Several of President Biden’s top aides worked to shore up support among key Arab American and Muslim leaders in Michigan on Thursday, as fears escalate among Biden supporters that anger at his handling of the Israel-Gaza war could imperil his chances of winning the state in November’s presidential contest.
Deputy national security adviser Jon Finer and Samantha Power, chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development — who play key roles in the president’s foreign policy, including his approach to Israel and the Middle East — were among those who held multiple meetings Thursday with leaders of the Arab American and Muslim community.
Biden’s unwavering support for Israel, even as its attacks in Gaza have resulted in thousands of deaths and created a humanitarian crisis, has angered many segments of the Democratic coalition, including the sizable Arab American and Muslim community in Michigan, many of whose members have vowed not to vote for Biden in November.
Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez sought to arrange meetings with activists and community leaders last month in an effort to soothe the anger and explain Biden’s position. But many of them declined to meet with her, saying they wanted to talk to a policymaker rather than a political operative.
On Thursday, Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud (D) and other leaders agreed to meet with Finer and Power, who are deeply involved in crafting Biden’s policies — although White House insiders say the president’s attachment to Israel is driven by his longtime personal connection to the country rather than the views of his advisers.
In an interview after the meeting, Hammoud said he described the climate in Dearborn, which is a majority-Arab American city, to the officials. He said he highlighted the tragedy of a resident who told him that he had lost 80 family members in Gaza, as well as the plight of Palestinian Americans trapped in the enclave as the war rages.
Hammoud said that he cited a Wall Street Journal editorial titled “Welcome to Dearborn, America’s Jihad Capital” as a sign of the devastating rhetoric the community has had to endure and that he criticized the “the poor decision-making over the last four months that led to that moment.”
The mayor also said he told the Biden aides that the president’s statement marking 100 days of the war, which spoke of the torment faced by the families of Israeli hostages in Gaza but omitted any mention of the Palestinian suffering or death toll, was “atrocious.” Hammoud added that he relayed “the feeling of betrayal and dehumanization” communicated by the language emanating from the White House.
The Israel-Gaza war has consumed the Arab American and Muslim community in Michigan since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants rampaged through Israel’s border fence with Gaza and killed 1,200 Israelis, many of them civilians, and took about 250 others hostage. Israel then launched a punishing military campaign, which it said aimed to eradicate Hamas, that has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians and unleashed a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, where most of the enclave’s more than 2 million residents have been displaced and are at risk of starvation and disease.
Some Muslim and Arab American voters in Michigan have launched an “Abandon Biden” campaign, a movement that aims to unite the community in not supporting the president in November. Its leaders do not support former president Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee, but they say they want to make clear to Biden that he has lost their votes because of his refusal to call for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza.
This week, more than 30 elected officials in Michigan — many of them Arab American — signed a pledge to vote “uncommitted” in Michigan’s Democratic primary this month rather than support Biden. The primary could end up being an important gauge of the level of the president’s support among his own party in the state.
Hammoud met with the group of Biden policymakers for about two hours, saying he agreed to sit down with them to “ensure that the White House, and those with the ability to change the course of the genocide unfolding in Gaza, very clearly hear and understand the demands of our community directly from us,” he said in a statement.
Israel, supported by the Biden administration, rejects the notion that its actions in Gaza amount to genocide, saying that its military campaign is necessary for the country to defend itself and that Hamas militants intentionally embed themselves among Palestinian civilians. Still, human rights groups say Israel’s self-defense does not justify the level of death and destruction it is inflicting on Gaza.
The charge of genocide is at the center of proceedings before the International Court of Justice that were brought by South Africa. The court ordered Israel to do more to prevent the killing of civilians in Gaza but did not call for a cease-fire.
Some of those invited to sit down with Biden officials in Michigan refused to do so, including Wayne County Commissioner Sam Baydoun.
“I believe dialogue should be based on respect, and our Dearborn community has been disrespected and ignored by this administration,” Baydoun wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “We have been calling for a cease-fire for over 100 days and our calls have fallen on deaf ears. Even as tens of thousands of Palestinians have been killed, starved, and driven out of their homes, we never received a word of empathy from our government at the highest levels.”
The White House has repeatedly stressed that Israel has a right to defend itself in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack and said it does not support a cease-fire until Hamas can no longer rule Gaza. But top Biden officials are working to secure an agreement between Israel and Hamas that would release many of the remaining hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and a long-term pause.
Other key White House officials attended the meetings, including Steve Benjamin, director of the Office of Public Engagement; Tom Perez, director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs; and Mazen Basrawi, the White House liaison to American Muslim Communities.
Some community leaders involved in the “Abandon Biden” effort were also invited to meet with the Biden officials but refused. The campaign put out a statement shortly before the meetings Thursday saying it would not engage with the administration in any form unless Biden calls for a permanent cease-fire.
“The Abandon Biden campaign, echoing the fury of Muslim American communities nationwide, adamantly refuses to engage in any form of dialogue with him during this meeting or any other,” the statement said. “Confronted with such egregious contempt for our lives and dignity, especially as demonstrated by the timing and context of the upcoming meeting, we categorically reject the farce of civility and diplomacy.”