Biden faces Gaza backlash from Arab-American community as he campaigns for re-election

Tuesday’s Michigan primary is shaping up to be a test of grassroots Democratic support for the president’s pro-Israel policy

Protesta a favor de Palestina en Hamtramck, Michigan
A pro-Palestinian demonstration in Hamtramck, Michigan.Macarena Vidal Liy
Macarena Vidal Liy

Dima Hassan, a Palestinian born in Damascus, had to flee Syria with her family in 2012 after the start of the war. She settled in the Dearborn area of Michigan, the state with the highest percentage of Arab-Americans in the United States. In September, she obtained American citizenship. Days later, just as she was making plans to travel to the West Bank for the first time, war broke out in Gaza. The 28-year-old is now putting all her effort into convincing Michigan residents not to vote for President Joe Biden in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. She is calling on Michigan voters to pick “uncommitted,” which is similar to a blank vote.

“It is very difficult to see your people dying on television, being annihilated. You think, ‘Am I going to be one of the few left alive?’” she explains, dressed in the colors of the Palestinian flag during a protest demonstration in Hamtramck, one of the cities on the outskirts of Detroit that rose during the golden age of the automobile industry. In November, she will be able to vote for the first time as an American citizen. “Of course, Biden is not going to get my vote. Not until he treats the Palestinians the same as the Israelis, until he commits to a permanent ceasefire,” she insists.

Voters like Hassan have turned Tuesday’s primaries in Michigan into a litmus test on how Biden’s support for Israel and his position in the war in Gaza — last week the United States vetoed a draft U.N. resolution calling for a permanent and immediate ceasefire — have affected his support among key Democratic sectors, in particular young people, progressives and the Arab-American community. A November survey by the progressive center Data for Progress found that 66% of Americans and 70% of Democrat voters under 45 support a permanent ceasefire.

Michigan, with 10 million inhabitants, has 300,000 voters of Maghreb or Middle Eastern origin, and another 200,000 Muslims from other regions. Enough, Arab community leaders argue, to make a difference in a key swing state, which in 2016 was won by Donald Trump by just 10,000 votes and which in 2020 supported Biden by 150,000 votes. Activists believe that without the support of the Arab community, which voted overwhelmingly (64%) for Biden, the president will not win in the state. And without Michigan, Biden’s path to re-election is very difficult.

Campaigns such as “Listen to Michigan” are hoping to use this to their advantage. This initiative was launched by Arab-American activists in the Dearborn area, which is home to a large percentage of the state’s Arab community: 55% of residents have their origins in Lebanon, Yemen and other Arab countries in the Middle East. According to the campaign founder, community organizer Leyla Elabed — who is the sister of the only congresswoman of Palestinian origin in the U.S. Capitol, Rashida Tlaib — the goal is to convince voters in Michigan to pick “uncommitted” in protest at Washington’s policy in the Israel-Hamas conflict and to demand a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. They are hoping to convince 10,000 voters, the same number that gave Trump his victory eight years ago.

Immediate ceasefire

“It is the most democratic protest we can do. Let’s vote, and mobilize the vote. Let’s have as many people as possible vote. But let’s have people vote ‘uncommitted’ to send Biden the message that we will not be complicit in a genocide that is being paid for with our tax money,” says Elabed. “It’s a protest vote, a humanitarian vote, to save as many lives as we can. We need a ceasefire now,” she adds, surrounded by Palestinian flags and posters with slogans such as “end the occupation” and “freedom for Palestine,” before the rally begins in Hamtramck.

The community organizer says that it’s not just an Arab-American movement. “Listen to Michigan” has already contacted more than 100,000 people throughout the state. At the demonstration, there are also Jewish voters, young white students and some Latino people, such as Mike Flores, who says that he has come to “support the demands of a ceasefire for the Palestinian people.” The founders of the campaign do not want Biden to lose in the November election, the goal rather is to give him a wake-up call, to make him “understand that he needs our votes.” They want the president to support a ceasefire to prevent the spiraling deaths from the Gaza war, which has already killed more than 30,000 Palestinians.

Listen to Michigan founder Leyla Elabed at the Hamtramck rally.
Listen to Michigan founder Leyla Elabed at the Hamtramck rally.Macarena Vidal Liy

“On Tuesday we hope to show that we are in a state where every vote matters, where the margins are very narrow and Biden needs every vote he can get. We want a permanent ceasefire, not a temporary fix. And if not, Biden risks handing over the presidency to Trump and his cronies in November,” explains Abbas Alawieh, campaign spokesperson and former advisor in Congress. He rejects the claim that the campaign will lead to a Trump victory in November. “When the war started, we kept quiet because they told us we could harm Biden. A month later, we were still silent. And we were silent in December. But people continue to die in Gaza. Children. If someone is so concerned that Trump might win, they should support us so that Biden changes his policy and stops losing votes in Michigan.”

Other parallel campaigns do want Biden to lose the election as punishment for what they see as his unconditional support for Israel. The “Abandon Biden” movement is calling on residents in states such as New Jersey, Virginia or Minnesota, which have a large Arab population, to vote against Biden in November. The president “can do the right thing. He can stop this war. He can ask for sanctions against the Israeli government. He can ask that they be tried for war crimes. He can declare it a genocide. But he is not going to do it,” said Khalid Turaani, considered one of the leaders of the campaign, in a recent conversation.

In response to the community’s anger, several senior officials from the White House and the Biden campaign traveled to Michigan to meet with Arab-American leaders. The conversations, as confirmed by several of the participants, were tense. “Unless we see a change in policy toward Gaza, where a permanent ceasefire is accepted, we don’t want to talk again,” said Abraham Aiyash, a Democratic congressman in the Michigan state legislature, in a conversation at a Hamtramck coffee shop on Sunday. A meeting with Vice-President Kamala Harris was canceled at the last minute.

Biden has not traveled to Michigan in this last stretch of the campaign. He did visit on February 1, when he attended an event with the United Autoworkers Union (UAW), which has already endorsed him. Harris visited Michigan last week, as part of her tour to defend reproductive rights, but only took part in a round table without a general audience.

In recent weeks, Biden has slightly toughened his position on Israel. He called the Israeli government’s response in Gaza “over the top;” imposed sanctions against four Jewish settlers who have attacked Palestinians in the West Bank; and warned against an offensive on Rafah. And on Monday he announced that a temporary ceasefire could be underway in less than a week.

The governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, warned on Sunday in an interview with CNN that “any vote that’s not cast for Joe Biden supports a second Trump term.” But she also admitted that she was not sure what could happen on Tuesday.

Dima Hassan, who will spend Tuesday handing out leaflets and visiting polling stations, insists: “Don’t let Biden have your vote until there is a permanent ceasefire.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS