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Dem official: Arab-Americans 'got punched' over Jerusalem switch

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Democratic party’s abrupt platform reversal on Jerusalem -- reinstating language describing it as the capital of Israel despite loud objections from the Democratic National Convention floor -- stirred fresh and unexpected controversy Thursday in Charlotte as Arab-American and Muslim party officials expressed anger over how the issue was handled and predicted that it may suppress Democratic votes this fall among constituents in key swing states.

Top Talkers: DNC Chairman and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had something of an odd moment on Wednesday over the official Democratic Party platform's omission of references to God and identifying Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Villaraigosa attempted to add the language back with a voice vote, and things got testy on the convention floor. The Morning Joe panel discusses.

“I’m concerned that Arab-Americans will feel they got punched in the solar plexus,” said James Zogby, the president of the Arab-American Institute who serves on the Democratic Party’s platform committee. “This was ham-fisted and a blunder ... They stepped all over the convention the way this was done.”

Zogby, who has long served as a key party liaison to the Arab-American community, made his comments Thursday outside a luncheon meeting of the Muslim Democratic caucus, a  group that consists of 112 delegates. Many of those present shared his outrage, especially at  Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the convention chairman. 

Slideshow: Democratic National Convention

During the proceedings Wednesday, Villaraigosa asked convention delegates three times to approve by voice-vote a motion reinstating language that had been dropped from the official party platform, declaring that “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel.”

Despite a loud chorus of “No!” and some boos that appeared to be at least as loud as those shouting “Yes,” Villaraigosa declared the motion to have passed by the required two-thirds vote.

Related: Dems to reinstate language on Jerusalem

“I’m from Iraq and lived under a dictatorship.  I feel like I’m back in the Middle East,” said Majid Al-Bahadli, a delegate from Seattle, Wash.  He said delegates  had no forewarning of the motion and were caught totally by surprise when the proposed new language suddenly  flashed on a monitor --  with no hard copy for them to read, and no opportunity to debate the issue.

“I said, ‘What? What is it?’ We had already adopted the platform. You can’t just go back and change it,” Al-Bahadli said. He said he loudly shouted, “No!” because “I believe Jerusalem is for everybody. It’s a holy place -- for Jews, for Christians and for Muslims.” 

Chris Keane / REUTERS

Los Angeles Mayor and Chair of the 2012 Democratic National Convention Committee, Antonio R. Villaraigosa, addresses the final session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina September 6, 2012.

(In the face of objections that the version approved by the Democratic platform committee included no reference to God, the motion also included language saying that government should help people "make the most of their God-given potential.")

Most political analysts have portrayed the Jerusalem issue as a potent one because of its potential impact on Jewish voters. But  Zogby and others at the luncheon noted that Arab-Americans and Muslim-American voters are a growing and important voting block: The number of Muslim Americans -- now about 2.6 million -- is expected to more than double to 6.2 million by 2030.  Moreover, their numbers are especially concentrated in key swing states such as Ohio and Florida: There are, for example, currently 124,000 Muslim voters in Florida alone.

“This is going to hurt among Arabs and Muslims,” said Al-Bahadli. “We’re going to go home and people are gong to be going to be sad. I think it will effect  the turnout and we are going to lose a lot of votes.”

The Democratic Party changed the language of the party's platform to include the word "God," and to name Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The MSNBC panelists discuss.

Democratic party officials, meanwhile, scrambled to defuse the issue in the face of mounting signs that the Romney campaign and allied GOP groups planned to pounce on the initial exclusion of Jerusalem -- as well as the vociferous objections from the convention to putting it back in -- as evidence that President Barack Obama and the Democrats are not sufficiently supportive of the state of Israel.

The Republican Jewish Coalition, a group funded by major GOP donors such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, took out full-page newspaper ads Thursday blasting “Obama’s 2012 Democratic platform” for dropping “the strong pro-Israel language” that was in the 2008 platform. Matt Brooks, the group’s executive director, said a “retooled” version reflecting Wednesday’s floor ruckus will run in Jewish newspapers next week. The scene on the convention floor will send a “chill up the spine” of many Jewish voters, Brooks said.

Top Democrats portrayed the initial exclusion of Jerusalem as a “technical” omission.  “It’s not that someone had a plan, ‘Let’s back off the long Democratic Party policy that Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told The Associated Press, describing the initial exclusion of any reference to Jerusalem as a mistake.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, speaks at the DNC on Wednesday.

A top Democratic party official told reporters that Obama directly ordered that Jerusalem be re-inserted in the platform. “The Republicans obviously wanted to gin this up,” said the official, speaking at a background briefing for reporters. “But as soon as the president heard about it, he knew that wasn't consistent with his personal beliefs and he said put it back. And that's what we did."

Virtually all sides in the debate acknowledge that the language has little practical impact. Despite repeated expressions of support for Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital by both parties over the years, the U.S. government’s policy for decades has been the same: that the final status of East Jerusalem, which has been under Israeli control since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, should be resolved through peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.