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Julie Schumacher CohenJanuary 25, 2024
Palestinian medics treat a girl wounded in the Israeli bombardment of a building at a vocational training center that displaced people use as a shelter in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, on Jan. 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramez Habboub)Palestinian medics treat a girl wounded in the Israeli bombardment of a building at a vocational training center that displaced people use as a shelter in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, on Jan. 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramez Habboub)

President Biden is known for his genuine concern for grieving families. Like so many of us, he has shared the agony of families of the Israeli hostages kidnapped by Hamas during their brutal attack on Oct. 7. But as the days and weeks have worn on and Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, ostensibly aimed at destroying Hamas, has wrought catastrophic devastation on the Palestinian civilian population, we have heard Mr. Biden express little empathy toward Palestinians. This omission has moral, as well as strategic, implications.

Mr. Biden is not alone in having one-sided sympathies pertaining to the conflict. Partisans of either Israel or Palestine have often been unwilling to acknowledge the suffering of the other. These include some progressive activists who have failed to condemn Hamas’s violence against civilians. But the stakes are particularly high with President Biden, given the impact of U.S. policy in the region.

Raised Christian and the daughter of an Israeli Jew, with family in Tel Aviv, I grew up seeing the Holy Land through just one lens, that of Israeli identity and history.

Raised Christian and the daughter of an Israeli Jew, with family in Tel Aviv, I also grew up seeing the Holy Land through just one lens, that of Israeli identity and history. My worldview expanded once I began learning from Palestinians, including Palestinian Catholics, and witnessing firsthand the oppressive realities of life under Israeli occupation. This led me to sit with the pain and grief of both peoples and to get involved in working for a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis.

So I was particularly troubled when the president suggested at a press conference on Oct. 25 that Palestinians were not being truthful about the death toll and seemed to downplay the killing of civilians as simply the “price of waging war.” In a White House meeting the next day with Muslim American leaders, the Palestinian American community organizer Rami Nashashibi challenged Mr. Biden “about how extraordinarily cruel and insensitive” these comments were. Mr. Biden apologized and pledged to do better, but the same kind of rhetoric, together with his administration’s policy of strongly backing Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, has continued. In December, the United States vetoed a pivotal resolution in the United Nations Security Council calling for a cease-fire and release of hostages.

In a recent statement marking 100 days of war, Mr. Biden again connected with the pain of the families of Israelis still held captive. Despite the death toll in Gaza having surpassed 25,000—an estimated two-thirds of them women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry—he did not mention Palestinians.

I was particularly troubled when the president seemed to downplay the killing of civilians as simply the “price of waging war.”

When protestors calling for a cease-fire interrupted a speech by Mr. Biden in January, the president did seem moved. “I understand their passion,” he said. This was a first step, but Mr. Biden needs to do much more to allow such passionate concern for Palestinian suffering to inform his policies.

Mr. Biden speaks often of his close bonds with the Jewish people and with Israel. He traces his personal connection to his Irish-Catholic father who taught him about the horrors of the Holocaust, a tradition he’s continued with his children. With my own children, each time we have visited Jerusalem, I have taken them to the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, as one piece of their overall education about Jewish history and Christian antisemitism. But their education doesn’t stop there. They learn about Palestinian experiences and history, too. During an Israel-Palestine visit last March, my teenage son and I spent a few days in Bethlehem—a town surrounded by settlements and the separation wall in the militarily occupied West Bank. Returning there one afternoon from Jerusalem, we crossed once again through the main Israeli checkpoint to attend a meeting with Palestinian civil society leaders.

One of those leaders had grown up in Ein Kerem, a Jerusalem neighborhood near Yad Vashem. In 1948, when the state of Israel was established, his family was displaced from their home, never to return. Palestinians call this the Nakba, or catastrophe, because 750,000 Palestinians were expelled and became refugees. Today, many of those Palestinians and their descendants are subject to Israeli authority and lack basic rights.

My son had to grapple with how he and I, as Americans of Israeli descent, can cross back and forth between Israel and the West Bank, but a Palestinian cannot return to the place of his birth.

My son had to grapple with how he and I can cross back and forth between Israel and the West Bank, but a Palestinian cannot return to the place of his birth.

While many Americans are aware that the Jewish people gained a safe haven with the creation of Israel, only recently are they beginning to learn about the Nakba and how the Palestinians were dispossessed and remain without freedom, equality and self-determination today.

As a Catholic, Mr. Biden is called to discern “the signs of the times”—to take in the realities of the world, to engage the constitutive traumas and narratives of two peoples, and to perceive structural injustices. As U.S. president, he has a responsibility to find equitable solutions for all. His leadership would benefit from the advice of Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, who said of the war that “now is the time to show closeness.” Mr. Biden has met with family members of Israeli hostages; he could extend a similar invitation to Palestinian Americans who lost loved ones in Gaza. He could also bring to the White House the family of Wadea Al-Fayoume, the 6-year-old Palestinian-American child killed by his Chicago landlord, or the three Palestinian college students shot in Vermont.

In November, I drove from Mr. Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pa., where I live, to participate in a Catholic pray-in at the White House to urge the president to work for a cease-fire. We made the point that Mr. Biden should emulate Pope Francis, who has distinguished himself as a world leader able to empathize with both Palestinians and Israelis and speak decisively about the futility of a war that has wrought such death and destruction.

Whenever a permanent cease-fire is finally achieved, it will be far too late. The widespread damage in Gaza, the mass displacement and loss of life, and the rampant spread of hunger and disease have opened a new chapter of grievous harm. While the United States could not have prevented the traumatizing violence Hamas’s attack inflicted on Israeli communities, it could have acted to meaningfully curb Israel’s military offensive, which Mr. Biden himself has called “indiscriminate” and which The Washington Post has described as “one of this century’s most destructive wars.” Unconditional support by the United States for such military actions will not keep Israelis safe into the future, and that support has come at the cost of Palestinian lives and sound U.S. policy. Only when our solidarity is rooted in the conviction that Palestinian liberation and Israeli safety are bound together will there be hope for authentic reconciliation and peace in the Holy Land.

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