Speaking with Palestinian-American Republican Who Confronted GOP at Debate

Half the fight against bigotry, to paraphrase Woody Allen, might just be in showing up. When Abraham Hassan stood up at Thursday night’s CNN debate, he introduced himself as a Palestinian-American and a Republican.

Plainly, that’s not what I expected to hear. Like any decent observer of the Republican race, I was irritated by Gingrich’s dismissal of the Palestinians, so hearing Hassan immediately got me excited.

But what happened next, between his question and the condescending, irrelevant answers he received from Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, inspired RD to reach out to Hassan. To get him to tell his side of the story.

“Upon entering,” Hassan told us, CNN let him know he’d have the chance to ask his “very important question in front of the entire world.” With a nervous quiver in his voice, Hassan went for it (video below):

How would a Republican administration help bring peace to Palestine and Israel when most candidates barely recognize the existence of Palestine or its people? As a Palestinian-American Republican, I’m here to tell you we do exist.

Awkward silence. The jarring discomfort between a discourse of intolerance on this very subject, and the presence of the object of such intolerance could only resolve itself in a tepid, sporadic, nearly embarrassed applause.

It’s one thing to hate, and another thing to do so in such close proximity to the hated—especially when that person demands to be identified alongside you. Now what would you expect the candidates to say?

Both Romney and Gingrich had the chance to respond. And, as Hassan put it, “neither candidate sufficiently answered my question.” They hid behind “history… molded to work for a TV script”—a nice touch.

Romney proceeded to identify Palestinians with Hamas, as if that Islamist movement is homogenous, and fully representative of Palestinian views. But Hassan identified himself as a Palestinian American—and incidentally, he’s also a Christian.

Gingrich proceeded back to that thing he calls history, telling the audience that “prior to the 1970s” Palestinians were actually Arabs, which is an amusing bit of diversionary hogwash, since a political Palestinian identity has been dated well back to the 19th century, and anyway Palestinians are still Arabs.

Both candidates shifted Hassan’s question in their own special way; that Republicans might be Arabs and even Palestinians seemed too much of a contradiction for Gingrich’s ideological fluff or Romney’s well-crafted, test-marketed style of engagement.

Both candidates also used the opportunity to charge off in another direction, declaring their full support for Israel’s current government—neither of them noted that identifying America with Netanyahu’s government admits that one cannot be an impartial broker of peace.

They also demonstrated their ignorance of a crucial part of the world. The Middle East isn’t exclusively Muslim; Hassan, for example, points out that he and his “massive family” are part of “a vast Palestinian community… in North Florida, nearly all of them Greek Orthodox or Catholic.”

But Hassan gets the anti-Muslim bigotry, especially because it comes back to haunt him (he, an Arab Christian American, is tarred with Islamist Hamas). For those in the GOP who might be reading this, allow me to tell you: The percentage of Christians among the Palestinian population is about the same as the percentage of African Americans in the U.S.A.

For a party so concerned with America’s Christian identity, Romney and Gingrich’s dismissal of the Palestinians is part of their broader disinterest in the Muslim world, and its diversities and differences. Namely, most Muslims aren’t Arabs, and most Arab Americans are Christians. You read that correctly.

This is important because it’s a tight race. And there are a lot of Arabs in Florida (as indeed there are a lot of Muslims), and they might be up for grabs. As Hassan put it, “I’m economically and socially conservative”; in fact, we had a hard time getting time with him because he’s a busy businessman, the kind of entrepreneurial type who’s supposed to be naturally, organically Republican.

When I asked him if his treatment by the leading GOP candidates might persuade him to reconsider parties, Hassan said he wouldn’t “turncoat” at the first “sign of adversity.” Good for him. Refusing to go away is the best way to fight bigotry. It would be easier to disappear, and a lot more troublesome to demand that the GOP consider that it could have a bigger tent if it stopped playing to such a narrow base.

One day, sooner or later, I’m sure they’ll see the benefit in that. For now, both Romney and Gingrich, and the Republican establishment, would do well to note that there is an increasing number of Arab and Muslim Americans. They are not one and the same.

But, they are politically active, eager to vote, and often donate time and money to candidates and campaigns. They are important enough to ask questions, to call out historical nonsense when they hear it. In other words, they watch TV.