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Community organizer was the only Palestinian American voice at White House meeting

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden invited Arab and Muslim American leaders to the White House yesterday, holding the first such meeting since the war began between Israel and Hamas. Among the five people invited, there was just one Palestinian American voice. That was Rami Nashashibi. He's a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago and founder of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. And he joins me now. Good morning.

RAMI NASHASHIBI: Good morning.

FADEL: So I want to start with how you're feeling about the meeting yesterday. What did you go to tell the president?

NASHASHIBI: There was a level of tremendous apprehension about this meeting, to be very honest. Part of it was there is no secret that there currently exists a tremendous level of anxiety, anger, disappointment among American Muslims, Palestinians, conscientious people of all backgrounds who have, of course, unequivocally condemned the atrocities and the loss of life inside Israel, meanwhile, have felt that the sanctity of Palestinian life in Gaza has not been in any way, shape or form respected or appreciated in a way that communicates any form of equity. So that was already in the air alongside, of course, the daily bombardment and the lack of any urgent call for a cease-fire.

FADEL: So you considered not going?

NASHASHIBI: There was a moment, certainly, and particularly after hearing from many in the Palestinian American community who found out about the meeting before it happened. And unfortunately, among the things that happened the day before, a statement that the president made regarding a question of the death toll in Gaza just really poured, you know, tremendous salt into the wounds.

FADEL: Now, you ultimately did go. What did you go in and say to the president?

NASHASHIBI: Well, we addressed that point. I mean, I spoke very honestly about that statement he made. I spoke very honestly about the urgent sense that the community needs and is demanding, of course, a cease-fire for humanitarian purposes in this moment and about just the overall feeling of dehumanizing rhetoric that has unfortunately not only been part of what we are hearing from more right-wing Israeli cabinet ministers, such as the defense minister, who referred to the Palestinians in Gaza - not just Hamas, but all of the Palestinians - as human animals, the lack of any deliberate rejection of that, alongside the statements that have been made questioning things like the death toll. We were very clear that we feel that is contributing to the type of environment that, unfortunately, has already led to the brutal killing of a young Palestinian American boy here in the suburbs of Chicago, Wadea, who was stabbed 26 times to death by his landlord.

FADEL: What did the president say? You asked for a humanitarian cease-fire. You talked about the dehumanizing language, the questioning of the death toll. What did he say back?

NASHASHIBI: Well - so we're not necessarily at liberty to say exactly what he said. I will say this. We were pleasantly surprised by the president's ability to absorb the very direct criticism.

FADEL: As the only Palestinian American in that room, did you have a larger message that you wanted the Biden administration to hear?

NASHASHIBI: Yes. I wanted to make sure that the president himself truly understood the breadth and depth of the pain of Palestinians right now here and across the globe. Earlier that day, I had spoken to someone who was planning to be at the meeting who lost a hundred family members in Gaza. I tried to assure the president, like in other communities right now, that there is not a member that is not receiving a text about 10 who have been killed or 30 that have died. And while we absolutely respect and understood his initial stand with Jewish communities in the way that he has done historically, showing great degree of empathy with those who have lost loved ones or those who still have family members who are being held hostage - again, something we fully understood - we talked to him about the need to be as empathetic and to be as understanding of Palestinian suffering in this moment. I wanted him to understand that a community as dynamic as ours also deserves that type of basic human empathy.

FADEL: Rami Nashashibi is a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago and founder of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. He met with President Biden yesterday. Thank you for your time.

NASHASHIBI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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