When Oday Aboushi was selected by the New York Jets in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL draft, he knew he had a long and difficult road ahead of him. The 6’6”, 300-plus-pound offensive lineman from the University of Virginia knew that, as a later round draft pick, he’d have to work hard to make the team and would have to stand out in training camp. As a practicing Muslim, he also knew he’d have to perform well in try outs in the grueling summer heat while fasting during the month of Ramadan. If he somehow managed to make the roster and secure a spot on the Jets’ offensive line, he’d then have to face the gargantuan task of keeping Mark Sanchez upright long enough to make a play downfield (that could be a long, long time).
Clearly, it would be an uphill battle. But, Aboushi also knew that he could not only count on the support of Jets fans but, as a Palestinian-American, he could also count on Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims around the country who were thrilled to hear he’d been selected.
There is nothing more mainstream in American culture than sports. Of course Arab and Muslim Americans have been making their mark on sports for decades. Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar were Americans who embraced Islam and revolutionized their respective sports, helping to introduce a religion that was foreign to the average American. Doug Flutie, of Boston College-Hail Mary fame, is an Arab American who left an indelible mark on college football. A young cadre of Arab-American stars are also rising in the NHL (yes, Arabs on Ice!), including Nazem Kadri of the Maple Leafs, Justin Abdelkader of Detroit and newly minted Stanly Cup Champion Brandon Saad of the Chicago Blackhawks.
So, when a Palestinian-American is drafted into the NFL, the most mainstream of all leagues in America, it is a big deal for a community that has often been ostracized and marginalized, especially in post-9/11 America.
On cue, those who’d hate to see the mainstreaming of Palestinians anywhere in America have begun to attack Aboushi. It began, as so many of these smear campaigns do, at FrontPage Magazine. The website, edited by well-known islamophobe David Horowitz, is home to all sort of virulent anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian dreck. Horowitz has, among other accomplishments, created lists of university professors he deemed anti-American and anti-Israel, largely for simply teaching the subject with some nuance. He's also behind “Islamofacism week” efforts on university campuses.
It was no surprise, then, that his website would publish a hatchet job article on Aboushi alledging that he is anti-Semitic and involved with clandestine terrorist activity. Of course the article, typical of the sort, was filled with wild exaggeration, outright lies, and the sort of guilt by association that is more embarrassing for the author than for the target. It stops just short of telling you that Aboushi’s sister’s boyfriend’s neighbor’s dog once urinated on a fire hydrant a block from a Jewish community center and thus, Aboushi is an anti-Semite.
Among the outlandish accusations in the FrontPage piece was the claim that Aboushi was anti-Semitic for tweeting an image of a Palestinian woman standing outside her house, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem, after she'd been evicted so Israeli settlers could take it. Even the State Department deplored such actions by Israel as violations of their obligations. The author even went so far as to try to connect Aboushi to a speaker who the INS charged with being part of a terrorist group. How can the the INS, which dealt with immigration and doesn’t exist anymore, charge people with involvement in terrorism? By doing this in 1988, years before Aboushi was even born, and violating constitutional rights. Perhaps most insidious was the claim that Aboushi was anti-Semitic for using the term Nakba, which Palestinians use to describe the period of their expulsion and disposession from 1947 to 1949. Well, the author probably never learned that it was likely Israeli military who propelled the term into its modern usage. So there you go, the Israeli military is anti-Semitic too.
The article was penned for no reason other than to create a smear campaign against Aboushi and give the Jets a public relations headache so big that they might not find it worth keeping Aboushi on the team. We should hope that this is not what happens, but it's undoubtedly the intention.
This, however, is the level of slime we’ve come to know and expect from FrontPage. What made matters worse was a post by Adam Waksman, a journalist for Yahoo! Sports, which has a reach that is, let’s say, a bit greater than FrontPage. Waksman reprinted many of the worthless accusations in the FrontPage hit job and did not bother to reach out to any of the maligned for comment. He closed by cautioning the Jets organization that this “is a potential disaster that needs to be dealt with before it becomes anything real.”
For a glimpse into what sort of hate these articles conjure up, look no further than the comments. “"Who Is Oday Aboushi?" I think he's a sandn|gger,” wrote one erudite interlocutor. “Send the piece of garbage back to the sand dunes and let him molest goats for a living," said another.
Furthering the hate, a newly hired social media coordinator of MLB.com, Jonathan Mael, tweeted that the Jets “are a disgrace of an organization” and likened Oday Aboushi to Aaron Hernandez, the former Patriots’ tight end now facing murder charges in Massachusetts. Now, many might argue that the Jets organization leaves lots to be desired—anyone watching the implosion of the franchise over the past two seasons could make that argument. But to do so simply because they drafted a Palestinian-American?
One of the most beautiful things about sports is the uniform. No matter your background, race, or religion, when you don a Jets jersey, you are a Jet. One Jersey, One Team, One goal. There is no room for hate.
So why would Mael, himself working for and publicly representing a professional sports league in America, decide to further such bigoted and hateful attacks on a symbol of diversity like Aboushi? I’d speculate that Mael’s pro-Israel persuasions—he spent time interning for AIPAC, the best known pro-Israel lobby in the country—trend toward the right--wing end of the spectrum. I’d also like to ask him what in the world he was thinking and whether such behavior is appropriate for an employee of MLB.com. I tried to send him a message on Twitter, but it seems that after that hateful tweet he has deleted his account. Maybe it is he that has something to hide from his employers?
In sum, this entire episode shows you that as a Palestinian public persona, you have to be quiet about your history, beliefs and views or you will be silenced by attackers who want to bring you down. Thankfully, the response to this smear campaign has been strong and it seems Yahoo! Sports has taken down its shoddy article as well. That wouldn’t have been the case 5 or 10 years ago. The right thing to do would be a formal mea culpa from the author. We’ll wait to see if that is forthcoming and hopefully this can be a learning experience for writers and readers alike.
UPDATE: As this article went to print, Jonathan Mael re-activated his Twitter account and posted a two-Tweet apology, misspelling Aboushi's first name. "I apologize to the @nyjets organization and to Obay Aboushi for my insensitive and offensive tweet," he wrote. "The comparison was beyond inappropriate and did not reflect my true beliefs."