‘War criminal’: Arab Americans rebuff Biden campaign outreach over Gaza

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Arab Americans are angry.

And they let United States President Joe Biden know it when they shunned his campaign manager as she visited Michigan to reach out to their communities this week.

Many elected Arab-American officials, including municipal leaders and state legislators, declined to meet with Julie Chavez Rodriguez, arguing that as long as there are mass killings in Gaza, they will not discuss the elections.

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“It’s unfathomable at this point in time that we’re trying to talk about electoral politics with a genocide unfolding,” said Abdullah Hammoud, the mayor of Dearborn, a Detroit suburb.

“This is not a time to talk about politics. This is a time for our humanity to be recognised, and for us to be sitting down with decision-makers and policymakers to talk about a change of course of what’s unfolding overseas. And it does not happen with campaign staff.”

Arab-American local officials in Southeast Michigan told Al Jazeera that their constituents are furious and frustrated with Biden’s policies in Gaza – anger that could prove detrimental to the president’s reelection chances.

Dearborn – home to large Palestinian, Lebanese, Yemeni and Iraqi communities – is known as the capital of Arab America. Hammoud noted that all four countries are being bombed by the US and its Israeli allies.

The mayor added that Arab Americans and the broader community in Dearborn feel “betrayed” by Biden’s unwavering support for Israel.

“I have residents who have had to dig their grandmothers up from under the rubble after Israeli fighter jets bombed their homes,” Hammoud told Al Jazeera.

“We have residents who hail from Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem, which is being ethnically cleansed. What do I tell them? What is the message to them?”

Abdullah Hammoud became Dearborn’s first Arab-American mayor in 2022 [Paul Sancya/AP]

Michigan’s importance

The meeting that was being organised between Arab-American leaders and Chavez Rodriguez was subsequently cancelled after pushback from the community, several officials told Al Jazeera.

Arab Americans in Dearborn and other Michigan cities could play an outsized role in the US presidential elections, where the system is based on winning individual states.

Michigan, home to more than 10 million people, is a key “swing state” – not guaranteed to vote Republican or Democrat – and it is often won by fine margins.

In 2016, former President Donald Trump beat his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in the Midwestern state by fewer than 11,000 votes. So the estimated hundreds of thousands of Arab Americans in Michigan could sway the outcome of the election.

In recent election cycles, presidential candidates, particularly Democrats, started acknowledging the importance of the Arab vote: running ads in Arabic, meeting with community advocates and addressing Arab Americans’ specific concerns.

In 2020, Biden released a platform for Arab-American communities, promising to recognise the equality of Palestinians and Israelis and protect civil rights at home. He also sent his wife Jill Biden and running mate Kamala Harris to Dearborn to reach out to the Arab community there.

Despite grievances with his staunch support for Israel, Arab voters appeared to back Biden overwhelmingly. For example, in predominantly Arab polling locations in Dearborn, Biden won more than 80 percent of the votes, city data shows. That support helped him reclaim Michigan for the Democrats.

But as we head to the 2024 elections in November, which will likely be a rematch between Biden and Trump, Biden’s popularity among Arab Americans is tanking

An Arab American Institute poll in October showed Arab American support for Biden plummeted to 17 percent after the war and some activists suspect that it may have sunken even further since then.

While Arab-American advocates stress their communities are not driven by a single issue, they say the scale of the carnage in Gaza and Biden’s uncompromising role in it makes it difficult – if not impossible – to support the 81-year-old president again.

“Arab Americans will not vote for Joe Biden, no matter what. That’s it. They’re done with Biden,” Sam Baydoun, a Wayne County commissioner who also declined to meet with Chavez Rodriguez, told Al Jazeera.

“That’s the bottom line. Joe Biden is not going to be able to regain the trust of the Arab-American community.”

Biden’s support for Israel

Biden has provided unconditional political and financial support to Israel since it started its war on Gaza on October 7. The president is requesting more than $14bn in additional aid for the US ally and the White House is still working with Congress to secure the funds.

Moreover, Palestinian rights advocates have accused him of contributing to the dehumanisation of Palestinians. In October, Biden described the thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza as “the price of waging war”.

In a statement marking the 100th day of the conflict earlier this month, the US president focused on Israeli captives in Gaza, failing to mention Palestinians altogether.

The Biden administration has also vetoed two United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for de-escalation in Gaza where more than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed.

This week, the Biden administration also suspended funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) based on unconfirmed Israeli allegations that some UNRWA workers participated in Hamas’s October 7 attack against Israel.

At the same time, Washington has categorically ruled out halting or conditioning aid to Israel, even after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly defied Biden in rejecting the two-state solution.

Still, the Biden administration argues that it is pushing Israel to minimise civilian casualties and trying to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza where the population is on the verge of famine according to rights groups.

Abraham Aiyash, the majority leader of the Michigan House of Representatives, dismissed Washington’s claims that it is trying to help the people of Gaza.

“‘Trying’ has led to nearly 30,000 dead, massive destruction of civilian infrastructure and a more emboldened far-right, fascist government in Israel. So if the United States is ‘trying’, I would be afraid of what it would look like if the US wasn’t trying,” Aiyash, who is of Yemeni descent, told Al Jazeera.

The Biden campaign did not return Al Jazeera’s request for comment by the time of publication.

‘War criminal’

Osama Siblani, the publisher of the Dearborn-based Arab American News, did meet with Chavez Rodriguez this week to deliver a scathing message to her face, he said.

“Biden is telling Israel, ‘Here is the money; here’s ammunition; here’s the political power; here’s whatever you need, go and kill.’ That is a war criminal. That’s how we see it,” Siblani said he told the campaign manager.

He added that he had received dozens of phone calls urging him to cancel the meeting but that he felt it was necessary to confront the Biden campaign.

“I told her I wanted to meet with you, but I wanted to relay a very strong message: If this man wants our vote, he has to do more than Jesus Christ – bring a lot more dead back to life. Thousands of people’s blood is on his hands,” Siblani told Al Jazeera.

Beyond the crisis in Gaza, Siblani said Biden has not lived up to his broader promises to the Arab community.

In his 2020 platform, the US president said he would reopen a consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem. That has not happened.

He also promised to protect free speech despite his opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. But his administration has done little to address the state-level crackdown on supporters of Palestinian rights.

Siblani said Arab Americans were also promised a seat at the table but they have been largely sidelined by the administration. “This is exactly why people are angry. They’re angry because he did not respect our vote. He didn’t even care. He still doesn’t care.”

Aiyash, who is one of the highest-ranking Arab and Muslim officials in the country, said neither the White House nor the Democratic Party has reached out to him for input since the war began.

The lawmaker said the White House’s disregard for those calling for a ceasefire in Gaza is “ill-advised” and “disrespectful”.

“It’s just shocking to me – given how significant Michigan is, and how much work the Arab and Muslim communities put in in 2020, to guarantee President Biden’s victory,” Aiyash told Al Jazeera.

What about Trump?

When asked about the Arab and Muslim vote, Biden and his aides have waved the prospect of Trump’s return to the White House, suggesting that the US president remains a far better option than his predecessor, who imposed a travel ban on several Arab and Muslim-majority countries. They have also argued that by November, Gaza may not be a leading issue.

Biden outlined that rationale earlier this month, saying, “The former president wants to put a ban on Arabs coming into the country. We’ll make sure we understand who cares about the Arab population, number one. Number two, we got a long way to go in terms of settling the situation in Gaza.”

Baydoun, the county commissioner, rejected both arguments. “We will not forget. This is a genocide,” he said. “We can no longer accept the lesser of two evils.”

Mainstream Democrats, including liberal commentators, Congress members and governors, have been emphasising the need to vote for Biden to stop Trump, whom they argue is a threat to democracy.

“Donald Trump is a threat to democracy,” Minnesota Governor Tim Walz told CNN earlier this month. “That’s why we need to re-elect Joe Biden, and that’s exactly what we’re doing to do,” he added.

However, Mayor Hammoud said the question about preserving democracy against Trump should be posed to the White House, not those who oppose the war on Gaza.

“Some folks are asking, ‘How could the Arabs not vote for Biden? Trump is on the ticket’,” Hammoud said. “But my question is: If American democracy is under threat by the re-election of Trump, why is the US alignment with Benjamin Netanyahu worth threatening American democracy?”

Aiyash echoed that argument, stressing that large segments of the Democratic base, including young voters and people who care about human rights – not just Arabs and Muslims – are frustrated with Biden’s position on Gaza.

“If democracy is so important – and I believe it is – why is this administration allowing Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s extremist ideologies and genocidal military to take precedence over protecting democracy, over preserving the Republic?”

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