But after celebrating his victory, Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian Christian immigrant whose family became refugees after Israel’s creation two decades earlier. Sirhan was angry that the US was arming Israel to sustain its year-old occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Fifty years later, I was among an Arab and Muslim audience as Kennedy’s son Christopher announced his candidacy for governor of Illinois and promised to fight racism, stereotyping and exclusion of Arabs and Muslims from state and local government.
How many times have Arabs and Muslims heard such promises before elections, only to see them broken afterward? Many US politicians who vowed to fight discrimination end up supporting laws that deny Arabs and Muslims their fundamental civil rights, because it appeals to their core voters and helps them raise money to stay in office.
Arabs and Muslims are marginalized in the US because it is easy to do so. We are weak, poorly organized, and lack public relations strategies to highlight our value to American society.
But I believe Christopher, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor of Illinois, is different. Here is a candidate whose father was killed by a Palestinian Arab over US bias toward Israel, telling an audience of Arabs and Muslims he will fight for their rights.
Christopher’s appearance resonated powerfully. I asked him why he of all people would do that considering what happened to his father? He seemed surprised by my question. “You can’t blame an entire people for the act of one person,” he said matter-of-factly. “We can’t judge each other by the act of one person.” What he said is fundamental to human rights, but Arabs and Muslims are still blamed for the terrorism of the 9/11 hijackers.
I was only 15 when his father was assassinated. And I was only 9 when his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. My family believed in the Kennedys, and supported both John and Robert, not just because my parents were Democrats, but because the Kennedys symbolized the values all immigrants seek when they come to the US.
My parents immigrated to America, fleeing the Israeli violence that consumed their homes in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. They connected with the experience of the Kennedy family, which Christopher shared with the Arab and Muslim audience. He spoke of how his family experienced the same racism and stereotypes that Arabs and Muslims face today when they immigrated to America from Ireland in the mid-19th century.
But the reality is, things are not likely to change because Arab-Americans are weak, poorly organized and lack basic public relations strategies.
The man he hopes to unseat is Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, who vowed repeatedly to oppose racism and discrimination, and said he would make government inclusive. But once elected in November 2014, Rauner proceeded to fuel hate. Last year, he signed legislation that singles out Arabs and Muslims for special punishment if they support boycotting Israel.
The legislation is the basis for even more draconian laws that have been introduced to Congress by politicians who have also promised to fight discrimination. One of those bills, S-720, was introduced to the Senate by Sen. Charles Schumer, who is leading the attacks against President Donald Trump and accuses him of being “anti-Muslim.” Schumer’s legislation takes the one signed by Rauner a step further, making it a felony for any American to support boycotting Israel’s illegal, racist settlements.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Schumer’s bill “states that violators shall be fined in accordance with the penalties laid out in Section 206 of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. That section provides that violations are punishable by a civil penalty that could reach $250,000 and that willful violations are subject to criminal prosecution, which could result in a fine of up to $1 million and 20 years in prison.”
As an American who served in the military during the Vietnam War, and whose father and uncle defended the US against the Nazis during World War II, I am outraged. I have a right to boycott products manufactured on Palestinian land stolen by Israel to build and expand settlements, which are illegal under international law. Those products are sold to Americans in stores with labels that falsely declare them “Made in Israel.”
The last time laws were passed targeting the beliefs of a specific group of citizens was in Nazi Germany in 1933, when Jews were denied their fundamental rights spelled out in the German constitution. We know what those restrictive, racist laws led to.
• Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian-American columnist and author. Email him at [email protected]