While watching the unforgettably hideous (and now viral) footage of the recent anti-Muslim demonstration in Yorba Linda, California, I could not help but think of Elizabeth Eckford, the African-American student who was forced to walk through a phalanx of violent white racists chanting “Lynch her! Lynch her!” during the federal government’s first attempt to integrate Little Rock Central High School. This iconic image was immediately recalled by the video of Muslim-American children walking through a crowd of protesters calling them terrorists, threatening them, and chanting “Go home!” as they proceeded towards a local community center for a charity event. Eckford was badly scarred by her experience; the trauma affected her life for decades. I wonder how the children who had to be marched through the gauntlet of racists in Yorba Linda will remember their experience.
Billed as a “Patriotic Rally,” the anti-Muslim demonstration was organized by official hate group leader Pam Geller, Tea Party outfits including the North Orange County Conservative Coalition and We Surround Them OC 912; and Rabbi David Eliezrie of the Yorba Linda chapter of Chabad-Lubavitch, a messianic Orthodox Jewish group. Though Chabad does not make its political positions explicit, I have learned through first hand experience how extreme its leadership is, especially in Southern California.
In 2002, I took a Hebrew class with a rabbi (I wanted to improve my very poor reading at the time), who led the West L.A. Chabad chapter and was supposedly a renowned teacher of the Kabbalah. At some point, the rabbi invited me and some other students over for a shabbat dinner which, given Chabad’s mission to proselytize within the Jewish community, would eventually lead to some form of pressure to join the organization. The rabbi’s father, who was also a rabbi, led off dinner with a bold prediction: “Within five years, the Palestinians will be eliminated by nuclear energy!” I was shocked and did not know what to say. At first, I attempted to politely register my displeasure. But nothing would stop him. “Either we use nuclear energy or we transfer them all!” he said. No one at the table seemed to have any problem with these wishes for genocide. “So will you use cattle cars to transfer them?” I asked. “We can use camels. Whatever,” he responded. Several of the men at the table chuckled at this remark. I excused myself from dinner soon after and would never have contact with Chabad again.
Chabad’s Rabbi Eliezrie appeared at the Yorba Linda hate rally with an Israeli flag in one hand and an American flag in the other. Other participants displayed the Israeli flag as well. In fact, the Israeli flag seemed to be peeking out from a cluster of American flags that formed the backdrop for speakers including Republican Rep’s Ed Royce and Gary Miller, who both railed against the Muslim presence in Orange County. At 4:06 in the video, the crowd can be seen hectoring a Muslim couple with the chant, “We support Israel!” As even Haaretz has noticed, the Israeli flag is becoming a key symbol for a trans-Atlantic neo-fascist axis that thrives on violent resentment towards Muslim and Arab immigrants. Given the ethnocratic basis of the Israeli state and the country’s settler-colonial ethos, the trend is not ironic or very surprising.
Back in 1957, in Little Rock Central High, an awkward, acne scarred boy sat behind Elizabeth Eckford every day in class, muttering in a low drone, “Nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger.” Harassment from him and scores of white students would eventually drive Eckford to attempt suicide several times. Fifty years later, that awkward student, whose name is Charles Sawrie, expressed deep contrition for what he had done. “It was all kind of stupid,” he told journalist David Margolick. “I just wanted to get a name for myself. I don’t remember anything about her except she was black and my job was to make it as rough for the blacks as I could.”
On the Facebook page of the North Orange County Conservative Coalition, adults who behaved just as Sawrie did as a high school student in the Jim Crow South are overflowing with pride. “This was a great opportunity to speak out against an oppressive threat to us all. The speakers were GREAT as were the Patriots who joined us,” remarked someone named Gibbs Carol. Another protester named Desare Ferraro commented: “Americans are finally waking up to the dangers of multi-culturalism and putting out the “NOT WELCOME” sign to terrorist supporting fundraisers in our communities.” “What a great rally yesterday in Yorba Linda!” said Neil O’Brien.
Below are two videos. The first is of the Arab American Institute’s congressional briefing on Rep. Peter King’s upcoming hearings on radicalization in the Muslim community, which will essentially function as a congressional legitimization of the anti-Muslim crusade. I speak at about 32:00 and describe the trans-Atlantic Islamophobic axis:
The second video contains my appearance on Viewpoint with Jim Zogby, where I discuss the Islamophobic axis in further detail with Maya Berry: