Orange County Arab and Muslim Americans are worried that local politicians – leaders tasked with ensuring public safety – have just put a target on their backs amid a hate crime spike.
They say some county elected officials put them in danger by issuing statements on the Israeli-Hamas war that ignore the loss of thousands of Palestinian lives who had nothing to do with Hamas.
The controversy highlights the challenges facing local elected officials representing diverse groups of people in regions like Southern California when responding to international incidents impacting communities here and abroad.
On Tuesday, scores of residents came out to the public meeting of the Orange County Supervisors demanding that Supervisors Don Wagner, Andrew Do and Katrina Foley apologize and retract a Oct. 10 joint statement that critics say was Islamophobic, one-sided towards Israel and ignored a history of Palestinian suffering.
“This is not a time for moral relativism or wishy-washy statements about understanding both sides. One side is responsible for this tragedy,” reads a part of their statement.
Two county supervisors – Vicente Sarmiento and Doug Chaffee – didn’t sign onto the Oct. 10 statement, opting instead to issue their own, more nuanced statement focused on condemning violence towards innocent civilians.
“We hope to see a resolution where both Israel and Palestine can live peacefully,” they wrote. “Our thoughts are with the people affected by this violence, and we urge all parties involved to prioritize the safety and well- being of civilians above all else.”
Residents commended that statement at Tuesday’s meeting.
And criticized Wagner, Do and Foley’s statement.
“It was an irresponsible, insensitive, hate mongering statement that has put a target on the backs of Muslims, Palestinians and Arabs and people that look like us,” said Mirvette Judeh, a county resident, about the Wagner, Do and Foley statement at Tuesday’s Supervisor meeting.
Wagner, in a follow up Wednesday phone interview, defended his statement saying it was not fair to call it islamophobic and disputed that it paints Arabs and Muslims as terrorists.
He said the most important part of his statement was that it condemned the actions of Hamas – something he said Muslim leaders should do too.
“This is a perversion of Islam,” he said about the Hamas attack. “It is certainly possible to condemn the loss of Palestinian lives. Who is responsible ultimately for the loss of those lives? It is Hamas.”
Orange County’s human relations council – now known as Groundswell – tracks hate crimes in the county and puts out a statement earlier this week mourning the loss of civilians and children.
“We send out our deepest hope for both Israelis and Palestinians to be spared of any more violence and harm,” reads the group’s statement on Facebook.
Alison Edwards, the group’s CEO, underscored that in an emailed statement Wednesday adding that “Groundswell urges vigilance and care for all community members. Recognizing from history that our marginalized communities can continue to be harmed with misinformation and political rhetoric.”
Wagner said the Board of Supervisors has put out multiple statements condemning hate crimes against any community and in August the board – except for Supervisor Andrew Do – recognized the Muslim community.
“If there is to be a target on Muslim American backs, it’s because Muslim leaders won’t condemn what’s being done in the name of their religion,” he said.
Wagner’s comments came after dozens of residents including leaders with the Arab American Civic Council showed up at the meeting arguing that the Oct. 10 statement stokes the flames of anti-Arab sentiment and ignores what some human rights groups say is a system of apartheid imposed by the Israeli government on Palestinians.
“As our representative you have a responsibility to keep all your constituents’ safety in mind. The language you use matters. The characterization of Hamas’ terrorism as Islamic puts my community at risk,” said Aliya Yousufi, a senior policy advocate with the Council on American Islamic Relations – Los Angeles (CAIR-LA).
“Terrorism has no religion.”
Wagner did not back down from his stance during Tuesday’s public meeting, saying the county statement did not suggest supervisors condone violence against Palestinians.
He further challenged the public speakers for their lack of condemnation of the Hamas attack.
“I will express my disappointment that we were unable to hear a single speaker say they condemn Hamas,” he said. “It is them who are blaspheming, it is them who are making the Islamic community here and around the world look bad, and you should be calling out them.”
One county supervisor, however, did apologize to residents Tuesday.
She also stayed firm in her condemnation of Hamas and their Oct. 7 attack on Israel that killed over a thousand Israelis.
“I want the community to be clear, Hamas is a terrorist organization,” Foley said “Hamas is not representative of Palestinians or of any of our community here today. The targeted attacks on our Muslim, Arab American and our Palestinian neighbors are unacceptable.”
Foley did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Her public apology came after many speakers pointed to a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy who was stabbed 26 times to death in Illinois on Sunday. Police say he was targeted for being Muslim and because of the war between Hamas and Israel.
His name was Wadea Al Fayoume.
CAIR-LA and other Muslim groups held a vigil Tuesday in his honor at a mosque in Garden Grove.
Today, Pro-Palestine activists, some with the Arab American Civic Council and Yalla Indivisible, are hosting a protest outside Congresswoman Katie Porter’s office at noon to get her to call for a ceasefire, humanitarian aid to Gaza and an end to U.S. military funding to Israel.
And Yesterday, there was a vigil for Gaza and a rally for Palestine in Anaheim. There is also a rally planned in Los Angeles Saturday organized in part by the Palestinian Youth Movement, Jewish Voices For Peace LA and CAIR-LA along with other groups.
Elected Officials Weigh-In
On Tuesday, Huntington Beach City Council voted unanimously on a resolution in support of Israel and condemning Hamas at the request of City Councilwoman Gracey Van Der Mark and Mayor Tony Strickland.
The resolution does not mention the loss of innocent Palestinian lives and efforts to include such language was shut down by Strickland who said Israel has the right to defend themselves and is an American ally.
Dan Kalmick, the only Jewish council member, said it’s not local officials’ role to be weighing in on international affairs let alone “one of the most intractable situations on the planet.”
“Israel is primed to invade Gaza. Thousands of innocent civilians in Gaza have been killed, and yet we express no sympathy for them,” he said. “Gaza is full of innocent children and we should be calling to protect them as well.”
Kalmick also said Hamas should be condemned.
Ocean View School District Trustee Gina Clayton-Tarvin, who is Jewish, said at Tuesday’s city council meeting that Van Der Mark’s resolution was not about respecting Jewish lives but her hate for Muslims.
“We the Jewish people condemn Hamas as a terror organization and we mourn the loss of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians and you will never speak for us,” she said.
Van Der Mark has been criticized by the Anti-Defamation League in the past as posting islamophobic and antisemitic material online and being a holocaust denier – something she has publicly denied.
Other elected officials are taking a different approach than Van Der Mark.
Supervisor Sarmiento said during the invocation at Tuesday’s supervisor meeting that he met with local Jewish and Arab American leaders.
“The essential takeaway was that people of good faith and good conscience cannot equivocate in condemning Hamas, for the violent and unforgivable acts directed against Israeli civilians,” he said.
“We cannot also condone the harsh and inhumane retaliation being inflicted upon the Palestinian people in Gaza.”
In Fullerton, Councilmembers Shana Charles and Ahmad Zahra warned in a joint statement Tuesday of a rise in Islamophobia and antisemitism around the globe.
“As both Jewish and Arab-American Muslim leaders,” they wrote. “We stand united in our resolve against all forms of terror, violence and hate.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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