What’s The Matter With Joe Biden? As Disgust Builds Over Calamity in Gaza the President Offers Only Toothless Criticism

Image: Matt A.J./Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Lately I’ve been wondering if Joe Biden is an Islamophobe. I don’t use the word lightly: Ordinarily I prefer we seek out aspirations and commitments that might inspire us towards shared goals. But how else can I make sense of the president’s policies and politics? Elite Democrats love to remind us of the danger Trump represents to democracy and diversity, even as they’ve been awfully contemptuous of actual democracy and diversity themselves in many cases. 

I came of age in New York City, where I quickly found that plenty of the people who congratulated themselves on their cosmopolitanism, who spoke the language of progressive enlightenment, weren’t just remarkably parochial, but actively dismissive. Only, because they didn’t look or sound like what they told us bigots looked and sounded like, they often got away with it. So, yes, sometimes Joe Biden talks the talk of a politico on the right side of history. 

But as anyone who’s ever been bitten, fooled, or just had to grow up knows, it’s always wiser to judge people on what they do, not what they tell you. And if we apply that metric to the Senator from Delaware?

Though Israel’s war has killed appalling numbers of journalists and aid workers, and repeatedly targeted medical facilities, mosques, schools and clearly civilian targets, racking up a civilian death count unparalleled in modern war, Biden’s sporadic criticisms are toothlesshe continues sending weapons and shielding Tel Aviv from accountability. 

There’s a word for people who esteem some lives more than others.

Now, the murder of seven brave World Central Kitchen staff provoked more reaction than laying waste to active hospitals. Yet we’d be naive to expect any reduction in our support for Israel.

In response to gathering evidence that more and more American Muslims (and many others of all faiths and backgrounds) were adamantly opposed to Biden, campaign surrogates summarily reminded us of Trump’s Muslim ban. I don’t know what’s more patronizing, that the administration assumes we forgot about the Muslim ban, or that they considered this a compelling rebuttal.

In what moral universe are discriminatory visa restrictions more offensive than indiscriminate war?

Just yesterday, the White House canceled its planned Ramadan Iftar dinner. I was surprised the White House had even dared plan a Ramadan Iftar dinner in the first place. Palestinians are starving to death in our holiest month, and this is the time to fete the 46th commander-in-chief? 

Unsurprisingly, many invited guests didn’t just reject their invitations, they repurposed them to draw uncomfortable attention to the White House’s role in what the International Court of Justice is investigating as a genocide. That’s hardly the appropriate look for a president who claims to be the moral alternative to Trump. But that equally reveals a government that cannot even understand its own self-interest. 

Unless the White House believes Muslims to be uniquely foolish, pliable, or pitiable, the outcome of this Iftar could have been predicted well in advance. People who aren’t going to vote for Joe Biden aren’t going to break bread with Joe Biden. 

Of course, this doesn’t have to mean the president is actively biased against Muslims. Maybe Biden so privileges Israel that he’s blinded to the humanity of other humans, as this interview by Isaac Chotiner reveals (a telling, troubling master class in pushing the boundaries of a conversation). Biden’s blind Zionism renders him indifferent to others and incapable of empathy or curiosity, all of which are qualities one seeks in a President.

It’s not all that different if Biden simply calculated he has more to gain from supporting than sanctioning Israel. Of course, it’s hard to believe that the harm to America, the ways in which this undermines our global position and reputation, is worth the cost; an expanding war that inevitably destabilizes the region hardly renders Israel more secure eitherespecially as its American patron becomes, as a result, even more globally isolated. 

But the math isn’t just incorrect, it’s an outrageous calculation. Not only in the eyes of those affected, who’ve been morally demoted to a secondary tier of humanity, but also in the eyes of the wider world, which loses when we reduce our most sacred norms to instrumentalization and negotiation. We do not target civilians in war, not because that renders our objectives harder to secure, but because the sacredness of life is exempt from a cost-benefit analysis. 

In the debates I’ve heard raging around the White House Iftar, a few Muslims did defend engagement with the administration, an echo of an argument that was far more common before October 7th. It was one that I too for a time found persuasive. Somewhere along the way, though, engagement went from being a means towards a policy objective to the objective itself. Access was confused for influence. 

It’s taken Biden’s enthusiastic, unlimited support for Israel even in the face of horrific atrocities to reveal just how little we matter in the administration’s calculations. Just because you’re invited to the Iftar doesn’t mean you aren’t on the menu, too.