The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) urged all Arab and Muslims in the United States to boycott the Obama administration's celebration of the holy month of Ramadan on Monday, arguing the president has condoned the killing of Palestinians in Gaza and the spying on some Americans based on their Muslim identities.
Like George W. Bush before him, Obama has hosted an Iftar dinner -- the meal after sunset that breaks the day of fasting -- each year he's been in office. Other federal agencies, including the State Department, also hold iftar dinners to commemorate the holiday.
The ADC, the nation's largest Arab American group, issued a statement citing both the administration's support for Israel's bombing campaign in response to airstrikes by the militant group Hamas as reasons not to participate in the administration's celebrations.
"We ask that all government iftar invitees stand together on behalf the community and reject the normalization of the continuous breach of our fundamental rights," the statement said. "Political engagement is important and having a seat at the table is crucial — but only when that seat is intended to amplify our voice as a community, not tokenize or subdue it."
Obama remains overwhelmingly popular with Muslims, although he has recently come under fire since Glenn Greewald and Murtza Hussain reported former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden had documents indicating the NSA had conducted surveillance on five American Muslim leaders.
The group's spokeswoman, Amani al-Khatahtbeh, said she could not say "specifically" how many individuals would be skipping government iftar dinners, and this year an ADC representative has not been invited to the White House event. But she said "several individuals" would be skipping agency iftar dinners, which can occur on different nights during Ramadan.
Speaking to his guests Monday night, Obama did not speak about the boycott, but he said "the pictures we are seeing in Gaza and Israel are heart wrenching," and noted there were strong differences about how to move forward given the recent conflict.
"Our goal has been and continues to be peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. And I will say very clearly, no country can accept rocket fired indiscriminately at citizens. And so, we’ve been very clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against what I consider to be inexcusable attacks from Hamas," the president said. "At the same time, on top of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza that we’ve worked long and hard to alleviate, the death and injury of Palestinian civilians is a tragedy, which is why we’ve emphasized the need to protect civilians, regardless of who they are or where they live."
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the annual dinner was not just a way for the president to observe a "religious tradition" observed by Muslims around the world, but it is also "an opportunity for the president and other senior administration officials to pay tribute to the important role that Muslim Americans play in American communities all across the country."
Earnest added "we certainly respect the differences that some people may have on this. … But we would not want that to overshadow the efforts of the president and other senior administration officials to pay tribute to the contribution that so many American Muslims play in their communities."
Throughout Monday's briefing, Earnest said the U.S. supported Israel's right to defend itself, although he said the administration remains concerned "about the safety and welfare of innocent civilians on both sides of that conflict" between Israel and the Palestinians "and are encouraging the leaders of both sides to reflect that concern for those individuals' safety as they consider the best way to deescalate this conflict."
"As it relates to the recent reports of spying on Muslim Americans, I would point out that unlike some other countries, the United States of America doesn't target individuals based on their race or ethnicity or religion," he added. " That is a principle to which we scrupulously adhere, and that hasn't changed."
The custom of celebrating Ramadan in the White House dates back at least to 1996, when then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted a dinner during Eid-al-Fitr, the three-day festival marking the end of Ramadan. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan noted in an e-mail Monday that the tradition may go back two centuries, according to accounts from the nation's early days.
"Some consider President Thomas Jefferson to have hosted the first Iftar by a U.S. president, as he hosted a sunset dinner with an envoy from Tunisia over 200 years ago," Meehan wrote. "The invited guests tonight include elected officials, members of the diplomatic corps, religious and grassroots leaders in the Muslim American community, and leaders of diverse faiths."
On Monday night, Obama said the ceremony offered him and others the chance to celebrate the freedom of religion and highlight the achievements of Muslim Americans who had worked to advance and contribute to their communities.
"All of us are deserving of an equal opportunity to thrive -- no matter who we are, what we look like, what we believe, or how we pray," the president said. "And all of us have an obligation to do our part -- to help others overcome barriers, to reverse the injustice of inequality and to help more of our fellow citizens share in the promise of America."