No, President Trump. Calling someone 'Palestinian' is not a slur

No, President Trump. Calling someone 'Palestinian' is not a slur
Donald Trump's use of 'Palestinian' as an insult against Joe Biden exposes how rife anti-Arab sentiment is in American public discourse, writes Alex Foley.
5 min read
08 Jul, 2024
Both sides of the US political spectrum try to convince the electorate that Palestinian lives are not worth mourning, writes Alex Foley [photo credit: Getty Images]

As I attempted to board the plane for a ten-day trip back to the United States to visit my family last Tuesday, the flight attendant handed my passport and boarding pass to a superior. “Follow me, please,” she instructed, leading me to a section of the gate where I was to undergo a random security check.

Nearer the catwalk to the plane, my friend accompanying me blanched and looked on in horror. The night before, in the airport hotel bar, we'd joked about the prospect of me being barred entry for my political leanings. Now it appeared to be coming true. In my bags, which were now being searched, were several books on Palestine, Iraq, and Syria.

Several days prior, during the US Presidential debate, Donald Trump accused an addled and visibly frightened Joe Biden of hampering Israel’s assault on Gaza. “He has become like a Palestinian, but they don’t like him because he is a very bad Palestinian. He is a weak one,” he said. In response to Trump using Palestinian as an insult, the current president simply grimaced and shrugged.

It was a nauseating and yet intensely clarifying moment. Since the beginning of Israel’s assault, ordinary people have risked defamation, doxxing, and the loss of their livelihoods speaking out for the rights of Palestinians while those in positions of power have dehumanised them to justify their support for the ongoing violence. That the once and likely future president would reduce their identity to a slur is only a more Trumpian version of a growing trend in American politics.

Former presidential hopeful Nikki Hayley, on her tour of Israel in May — well after the death toll was in the tens of thousands — personalised an artillery shell by writing “Finish Them!” on the side. That same month, Senator Lindsey Graham compared the crisis in Gaza to the use of nuclear weapons by the US in Japan at the end of World War II. He followed this by saying, “So, Israel, do whatever you have to do to survive as a Jewish state.” Infamous lawyer Alan Dershowitz co-penned an article titled, “Just how many of Gaza’s civilians are entirely ‘innocent’?”

Public enemy number one

Senator Tom Cotton has been one of the most explicit in his anti-Palestinian bile. In response to the Nuseirat massacre in which Israeli forces killed nearly 300 people to extract four hostages, Cotton tweeted, “If Gazans don’t want their people killed in hostage rescue missions, they shouldn’t take hostages in the first place.”

Back in May during a press conference, Cotton said of the US college encampments, “These little Gazas are disgusting cesspools of antisemitic hate full of pro-Hamas sympathisers, fanatics and freaks.”

Cotton has also advocated for violence against pro-Palestinian protestors, telling motorists inconvenienced by them to, “take matters into [their] own hands,” and alluding to throwing them off bridges and ripping their skin.

It is impossible not to see these comments within the context of a growing number of attacks on Palestinians in the US, including the recent attempted drowning of a child at a swimming pool, the fatal stabbing of six-year-old Wade Al-Fayoume, and the shooting of three Palestinian students wearing keffiyehs.


All of this is meant to influence in the American psyche what Judith Butler might call the “grievability” of Palestinian lives. The US has backed Israel to the hilt in a military campaign that polls show is wildly unpopular amongst US voters.

The complicity of officials on both sides of the aisle has been on full display for months and, with elections looming, one of their few remaining strategies is to try and convince the electorate that Palestinian lives are not worth mourning.

This dehumanisation of Palestinians, however, is just the latest phase in a decades-long strategy to justify US involvement in the region. I am old enough to remember when the same strategy was deployed at the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The message from the top to the American people has been the same for my entire adult life: Arab life is very cheap, and we’re allowed to spend it.

In the US, Palestinian life is expendable

Perhaps no journalist better exemplifies the through line between these two periods than the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin. Rubin, who maintained a hawkish stance long after her contemporaries had largely tucked tail on the issue of Iraq, was rehabilitated by MSNBC in the Trump years for her anti-Trump views.

In 2011, she caused a minor scandal for the Post by retweeting a blog post that called for Palestinian prisoners to be thrown into the sea to become, “food for sharks.”

The problem for President Trump et al. — and the difference between the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and now — is that social media allows us to see the humanity of Palestinians each and every day. It has shone brightly in the most harrowing of circumstances, a moral beacon guiding those organising and marching globally.

We can all see their bravery and grace. It is impossible to view the videos of men pulling people from the rubble, of clowns cheering up displaced children, of children rescuing cats, and of women creating makeshift bakeries, and believe that the word Palestinian could ever be a slur.

For my part, I was permitted to board after being patted down and having my bags searched. The TSA agent never glanced at my books.

While I watched the fireworks boom over the lake with my family and friends on July 4, bombs fell for yet another night in Gaza. Videos and images circulated the internet of children’s bodies torn apart in unspeakable ways.

Just before his, “bad Palestinian,” remark, Trump said the quiet part out loud, stating that Israel is the party that wants the violence to keep going. “And you should let ‘em go and let ‘em finish the job.” The presidential elections may not be until this November, but the results for Palestinians are the same: no matter who wins, they lose.

Alex Foley is an educator and painter living in Brighton, UK. They have a research background in molecular biology of health and disease. They currently work on preserving fragile digital materials related to mass death atrocities in the MENA region.

Follow them on X: @foleywoley

Have questions or comments? Email us at:

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.