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​​Why I Resigned: Meet Tariq Habash, First Biden Appointee to Quit over U.S.-Backed Israeli War on Gaza

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As the Biden administration faces mounting public and internal criticism for supporting and arming Israel’s 96-day assault on Gaza, we speak with Tariq Habash, who last week became the first Biden appointee to publicly resign from the government to protest Biden’s support for Israel’s war on Gaza. “It was untenable to work for and represent an administration and president that put conditions on my own humanity, that didn’t believe that Palestinian lives were equal to the lives of other people,” says Habash, a Palestinian American Christian who worked as a senior official at the U.S. Department of Education. He details how Biden employees “across the board” are frustrated with the president’s policy on Gaza. “The White House doesn’t even know the level of dissent within its own ranks.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at Gaza, where the death toll from Israel’s assault has topped 23,300. On Tuesday, during a trip to Israel, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the civilian death toll in Gaza is, quote, “far too high,” but he refused to call for a ceasefire.

SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: Facing an enemy that embeds itself among civilians, who hides in and fires from schools, from hospitals, makes this incredibly challenging. But the daily toll on civilians in Gaza, particularly on children, is far too high. … We want this war to end as soon as possible. There’s been far too much loss of life, far too much suffering. But it’s vital that Israel achieve its very legitimate objectives of ensuring that October 7th can never happen again.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Tony Blinken speaking in Tel Aviv after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Blinken met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas today in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. During Tuesday’s press conference, Blinken went on to say Israel must not press Palestinians to leave Gaza and that the region needs to find a “pathway to a Palestinian state.”

SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: We continue to discuss how to build a more durable peace and security for Israel within the region. As I told the prime minister, every partner that I met on this trip said that they’re ready to support a lasting solution that ends the long-running cycle of violence and ensures Israel’s security. But they underscored that this can only come through a regional approach that includes a pathway to a Palestinian state.

AMY GOODMAN: Blinken’s trip to Israel and the Middle East comes as the Biden administration faces mounting criticism for supporting and arming Israel’s assault on Gaza.

We begin today’s show with Tariq Habash. Last week, he became the first Biden appointee, and just the second administration official overall, to publicly resign from the Biden administration to protest Biden’s support for Israel’s war on Gaza. Tariq Habash is a Palestinian American Christian who worked as a senior official at the U.S. Department of Education.

In his resignation letter, he wrote, quote, “I cannot stay silent as this administration turns a blind eye to the atrocities committed against innocent Palestinian lives, in what leading human rights experts have called a genocidal campaign by the Israeli government,” unquote.

Tariq Habash, welcome to Democracy Now! Thanks so much for joining us. Can you talk about your decision-making, at what point you decided you had to leave the Biden administration, how long you’ve worked for him, and what you think of what’s happening right now?

TARIQ HABASH: Thank you so much, Amy. And thanks, Juan.

You know, for me, this was an incredibly difficult decision. In a lot of ways, I was working my dream job. I was working for a president who for years touted himself as an individual of empathy, an individual, a president, a leader who cared about our education system, about labor rights, about healthcare, about the environment. In a lot of ways, I was extremely aligned with the entire domestic policy agenda of President Biden. And I was able to work on issues that I truly cared about. You know, I was part of the administration from the very beginning, coming up on three full years working in this administration. And even before that, I volunteered my time as someone who assisted the campaign on the policy development of that agenda with respect to higher education and student debt.

But it was really difficult, as someone who both cared deeply about American democracy and cared deeply about improving the lives of millions of Americans, to also feel like it was untenable to work for and represent an administration and a president that put conditions on my own humanity, that didn’t believe that Palestinian lives were equal to the lives of other people. And, you know, that’s just a really, really hard thing to deal with. And so, for me, it wasn’t a particular moment in time. I think it was a culmination of near daily dehumanization of Palestinian lives in Gaza and the West Bank, and policy and rhetoric that never really shifted over the last three months. And I think we even heard that yesterday from the secretary of state, unfortunately.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tariq, I’m wondering: Did you try to express your perspective or your viewpoints to people in the administration? And I’m wondering also what the response was of your direct boss, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, when you decided to resign.

TARIQ HABASH: Yeah, I mean, I used every avenue available to me to be able to express my concerns both about the language that the administration, the White House, was using, to express concerns about the policies and how it undermines the president’s message on protecting democracy, on how it undermines our stature across the international community with respect to, like, being humanitarians and caring about human life. And yeah, I spoke with the secretary on numerous occasions about this issue. I spoke with the assistant secretaries. I spoke with the secretary’s chief of staff. They were all extremely understanding of my personal plight and my personal frustration, and, you know, they were very supportive of me on a personal level, emotionally understanding, checking on me to make sure that I was doing OK.

And even in circumstances where the White House did listening sessions and had policy briefings for staff in particular, you know, I was there. I tried to raise concerns, as did many of my peers and colleagues. I think there was a different tone in the reception from the White House than, say, the Department of Education, in particular, but I think the outcomes, unfortunately, didn’t change anything. I think we continued to see a doubling down on the current policies that have led us to where we are today, which is the unconditional support of military funding and resources to an extremist Israeli regime that continues to both indiscriminately bomb Palestinians in Gaza and starve millions of people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, and you mentioned that you had participated in President Biden’s original campaign. What do you sense is the implication for his reelection campaign of the deep dissatisfaction not only among employees in his administration, but of young, progressive and liberal Americans across the spectrum?

TARIQ HABASH: Yeah, I mean, I think that there are huge implications. I think we’re already seeing those implications. The president is now really gearing up for the 2024 election. We’re months away. And we’re seeing his poll numbers really hitting real lows, particularly in communities that are predominantly minority, predominantly younger. We’re seeing a backlash, I think, in part to these policies and to our response.

And it feels like it’s out of touch with the president’s message around protecting democracy from authoritarianism. I think the president has spoken very directly to the American people about how important 2024 is in terms of protecting our democracy. I think that is absolutely true, but it’s also just not in line with the foreign policy approach to the region, and to Gaza in particular, as we are seeing the president and the administration provide unconditional support to an authoritarian Israeli government.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Habash, what has been the response of your colleagues to quitting? And you talked about the difference between the response of the Department of Education and the White House. Have you gotten word from the White House?

TARIQ HABASH: I haven’t heard from the White House. I have heard from countless colleagues across the federal government, people who I’ve worked very closely with, people who I didn’t have the opportunity to work with, and people who we had numerous touchpoints across the three years that I was at the Department of Education. And that response has been incredibly supportive. I couldn’t imagine the level of understanding and support and alignment with so many people.

I think we’ve heard a lot about the level of dissent across the federal government with the administration’s current policies. I think we’ve seen numerous dissent cables from the State Department be leaked. We’ve seen letters from USAID, from dozens of federal agencies, from interns, dissent within the White House. I mean, it is across the board.

But I think there’s also so much more that we don’t even realize, because there are limitations to how people can share that information and use the channels that are available to them. For me at the Department of Education and other domestic agencies, there aren’t the same types of private channels that State Department has for dissent cables for Foreign Service officers and other employees. I was fortunate because I had leadership that cared about me on a personal level, that wanted to check on me, and told me that if there were things that I wanted to communicate to the White House, to the highest levels of the White House, those messages would be communicated. The vast majority of people don’t have that level of access and support from their leadership, from their agencies, and they don’t have those structures in place. So, I think, in a lot of ways, the White House doesn’t even know the level of dissent within its own ranks. And I think that’s concerning.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, President Biden spoke at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That’s where the white supremacist Dylann Roof shot dead eight Black parishioners and their pastor in 2015, Clementa Pinckney. Biden’s speech was disrupted when a group of activists started chanting “Ceasefire now!”

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Without light, there’s no path from this darkness.

PROTESTER: If you really care about the lives lost here, then you should honor the lives lost and call for a ceasefire in Palestine!

PROTESTERS: Ceasefire now! Ceasefire now! Ceasefire now! Ceasefire now! Ceasefire now! Ceasefire now!

AMY GOODMAN: As the protesters called for a ceasefire and were removed from the church, supporters of Biden started chanting “Four more years.” President Biden then addressed the protest.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I understand their passion. And I’ve been quietly working — I’ve been quietly working with the Israeli government to get them to reduce and significantly get out of Gaza. I’ve been using all that I can to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: I was wondering, Tariq, if you think President Biden’s line has changed at all. I mean, reports are he’s called his top aides to the White House, absolutely furious why his poll numbers are so low, when the poll figures show people are so dismayed at what’s happening now. I wanted to quote a retired Israeli major general, Yitzhak Brick, who conceded in November, “All of our missiles, the ammunition, the precision-guided bombs, all the airplanes and bombs, it’s all from the U.S.” He said, “The minute they turn off the tap, you can’t keep fighting. You have no capability. … Everyone understands that we can’t fight this war without the United States. Period.” Talk about what you think Biden understands and what he needs to do right now.

TARIQ HABASH: I think it’s really important to recognize that, you know, American voters see this as a domestic policy issue just as much as a foreign policy issue. It is affecting what is going to happen in the upcoming election. I think people are really dissatisfied with the response of the administration. I think that we’re seeing that in the church a couple days ago with the protest. We’re seeing it with protests across the country. We’re seeing city councilmembers and local legislators and policymakers take stances to support an immediate ceasefire.

That disconnect from the people is really concerning for American democracy, but it’s concerning because it feels like digging into the current position means that it’s not as valuable to listen to the people and that our policymakers are going to make the decisions that they’re going to make. And I think when we see an administration circumvent Congress by issuing hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons to a foreign government and circumventing the processes that are in place, ignoring really important laws to protect both Americans but also abide by international humanitarian law, I think there are significant implications for what that means for America more broadly.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Tariq, I wanted to ask you — in your work at the Education Department, you were focused particularly on higher education. I’m wondering: What’s your response to what’s been happening on so many campuses across the country and the politicians in — or some politicians in Congress trying to support and build up the retaliation and targeting campaign faced by Palestinian rights advocates at the university campuses?

TARIQ HABASH: I’m so glad you asked that question. I feel like — so, I already mentioned a little bit how, like, Americans don’t feel like this is just an issue away from home, this is also a domestic policy issue. I think that is extremely clear on college campuses, that have for decades been the grounds for public dissent, for protests, for being able to have a free exchange of ideas and communicate on issues that are really difficult. I think American higher education is meant to be a place to allow free speech in all of its forms. I think that’s really important. I think the Department of Education recognizes that.

But I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. I think it’s very clear, the overcorrection that we’ve seen by institutions of higher education and their response to the weaponization of language, in particular, on college campuses and by political officials and right-wing extremists. I think, at the end of the day, we need to ensure that students are safe, but we need to provide safe learning environments that do not infringe on their rights to be able to have those difficult conversations, to learn about issues that matter in the world right now. And this particular conflict is the forefront of those conversations in so many ways.

I think when we see students on college campuses show solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, when we see students on college campuses condemn the daily atrocities that we see that are starving millions of Palestinians, and decades of oppression and occupation that have led to unequal rights for Palestinians, I think that it’s really important that we separate that from actual hate speech, that is real and dangerous and growing across the country. And I think that, you know, we’ve seen politicians rely on the weaponization of language in order to minimize students’ ability to organize and to speak about some really difficult issues. And we’ve seen that really affect the independence and the integrity of American higher education.

And the risks to academic freedom are very real. And that is a responsibility for the Department of Education. And I think that was one reason for me why it took so long to really take this position, because I did feel an obligation, on the issues that I worked directly on, to be able to help move the ball forward and provide as much support as possible to students across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering — you were still there, Tariq, at the Department of Education when the three Palestinian students were shot in Burlington, one from Trinity, one from Haverford and one from Brown, Hisham Awartani, who is paralyzed from the chest down. And I was wondering your response there and within the department, and also if you feel you face a different future than someone like Josh Paul, longtime State Department official who quit over Biden administration policy. You’re a Biden appointee. But if you face something different as a Palestinian American?

TARIQ HABASH: Yeah, absolutely. Just to quickly touch on what happened in Vermont, which is absolutely horrific, I think part of the problem is the constant dehumanization of Palestinians. And what we’ve seen both in the language that the White House has used and in what we have seen in terms of coverage here across the United States in the media, making it seem like Palestinians — and, in particular, Palestinian men — are less deserving of support, of humanity, of emotion, that allows people to feel like attacking them is acceptable. And that’s just — that’s a horrifying thing to realize, is that as a Palestinian, as a Palestinian man, as a Palestinian Christian, so may aspects of my own identity are erased on a daily basis. And it’s truly horrifying that we allow that type of dehumanization to exist in our country today. For me, it’s very personal. And, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about your background, Tariq, your family’s background, your history.

TARIQ HABASH: Yeah. You know, I’m an American. I was born and raised here in the United States. But I descend from generations of Palestinians. I am a Palestinian American. Like I said, I’m a Palestinian Christian. My family has been Christians for as far back as we know.

And in 1948, my grandparents and many of my aunts and uncles who were alive at the time were forcibly displaced from their homes in Yaffa. And for those who don’t know, it’s on the water, essentially where Tel Aviv is today. And they had to leave everything. They left their homes. They left their businesses. They left their friends. They saw a huge migration, a forced migration of their peers, and massive levels of death. And for them, it was about self-preservation, about preserving future generations of their family. And they walked for miles to find somewhere safe.

And I think it was happenstance that, you know, someone told them, “Oh, we think it’s safe toward the east. Let’s walk that direction.” And as a Palestinian living in America, as a Palestinian living in the broader diaspora, not being able to return, there’s a level of guilt that you have, knowing that a decision that was made 75 years ago to walk east instead of south, toward Gaza, changed the entire trajectory of your life, changed the trajectory of your family’s lives, because, you know, my family has been here in the States for a long time, but I could have very easily been in Gaza. My family could have been in Gaza. It’s extremely emotional. And you feel guilty because you are safe and you can’t do enough to protect lives that are being taken indiscriminately.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your plans now, Tariq?

TARIQ HABASH: I don’t know. You know, I think this is such an important issue. I’m doing everything I can just to use whatever channels that I have to communicate about how important it is to end the violence immediately, to preserve as many lives as possible. I think we’ve heard the White House and the secretary of state talk repeatedly about minimizing civilian casualties. We can do a lot better than minimizing them. We can end civilian casualties in Gaza and in the West Bank. I think it’s up to us to make that decision, to do a little bit of introspection on our own policies and positions and recognize that it’s been over three months, the military route has been an epic failure, and the only path to peace, as the secretary of state talked about just yesterday, is a diplomatic one.

And when we talk about providing humanitarian aid and increasing the level of aid that’s getting to people in Gaza who are starving, it’s really hard to do that if there is continuous bombing of all of the safe regions. There’s nowhere safe left. There hasn’t been anywhere safe left for weeks and weeks. It’s really important that you end the violence, so that you can provide the level of support that’s needed, if we want to seriously contemplate a future for Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Habash, we want to thank you for being with us, former Biden administration political appointee who resigned last week from the Department of Education in response to President Biden’s support of Israel’s war in Gaza. He was the department’s only Palestinian American appointee. He was the first Biden appointee to quit.

Coming up, is Israel using starvation as a weapon of war in Gaza? We’ll speak with an Israeli human rights group. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Deeds, Not Words” by the legendary jazz drummer, composer and activist Max Roach. Today would have been his 100th birthday.

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“Israel Is Starving Gaza”: Israeli Rights Group B’Tselem Says IDF Is Using Hunger as a Weapon of War

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