual.  This information is provided to the State Department, which interviews the applicant, cross-references and verifies the data, and sends the information to other U.S. agencies.
  2. Security Checks Begin: U.S. national security agencies such as the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, DHS, the DOD begin screening the applicant.  This includes checks for security threats, past immigrant, and criminal violations.
  3. DHS Interview: The information from each of these security checks is transmitted to DHS.  The DHS interview confirms all of the information collected, and conducts additional interviews if new information arises.  Additionally, new security checks are conducted.  Once everything is in place, DHS adjudicates the case.
  4. Biometric Security Checks: Fingerprints are collected for potential refugees and checked against a number of U.S. intelligence bases.  Cases with problematic results are denied.
  5. Cultural Orientation: Applicants are required to complete a class to teach them about American culture, as well as a medical check to identify diseases that could cause public health problems in the United States
  6. Assignment to Domestic Resettlement Locations and Travel: Each week, representatives from the domestic resettlement agencies review applicant information to determine where refugees are resettled.  Travel is then booked for them, and all applications are subject to a Customs and Border Protection screening.
  7. Arrival in the United States: After arrival in the United States, the representatives from domestic resettlement agencies meet them at the airport and help them get settled in their new communities.

It is evident from this process that the United States is not letting in “just anybody.”  In fact, a refugee has never carried out a fatal terror attack in the United States.  These attitudes are very reminiscent of public attitude towards European Jewish refugees in the wake of the Holocaust.   It is based far more on thinly-veiled bigotry than actual national security concerns.

Why It is Important to Discuss Global Citizenship in the Context of Refugees

One of the major themes of this blog is “global citizenship.”  As I mentioned in this blog’s mission statement, when the sanctity of borders is elevated to a higher level than even basic human rights, it reflects a major deficiency in our society.  The refugee debate is a prime example of this deficiency.  It is very easy to overlook the death and suffering of children and families when it is happening outside of your own borders.  It is easy to ignorance the plight of 11.5 million displaced Syrians or the 4 million displaced Sudanese if you cannot see them with your own eyes.

But modern discourse have moved away from willful ignorance and moved into something far more ominous and hateful.  Not only is the plight of these individuals “not our problem” but refugees are actively vilified and scorned by the Conservative media.  Our own president has actively attempted to ban refugees from majority-Muslim countries multiple times without cause or data to back up  his reasoning.

This ignorance at the highest levels of our government is quite frankly terrifying.  It is making the lives of millions of displaced persons a living hell on a daily basis.  It is essentially condoning (and applauding in many cases) the denial of basic human rights to people simply on the basis of the country they were born in.   It is allowing our political discourse to be driven by scare tactics rather than facts and data. And this is not okay.  It is not normal.  It is not a reflection of America’s place in the world as a bastion of hope and opportunity.  It is time we begin looking at refugees as citizens of the world, instead of as “others.”