'Uncommitted': Will Biden finally get the message?

Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud: 'Biden calls for our votes once more while at the same time selling the very bombs that Benjamin Netanyahu’s military is dropping on our family and friends.'— Reuters

MICHIGAN’S Arab-American community knows its political power and showed how it intends to use it against President Joe Biden in last Tuesday’s primary. But interviews in recent days showed a movement struggling to reconcile the urgent need for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas with the dire consequences of a second Trump administration.

The organisation, Listen to Michigan, far exceeded its goal of getting at least 10,000 voters to withhold their support from Biden in the Democratic presidential primary and instead choose the “uncommitted” option. The number represents Donald Trump’s margin of victory over Hillary Clinton in the US state in 2016, and was meant to send a message to Biden from those who are angry over his handling of the crisis in Gaza.

Early unofficial results showed more than 65,000 uncommitted ballots were cast. The primary was only the beginning, supporters said. The group plans to keep the pressure on Biden through the general election and pledged to be a strong presence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago this summer.

Organiser Abbas Alawieh, who served as chief of staff to former Michigan Representative Andy Levin, said the movement was inspired by former President Barack Obama, who had his name taken off the 2008 primary ballot in a dispute over Democratic National Committee rules. Strategists urged supporters to choose “uncommitted” and an astonishing 40% did; Hillary Clinton won 55% of the vote.

It’s a smart strategy. Michigan has the largest concentration of Arab- and Muslim-American voters in the country and they overwhelmingly supported Biden in 2020. Smart because it’s been done without violent protests, without blocking streets and, without alienating potential allies. Nevertheless, it sends a powerful message: Arab-Americans have come to know their political power and they are determined to exercise it.

The president and his team have taken notice. Biden campaign staff were stunned when Dearborn Mayor Abdullah H. Hammoud refused to meet with them late last month. “What do I tell my residents?” said Hammoud, whose suburban Detroit city is majority Arab-American.

The White House later sent a slew of administration officials to meet with Hammoud and other Arab-American leaders in an effort to mend fences.

Hammoud criticised the administration in a biting commentary in the New York Times on Feb 20, saying his city felt “betrayed.”

“In the past three federal elections, Arab American voters in Michigan have become a crucial and dependable voting bloc for the Democratic Party, and we were part of the wave that delivered for Joe Biden four years ago,” the Democratic mayor wrote. “But this fact seems long forgotten by our candidate as he calls for our votes once more while at the same time selling the very bombs that Benjamin Netanyahu’s military is dropping on our family and friends.”

But there is peril here as well. A parallel effort has taken root, with a more extreme objective captured in its name: Abandon Biden.

Imam Mika’il Stewart Saadiq,who leads the Muslim Center mosque and community center on Detroit’s west side, said the first Listen meeting included 30 community leaders and Jewish Voices for Peace looking for the best way to send a message to Biden without empowering Trump.

“I respect what they’re doing, but I know it’s hard to control these things,” Saadiq said. “I fear Abandon Biden has attached itself to this effort and may overtake it. Once people get worked up, it can be hard to control the outcome.”

The stakes for this community could not be higher. Already some have taken to calling Biden “Genocide Joe” for his unwavering support for Israel as it annihilates parts of Gaza. But the consequences of returning Trump to office would be dire.

The former president has made no secret that he plans to expand his original Muslim travel ban, begin “ideological screening” for immigrants and bar or deport those he considers Hamas supporters or Muslim extremists. He also pledges to end “birthright citizenship,” which could affect the many families where parents are refugees, but whose children are American by birth.

Saadiq recalled that as early as 2019, he was a “Biden guy.” What cemented his decision, Saadiq said, “was that he made an honest effort to sit down with Muslim imams in Detroit and Dearborn. We sat face to face, nose to nose with him.” Saadiq became an outreach coordinator, stumping for Biden and registering voters.

“When the numbers came out in November, we were all just so proud,” he said. “We knew we were a big piece of him winning in Michigan.”

Now, Saadiq is ambivalent.

“I told Biden’s advisers when they were here, ‘Your relationship with the Muslim community is forever changed. The relationship is salvageable, but reconciliation is needed.”

Michigan will be critical this November. The state leaned red in the 1980s, only to turn slightly blue with the election of former President Bill Clinton. It became more deeply Democratic during the Obama years. Trump snatched it back by the narrowest of margins in 2016, before Biden flipped it in 2020 with a 154,000-vote margin. There are an estimated 300,000 Arab-Americans in Michigan. A loss here in a tight national race could doom Biden’s reelection.

“I try to remind everyone just how bad it was under Trump,” Saadiq said. “Biden has proven he is a friend to the Muslim community. We have had iftars at the White House. I do not want the Muslim community to be estranged from the Democratic Party.”

The day after the US cast the lone vote against a cease-fire resolution in the United Nations, Ahmad Musheinish sat at Qahwah House, a popular coffee shop in West Dearborn and talked about his cousins in Gaza, who he hasn’t heard from since the war started. A return of Trump, he acknowledged, would be bad. “But will it be worse? What is worse than over 30,000 dead? Trump can ban Muslims. He can ban me. Just don’t support genocide,” said Musheinish, who owns an automotive parts store.

It should be noted, however, that nothing in Trump’s first term indicates he would have exercised even a modicum of restraint as Netanyahu – whom he considers his ideological twin – mowed through Gaza.

Lexis Zeidan, a young Palestinian Christian and organiser with the uncommitted campaign, said the Arab-American community here is incredibly diverse: it’s Black and White, Muslim, Christian and Coptic, Palestinian, Syrian, Yemeni, Lebanese, Bangladeshi, and others. “But we are united in this,” she said.

“I thought Biden was a person who represented humanity, coming out of the Trump presidency,” Zeidan said. “There was so much hope with Biden in 2020. That is gone for me.”

Asked about whether anger over Biden’s role in the war might not result in Trump’s reelection, she responds with a flash of anger. “I am no longer settling for the lesser of two evils,” she said. “It is up to Biden to act. The consequences are his, not ours.”

That sentiment was widespread among the dozens I spoke with over the course of several days. Arab-Americans and their allies here know better than most there are no easy solutions in this decades-long conflict. But the sheer scale of killing and destruction is horrific, and has pushed them over the edge.

The dead, wounded and displaced carry a special weight in this community, where they are mourned as brothers and sisters, parents, cousins and friends. “I have family in the West Bank,” said a Detroit police officer who is Palestinian. “We go about our daily lives. But there is a sadness that runs through us.”

Democrats have been taken aback by the growing sympathy for Palestinians. They shouldn’t be. Increasingly, younger Democrats, progressives and communities of colour see Palestinians as the underdog, not Israel. They barely remember a time before Netanyahu’s increasingly right-wing government and have witnessed for themselves years of Palestinians treated as second-class citizens in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Many are themselves the result of a Palestinian diaspora that has scattered their people far and wide.

Allies too, are growing. More than 1,000 Black pastors, representing hundreds of thousands of congregants, have joined the call for a cease-fire. An estimated 70 US cities have issued ceasefire resolutions. More than a dozen Democratic House members, including Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland and other prominent Jewish members, have asked Biden to support a ceasefire.

The show of solidarity has left some in this community, unaccustomed to such displays, surprised and heartened.

Dima Alhesan, a young Syrian refugee, wiped tears away after listening to an older woman tell of surviving the 1948 Nakba, or “catastrophe,” in which more than 700,000 Palestinians were displaced.

“This is the first time I have seen anyone besides Palestinians truly seem to care what happens to us,” she said. “That is revolutionary for us. It feels like this is a turning point.”

In the auditorium of the Arab American Museum, Alawieh, the strategist, reminded a crowd that, “We are survivors ourselves of US-funded wars. We know this pain in our bodies. We feel it.”

But, he said, “We are not powerless. We have the power of our vote and our organising can pressure Biden.”

That pressure may be making a difference. Last Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking at a conference in Buenos Aires, declared that the US would consider any future expansion of Israel’s West Bank settlements illegal under international law and “counterproductive to reaching an enduring peace.” The next day, Biden said that at least a temporary ceasefire could be just days away.

Ceasefire. Reconciliation. Respect for all communities. These are the messages being sent by ordinary Arab-Americans in Michigan. They should be heeded. Biden still has time to reclaim the honest broker role for the US, to acknowledge the pain and suffering on both sides of this conflict, and to push both to the two-state solution that might bring a lasting peace – but the election clock is ticking. — Bloomberg

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