It was nearly two decades ago, yet the memory of a campus speech delivered by Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware remains especially vivid (and even more so after hearing his latest gaffe to Senator Barack Obama). The topic was predictably foreign policy, on which he is allegedly an expert, but reason for attending was not to hear the verbose senator sanctimoniously expound on international relations. Rather, it was in anticipation of the question and answer session to follow. At the time, Israel was in the throws of the first intifada.
After responding to a few softballs, my persistent hand was acknowledged. I prefaced my remarks with the following two quotes, the first by Winston Churchill:
“The cause of unrest in Palestine, and the only cause, arises from the Zionist movement, and from our promises and pledges in regard to it” (House of Commons, 14 June 1921).
The second, a poignant comment by the late Israeli civil rights activist Dr. Israel Shahak:
“You cannot have humane Zionism. It is a contradiction in terms” (Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. IV, 1975).
Thereafter, I posed the following question to the good senator:
“Rather than succumb to the influence of various lobbying groups in Washington, such as AIPAC, and the untold amounts of money it uses to dictate policy, wouldn’t it be more prudent to examine the real effects that collective punishment, daily humiliation, and countless civilian causalities inflicted by the Israelis have on an occupied population, and use that understanding to formulate a more rational approach toward the Palestinians?”
Senator Biden proceeded to walk directly from the podium to me–literally nose-to-nose–and we engaged in an uneasy back-and-forth about the influence of the Israeli lobby on US diplomacy in the Middle East and the heavy-handed approach (quite an understatement, but a polite phrase nonetheless) that Israel routinely uses to deal with all its problems.
Shortly thereafter Biden turned, put his arm around my shoulder, and addressed the audience.
“If this was not such a fine, articulate, and sincere young man, and he implied that my vote had been bought, I would give him a swift kick in the ass.”
The audience roared in applause.
Satisfied, however, that my point had been delivered and rebutted with only an insult, I sat down.
The next question happen to come from a friend of mine sitting directly behind me.
“If my father heard you say such a thing, I believe he would have done the same to you first.”
An imperceptible smile crept across my face. I realized it was time to go. Both of us got up and walked out of the muted auditorium.
I departed not with the certainty of my arguments, as unpopular as they were that night, or the shaky poise of a college student who stood up to a senator and self-styled expert in foreign affairs. Instead, I was satisfied I had left with my dignity intact.
A pity the same could not have been said for Mr. Biden.
How little things have changed in twenty years.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent observer, commentator and exponent of issues dealing with the Arab and Islamic worlds. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org